Civil society in Saudi Arabia

When making policy decisions it is generally a good idea to have as much input as possible from the people who are going to be affected. Listening to a broad range of views – not just those you want to hear – may seem like an unnecessary nuisance but it usually results in more workable policies.

This is something that Arab governments, with their fondness for issuing decrees from on high, are particularly bad at, and none more so than the government of Saudi Arabia. 

research paper from Chatham House, the British foreign policy thinktank, explains:

"In an autocratic state such as Saudi Arabia, which has virtually no formal, structural representation of the public (only the debating chamber of the Majlis al-Shura), people have no means to influence decision-making. 

"In this context, the associational side of civil society becomes very important as the main channel by which people convey their views to the government, in the absence of the formal political structures seen in a western democracy. 

"It has become even more important now, when young people – who make up some 60 per cent of the population – have no formal voice but are social media-savvy, often unemployed or dissatisfied with their job prospects, and wishing to have a say in their country’s social, domestic and foreign policies.

"Yet getting together or association with a common objective is often illegal in the kingdom and carries heavy penalties."

The report, by Caroline Montagu, looks at the nature of civil society activity in Saudi Arabia and the obstacles it faces.

"Associations registered with, and approved by, the government exist within limited mandates," Montagu writes. "Other associational life is difficult, often illegal ... Pressure groups and activists push the frontiers out, while many government-sponsored associations exist in parallel. Indeed, when reformers start a group, the government often starts a parallel body: for instance, a state human rights institution was formed after a human rights NGO was formed."

In the absence of political parties, one traditional way for people to make their views known is through the majalis – gatherings in private houses where discussion often turns to politics. Another traditional method is to petition the king, though even that can sometimes be dangerous. In 2007, ten people were arrested over a petition that called for a constitutional monarchy.

Seemingly non-political activity by charities, cultural and youth groups or professional organisations also tends to be unwelcome:

"Establishing new associations in Saudi Arabia has always been difficult. Even charitable associations must wait years to receive government approval and registration. For instance, according to one of its founders, it took three years to establish the Saudi Cancer Foundation ... It apparently took 17 years to get the Saudi Diabetes Association approved ...

"Saudis say that even if Saudi professionals get together, like doctors and accountants, the government gets nervous. One female academic, for example, wanted to form an alumni society of law schools, but this was not allowed. 

"Long-standing civil society groups now have to be registered and come under government control. Even cultural groups like Hatun al-Fassi’s well-known Sunday Club have to be registered and submit a schedule of their discussions. It is said to be increasingly difficult to have any groupings that are unregistered, but it is often impossible to register."

One important effect of this has been to create a "virtual" civil society online. "Given the government’s restrictions on physical meetings, it is easier – and less dangerous – for Saudis to meet in the virtual world," Montagu writes. "Saudi Arabia has 2.8 million active Twitter users, the highest number of any Arab country ... More than one-quarter of the population has a Facebook account."

One Saudi interviewee is quoted as saying:

"The virtual meetings and chats cover the spectrum of issues and grievances … Some are small groups, all Saudis, some studying in the US. There’s a group of members of the Qatif municipal council which might discuss their business matters; groups in cultural forums exchanging ideas, some may be human rights activists, some not. They are creating platforms and groupings all the time. Whatever is censored in the physical world goes into the virtual world and is discussed."

Although the Saudi authorities have made strenuous efforts to control the internet, it has proved a futile battle and there are signs that social media may yet become an established channel of communication between citizens and government:

"The government uses social media as a source of information and as a sounding board for the mood of the people – as do Saudi Arabia’s journalists. The officials most frequently on Twitter are from the ministries of commerce, health, media and labour; the minister of commerce is particularly responsive, tweeting back and acknowledging problems in cases such as faulty or expired goods, poor regulations or price fraud."

Montagu's basic argument is that Saudi Arabia needs civil society, and the authorities should be less fearful of it:

"Civil society can be an asset for the nation: a mediating instrument between government and society, a way of building inclusive communities, producing ideas, and helping to integrate, use and respect the country’s minorities. It is a general principle that countries with a vibrant civil society integrate better with international human rights organisations and get better results ...

"State ambivalence towards associational life suggests that traditional interests within the authorities are uneasy at its possibilities and fear the potential for challenges to the status quo. Such conservative forces have not, however, adapted to see the contemporary shifts in the way society and individuals relate to each other, the need to provide an outlet for the energy and aspirations of the younger generation, and the utility of civic activism in helping build a stronger sense of national identity in a young, diverse and rapidly developing country."

Reasonable as that might sound to many people, it isn't simply a matter of hoping the Saudi authorities will eventually see the light – because ultimately it calls into question the existing political system. The more civil society opens up in the kingdom, the more difficult it becomes to sustain an autocracy.

This, I think, is where Montagu underestimates the difficulties. She calls for progress on a civil society law which the government has been delaying for a decade, adding: "The law could draw on international best practice to become a tool that facilitates, rather than represses, an active civil society." If only. But experience of such laws in other Arab countries is that they are used to repress rather than facilitate, and there is no reason to suppose the Saudi law would be different.

As in other parts of the Middle East, the current rules are not consistently enforced. "The government is capricious about association: some associations are allowed, and others not," Montagu says. The effect of this is to keep citizens guessing about how far they can go, while enabling the government to claim it is allowing some space for dissent. The key point, though, is that this is not treated as a right but as a privilege that the government arbitrarily grants and, if it chooses, can also arbitrarily take away.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 29 May 2015