Did the Arab Uprisings miss Saudi Arabia? Nasser Al Said argues that the country’s emerging civil society, a reflection of Ibn Khaldun’s concept of ta’sub, proves that it did not.
Neo Orientalist lines of argument have monopolized the Western purview of the Arab world with regards to the recent Arab Intifadas. This has resulted in a grossly a-historical reading of events greatly detached from reality, culminating in analytically fruitless terms like the ‘Arab Spring’ or the ‘Twitter/Facebook revolution’ being adopted en masse, referring to revolt as if it were a tangible object like a ball being passed around. “It (the ball) started in Tunisia, then Hit Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain” etc. With this kind of logic firmly in place a certain question became axiomatic; “when will It hit Saudi Arabia?” and now “why did It miss Saudi Arabia?”
The Arab world is united to a great extent in culture and language, therefore consciousness and identity transcend colonially drawn borders, and it is understandable how generalizations can be made. However adopting the aforementioned oversimplification deprives us from understanding the causality behind this emancipation of imagination, and subsequently how we can recreate it, or at least draw inspiration from it.
Tunisia is home to the Arab world’s oldest trade union, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) the same union that was led by Farhat Hached, the icon of the anti colonial resistance in Tunisia. UGTT still exist today and boasts a 750,000 strong membership. During the revolution the young protestors could draw upon decades of experience of clashing with the regime from this historic institution. Much like Tunisia, Egypt is home to several trade unions and other institutions with robust histories of resistance. The same can be said of all the Arab societies that have resorted to revolt, the common denominator is a cohesive collective conscience. Or what the great Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldoun called Ta’asub (تعصب ).
A richly textured word that is best translated in this context as ‘Solidarity’, it underpinned Ibn Khaldoun’s approach to social policy in his tenure in the governments of his place of birth, and death, namely Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia particularly he made the rulers see the virtue of social cohesion and Ta’asub, convincing the ruling elite to cease its marginalization and brutalization of the Berber tribes and give them representation and cultural freedom in exchange for taxation. He had a similar effect in Egypt through his significant role in the judiciary. Ibn Khaldoun was one of many great intellectuals who partook in the weaving of a sophisticated political and social fabric that has stood the test of time, and remains largely intact in modern day Egypt and Tunisia. Nothing similar can be said to exist in Saudi.
That is not to say that there is no historically robust culture or identity in the land of the two holy mosques, far from it, simply that any semblance of it has been repressed vehemently by the current regime. Cultural genocide was integral to establishing a Saudi nationalism premised on the understanding of one family as rightful rulers, the Al Sauds. The specificities of their brutal and colonially backed rise to power is a subject I hope to tackle in a future article, what is integral to understand here is how this rise came at the expense of the age old social structures of the Arabian Peninsula.
When I used the term ‘cultural genocide’ in the preceding paragraph, I meant it. As I said before, once the country had been secured militarily, the next step was to homogenize it ideologically. This meant fabricating a historical narrative that somehow made it seem organic that the land we now call Saudi Arabia be governed and controlled centrally and absolutely by its rightful ‘Guardians’ the Al Saud dynasty. This meant the centrality of the Al Saud rule was seen as paramount, the integrity of which could not be compromised by allowing any kind of federalism or regional autonomy. Therefore any expression of identity that was seen as ‘anti-Saudi’ was a threat, and had to be excluded from the new national narrative. Otherwise it risked reminding people that civilisation existed on this land before Al Saud.
The story of the distinct identities that suffered from this persecution is also a tale for another time, well worth exploring in its own right. What I want to show now is the social reality we are left with, the bleak legacy of cultural genocide, a nation of ostracized individuals with no collective conscience, a non-existent civil society. Since the end of the cold war and the rise of neo-liberalism, the growth of an aggressive consumer culture exacerbated social disunity, further securing the regime’s monopoly in the national knowledge power relationship. Life in Saudi is largely devoid of public space and interaction, for me this is exemplified most succinctly in the complete lack of public transport. Even in the most class divided societies people occupy at least to some extent common physical space, the same cannot be said for the Kingdom. Belonging to a different class for the most part means physically occupying separate space, and this infrastructure of division has been recreated in the consciousness of the citizens. Combine this with the illegalizing of workers unions, a complete exclusion of citizens from the political process, and ideological maintenance in the form of regular doses of racism, chauvinism and all the characteristically ‘Saudi’ values through the state school curriculum, censorship and state TV and you may begin to understand the tragically discombobulated social reality I am referring to.
This politics of division and xenophobia is the single most indispensable tool at the hands of the regime when it comes to stifling opposition. Historically there has not been a lack of anger and dissent in the kingdom per se, but without a functioning civil society to draw upon and mobilise, these acts of dissent are easily oppressed and fade into historical obscurity as isolated events never given the slightest chance of turning into mass movements.
What Saudi citizens have done over the past twenty years with varying degrees of success is attempt to pick up momentum with acts of dissent. Starting with a group of 16 reformists known as the ‘Jeddah 16’ who petitioned the crown prince in 1994 for reforms such as the creation of a constitution and an independent judiciary, they have been in and out of jail since then, ten of them were promised release this month. The sheer amount of public attention and debate this caused was hitherto unheard of in Saudi history. Historically if someone chose to legally represent a political prisoner, they would be thrown in jail or at least chastised in some way. The fact that this did not happen to their lawyer (a Mr Bassim Allim) was attributed largely to the notoriety the case achieved, which would have caused a level of embarrassment for the regime. This model has been followed somewhat recently with members of the SACPRA (Saudi Arabian Civil and Political Rights Association), who had one founding member imprisoned last year, Mohammad Al Bajadi, while the two senior founding members have been on trial since September, with a verdict expected in the coming weeks.
Ibn Khaldoun referred to human social interaction as ‘Omran’, which literally translates as construction or innovation, but in this instance is used to mean something to the effect of ‘building blocks’. He claimed a society with ‘Ta’asub’ (see above) is what keeps tendencies such as factionalism, infighting and short-sighted governmental practices, such as oppression, at bay. In short, social practices in the name of ‘Ta’asub’ are the ‘Omran’ of the world.
With this in mind it makes sense that the only locations in Saudi to experience consistent social dissent in recent times have been the tight-knit communities of Shia majority Qatif, and the very conservative Breidah in the Qassim province. Essentially these are the only communities in Saudi to have maintained some semblance of civil society (Ta’asub), despite the previously described attempt by the government to destroy this.
To start any kind of a social movement, let alone a revolution, we in Saudi in need to build a society. That is a revolution in its own right, and it is happening as we speak.
Nasser Al Said
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