Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

Peace and Conflict Monitor

Obstacles Likely to Remain in Voting Rights for Saudi Women

By Rob L. Wagner

Peace and Conflict Monitor (University for Peace)

21 October 2011

Saudi King Abdullah’s royal decree giving women voting rights and issued just days before the Sept. 29 municipal elections, upstaged the kingdom’s second round of polling in six years. The decree, if implemented in 2015 as promised, helps legitimize a flawed election process that only allowed men to vote. It also promises to bring significant change to the lives of Saudi women if government authorities charged with its implementation follow the spirit of the decree as the king had intended.

The Sept. 29 municipal elections, in which 1.2 million Saudi men were eligible to cast ballots for 5,323 candidates running for 2,112 council seats, were to demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s commitment to developing a democratic process at the local government level. It was only the third round of elections since 1962. Voter turnout in September, however, was light. Campaigning by candidates paled in contrast to the onslaught of text messaging that dominated the 2005 elections. In addition, enthusiasm among voters waned since 2005 as it became apparent that public participation at municipal council meetings failed to materialize. [1][2]

Attention among Saudis and Western observers now turns to what role female voters will play in the 2015 municipal elections. The chief concern among Saudi women activists is whether the four-year wait will jeopardize the implementation of the king’s decree. The ramifications of King Abdullah’s decree giving women voting rights are immense. Yet activists are wary that reform is really underway. [3]

Saudi Arabia has long ignored external pressure to implement wide-ranging reforms that would bring the kingdom closer to the Western ideal of democracy. A $38 billion social benefits package announced in March was King Abdullah’s perceived response to the then-burgeoning Arab Spring movement. Western media interpreted it as a bribe to encourage Saudis to stay off the streets. Most Saudis recognized the benefits were in line with annual packages awarded usually each December. [4] [5] [6]

Saudi Arabia, however, is not immune to the Arab Spring. The Saudi government, no matter how much it wished to isolate itself from the growing clamor of regional protests, soon interfered in Bahrain’s domestic affairs to contain protesters demanding constitutional reforms. The kingdom also provided support to Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen as anti-government protests continued to gain momentum since January.

The unexpected beneficiary of the Arab Spring on kingdom’s domestic front is the fledgling Saudi feminist movement that has made gains since March. These advances culminated with women winning the right to vote, run for election to municipal council seats and accept appointments on the quasi-legislative Shoura Council.

More than any ruler in the Middle East, King Abdullah has always been in touch with his feminine side. Since he assumed the throne in 2005, he has taken steps towards reform despite considerable resistance from religious conservatives. Part of his efforts was to shift Saudi women from the margins of society to more prominent roles.

Laying a Foundation

Consider two critical steps Saudi Arabia is taking that directly impact women’s rights:

  • The Shoura Council is close to finalizing a codified Sharia system that will be an immense boon to women struggling for equal rights in domestic courts. Codified gender-neutral Sharia would severely restrict Saudi judges’ reliance on tribal customs and traditions in rulings. Under the proposed codified new system, but remaining true to Islam, guardianship rules face revisions that could allow Saudi women to obtain divorces without patriarchal meddling and to pursue more business and educational opportunities. The caveat to this proposed landmark legislation is just who will interpret Sharia. Religious conservatives could cement their authority over the rights of women, although there are enough liberals on the Shoura Council to provide a more equitable interpretation. [7]
  • King Abdullah’s university scholarship program starting in the 2007-2008 academic year gave virtually every qualified Saudi female student the opportunity to study abroad. In 2010, Saudi women undergraduate and postgraduate students accounted for 25 percent of the 15,600 Saudis studying in the United Kingdom. Approximately 6,000 women are studying at universities in the United States. Worldwide, 20.5 percent of all Saudi students on full government scholarships are women. An estimated 56.6 percent of all Saudi university students in the kingdom are women. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi businesswomen have university degrees with one-third of those degrees earned at Western universities. [8]

Assuming the Shoura Council does indeed follow through with its plan to codify Sharia, these gains establish a foundation for the new series of women’s rights prompted by the Arab Spring and implemented by King Abdullah. Following the king’s return from medical treatment in Morocco in March, the Saudi government dithered over its next step in women’s rights as it engaged in its passive-aggressive relationship with religious conservatives. The Ministry of Labor’s attempts to minimize gender segregation in the workplace and allow women to work as clerks in lingerie shops faced indifference if not outright obstinance. And the coeducational King Abdullah University of Science & Technology opened in 2009 still rankles clerics to no end.

Although Saudi Arabia rarely accedes to the demands for reform from the international community, King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, among other more liberal-minded royals, recognize that the government can’t treat women as chattel.

However, whatever modest gains Saudi women have made are by no stretch of the imagination guaranteed to remain. Rather, all that Saudi women have achieved could very well be wiped out if religious extremists replace older liberal Saudis in high-level ministerial positions as recent changes in high-level shuffling indicate.

Driving Ban

Still, the Arab Spring knocked down some long entrenched barriers. A case in point is the driving ban that denies women the ability to enjoy affordable and convenient transportation. Saudi women initially viewed the West’s demands to end the ban as a tempest in a teapot. But the Arab Spring emboldened them to make the issue a rallying point to insist on greater rights that would help erase the indignities Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal society heaps on its women.

The arrest of Manal Al-Sharif in May for driving in the Eastern Province and the subsequent June 17 women driving demonstration proved the necessary catalyst for change. Al-Sharif was the icon for the burgeoning Saudi feminist movement. [9]

The government has done little to prevent women from driving since June 17. There has been no crackdown, and no arrests or harsh punishment meted out that echo the 1990 Riyadh driving protest led by 50 women. With the exception of a rogue judge who sentenced one Saudi woman to 10 lashes for driving without government permission, which was vacated by King Abdullah, few women driving cars have run afoul with traffic police. The Saudi government’s apparent indifference puts in doubt whether the driving ban even exists anymore. In essence, Saudi women have won the right to drive given the government laizzez-faire attitude. Eventually Saudi women must drive, but Riyadh seems to have thrown the ball in the women’s court. [10]

While Riyadh sees no need for a royal decree to decisively end the driving issue, it took a different approach when King Abdullah gave women voting rights. This is a consolation prize in lieu of a royal degree granting women driving rights, but it’s also more significant. Riyadh saves face by not succumbing to international pressure on the driving ban and it gives women modest, but still restrictive, rights that tacitly acknowledge the calls for democratic reform brought on by the Arab Spring.

The problem is that women don’t vote until 2015 and won’t take a seat on the Shoura Council for another 18 months. The lengthy time it will take to implement the decrees makes them vulnerable to unwanted changes that could lead to no voting rights at all. It’s no easy task to rescind a royal decree. Only another royal decree can do that. King Abdullah is not likely to rescind his own decrees and he prefers to ignore the complaints from the religious conservatives of giving women too much. [11]

However, ministerial authorities charged with the implementation of the decrees could very well erect roadblocks. Interior Minister Prince Naif, for example, has gone on record as saying the need for women to drive is exaggerated. He is a champion of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. He consistently aligns himself with religious hardliners. [12]

If Saudi women rest on their laurels following their hard-fought battle to win the rights they achieved, then they may find themselves tucked away inside their homes. In the view of Saudi women’s rights activists, the battle is not just winning rights, but organizing efforts to keep them. One concern is that religious conservatives continue to interpret Sharia, the wants and needs of Saudi society, and, ultimately, the rights of women.

By taking seats on the Shoura Council, women can create an organized lobbying effort to push for a more gender-neutral interpretation of Sharia, particularly on issues of male guardianship and travel rights. [11]

Saudi journalist Samar Fatany notes that appointments to the Shoura Council allow women to address “the challenges that have hindered their progress, such as the ban on women driving, the reluctance of the public to support women in leadership positions, the strict culture of segregation within society …” [11]

Flawed Elections

Regardless of King Abdullah’s intentions and the future of women in the electoral process, there is little evidence that the kingdom is ready for a Western-style democracy.

Hendrick Jan Kraetzchmar was an adviser to the Saudi government to help develop a municipal electoral process in 2004 for the 2005 elections. In a report for the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group, Kraetzchmar wrote that Riyadh adopted some Western electoral procedures and rejected others. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the elections was the implementation of cross-district voting that allowed religious conservatives to win contests by attracting large numbers of voters.

In his January 2011 report, Kraetzchmar wrote, “Specifically, the Saudi case demonstrates that, by putting a premium on cross-district efforts at voter mobilization, the electoral system provided the institutional backdrop against which it was possible for Islamist candidates and their backers to coordinate successfully their campaigns and achieve impressive victories across the Kingdom.” [13]

Voter Interest Declines

The lack of voter interest in the 2011 had less to do with the victories of Islamic conservatives, and more with the virtually non-existent participation of Saudi citizens to influence council decisions. Council meeting dates, locations and agendas are rarely publicized and members could selectively choose who attends.

About 1.2 million Saudi men registered to vote, but some regions witnessed significant drops in voter participation. In Riyadh, the number of registered voters dropped from about 800,000 for the 2005 elections to just 300,000 in 2011. [14]

A poll conducted by the Saudi English-language daily newspaper Arab News found dissatisfaction among Saudis over the performance of the Jeddah Municipal Council. The newspaper found that 71.6 percent of the 387 polled Saudis characterized the council’s performance as “very bad” while only 15.2 percent the council’s conduct was “good.” Survey respondents complained of poor services and the “catastrophic” reaction to the November 2009 and January 2011 floods that left more than 100 people dead. [15] [16]

During the Sept. 29 election, Saudis also faced confusing instructions for polling center locations.

In Jeddah, the Complaints Committee of Municipal Elections voided the results of election in the city’s District 3 because poll center officials moved the district’s polling place to a different location just hours before voting began. The switch caused confusion when voters arrived at the original location and found it closed. [17]

Polling officials also reported that winners in some districts garnered few votes. Abdullah Al-Muhammadi, for example, received just 381 votes in the voided District 3 election in Jeddah. Abdul Aziz Al-Suraie earned 239 votes in Jeddah’s District 2. Khaled Bajammal received 163 votes in District 4 and Fouad Murad in District 5 garnered only 71 votes. In Riyadh, 177 candidates won seats on 45 municipal councils. Yet candidates fell well below in receiving 50 percent of the vote. In one Riyadh district, Fuad Abdulrahman Al-Rashid was the top vote-getter by receiving 44 percent of the vote. Waleed Abdullateef Sweidan took second place with 42.9 percent. [14]

Voter turnout was relatively low in the Eastern Province with 30 percent of the registered voters casting ballots. In some rural areas, such as Tabuk and Najran, turnout was closer to 50 percent.


The 2005 and 2011 municipal elections were experimental at best. The true test of a democratic election comes in 2015 if women cast ballots with no conditions attached. Voter enthusiasm is likely to increase if for no other reason than the novelty of voting for a woman. The 2015 elections are also likely to ignite the passions of Islamic conservatives who will not allow the issue of women’s voting rights to go unchallenged. Saudis can expect a concerted effort to tamp down female participation by appealing to male voters’ perceived religious duties.

Saudi women have demonstrated exceptional organization skills with such social media groups as Women2Drive, Saudi Women Revolution and the Baladi Campaign. By capitalizing on these skills, women are likely to rival the religious conservatives in organizing campaigns for public office to ensure women sit on municipal councils. These skills will also help women develop a strong, single voice in the Shoura Council to push legislation addressing equity in Saudi society.

[1] “Municipal Elections in Saudi Arabia in September” Arab News, 3 June 2011 [,%20%2012,000%20Candidates%20Registered.htm] (Retrieved 06-06-2011)

[2] “Men-Only Election Shows Limits of Saudi Reply to Arab Spring” by Glen Carey, Businessweek, Sept. 29, 2011 [] (Retrieved 30-09-2011)

[3] “Saudi Women, Israeli Women Both Need Social Change” by Elana Maryles Sztokman, The Jewish Chronicle, Oct. 7, 2011 [–Israeli-women-both-need-social-change—?instance=lead_story_right_column ] (Retrieved 10-10-2011)

[4] “Voters Disenchanted with Upcoming Saudi Elections NPR” May 8, 2011 [] (Retrieved 12-07-2011)

[5] “Saudi Women’s Vote: Does it Go Far Enough?” by Juan Cole, Informed Comment, Sept. 26, 2011 [] (Retrieved 18-20-2011)”

[6] “Saudi Women’s Vote Great News – If This Were 1911” by Susan Jacoby, The Washington Post, Sept. 28, 2011 [—if-this-were-1911/2011/09/28/gIQAdWgf5K_blog.html] (Retrieved 30-09-2011)

[7] “Saudi Arabia Gets Ready to Put Order in Its Courts” By Rob L. Wagner, The Media Line, Feb . 24, 2011 [] (Retrieved 19-10-2011)

[8] “Women in Higher Education: Saudi Initiatives and Achievements, Saudi Ministry of Higher Education” 2010 [] (Retrieved 19-10-2011)

[9] “Manal Al-Sharif Released” by Siraj Wahab, Arab News, May 31, 2011 [] (Retrieved 11-08-2011)

[10] “Saudi Woman Driver Sentenced to 10 Lashes after King Grants Women the Vote” by Donna Abu-Nasr, Bloomberg, Sept. 27, 2011 [] (Retrieved 9-10-2011)

[11] “Women in Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, What Next? By Samar Fatany, Global Arab Network, Oct. 18, 2011 [] (Retrieved 19-10-2011)

[12] “Driven” by Ebtihal Mubarak, Foreign Policy, June 17, 2011 [] (Retrieved 09-09-2011)

[13] “The First Democratic Local Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005: Electoral Rules, the Mobilization of Voters and the Islamist Landslide” by Hendrick Jan Kraetzchmar, LSE Public Policy Group Working Paper No. 6, January 2011 [] (Retrieved 19-5-2011)

[14] “New Municipal Councils by Oct. 16” by MD Humaidan, Arab News, Sept. 30, 2011 [] (Retrieved 15-10-2011)

[15] “Dissatisfaction High Over City Council’s Role” by MD Humaidan, Arab News via, Sept. 15, 2011 [] (Retrieved 20-10-2011)

[16] “After the Flood, Rising Saudi Anger Getting a Response” by Rob L. Wagner, MidEastPosts, January 29, 2011 [] (Retrieved 08-08-2011)

[17] “Election Result in Jeddah District Nullified” by MD Humaidan, Arab News, Oct. 2, 2011 [] (Retrieved 6-10-2011)


Saudi-Islamic Feminist Movement: A Struggle for Male Allies and the Right Female Voice

By Rob L. Wagner

Peace and Conflict Monitor (University for Peace)
March 29, 2011

Saudi Arabian women have long sought to launch an Islamic feminist movement, but Saudi laws against public demonstrations and deep cultural and religious attitudes towards public displays of defiance have stalled efforts. Women are now turning to social media to garner support for a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement that specifically embraces gender-neutral Sharia to secure their rights to an education, to travel and to marry the partner of their choice. Activists, however, are rejecting Western feminism because of the perception that it promotes the individual over the family, and by extension the Muslim community.


The anti-government uprisings spreading across the Middle East have brought a renewed focus on Islamic feminism perhaps not seen since the 1990s. Arab women not only played a large role in demonstrations that ultimately toppled the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, but women are also demanding decision-making roles as new governments emerge.

Largely missing from the discussion of Arab women’s empowerment is the near non-existent feminist movement in Saudi Arabia. There is no organized effort from Saudi women that encourages cooperation with potential powerful allies in the royal family under King Abdullah. Women who have begun to explore a feminist movement also have not sought to give a face to a movement by approaching prominent female academics or activists.

Instead, Saudi women are bypassing traditional means of developing a grassroots campaign to secure their right in a patriarchal society by reaching out through social media. It is not a movement, but a tentative testing of the waters. Activists acknowledge a lack of unity among Saudis that continually stalls efforts to organize. Yet the revolutions in neighboring Arab countries have raised the consciousness of women who are questioning why Saudi society is marginalizing them. This consciousness has sparked the stirrings of what some women are describing as the potential for a “Saudi-Islamic feminist movement.” [1][2][3][4]

Islamic Feminism

According to the feminist historian Margot Badran, Islamic feminism “is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.”[5] Modern Islamic feminism was first used in a modern context by Iranian scholars Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Afsaneh Najmabadeh in 1992 and popularized by Saudi Dr. Mai Yamani in her book “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives” (Ithaca Press, 1996). [6]

Secular Muslims embrace Islamic feminism that may include Western feminist ideals that are contrary to Islam, which is primarily to establish a single set of rules equally applied to men and women. Islamic scholar Amina Wadud enthusiastically endorsed Western feminism, particularly for Muslim women living in the West, in her book, “Qur’an and Woman” (Oxford University Press, 1999). [7] Some Saudi women prefer Western-style feminism by advocating liberation from Saudi rules, traditions and culture. They place a negative connotation on Islamic feminism by likening it has the age of Al Jaheleya, or ignorance from the pre-Prophet Muhammad era. However, conflating Al Jaheleya with Islam is offensive to most Saudi women, and the Western views held by these women hold little credibility among the majority. [8]

An ideal Saudi-Islamic feminist movement differs significantly from traditional Islamic feminism with Saudis rejecting Western feminism. Instead, young Saudi women like Rasha Alduwaisi and Marwa Al-Saleh argue that a Saudi-led feminist movement must include the rights accorded women in the Qur’an and specifically in Sharia. A codified gender-neutral Sharia in the Saudi judicial system could give women the rights they yearn. The emphasis in a new Saudi movement would eliminate non-Islamic customs and patriarchal interpretations to follow the true path of Islam. By following the true essence of Islam, Saudi women can marry whomever they please, obtain divorces without patriarchal meddling, travel freely, and pursue educational and business opportunities without interference. [9]

A Saudi-Islamic feminist campaign, however, is hampered by the failure to generate momentum to get a mass movement off the ground. Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for the Council of Foreign Relations and author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East” (Random House, 2010), said that public demonstrations and mobilization are treated as criminal offenses in Saudi Arabia, making it particularly difficult for women to form a robust movement. Social media will help, but key allies in the struggle for equal rights are men. She said, “Women can’t be expected to do it all on their own. Women’s movements have always received critical help from men around the world and throughout history. There are some powerful men who encourage women in Saudi today, but more male voices will be needed speaking out against injustices against women to enable more women to take the plunge.” [10] [11]

The influential Islamic scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has been a longtime supporter of elevating the rights of women. And Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud criticized Arab countries for economically and socially marginalizing women. However, Al-Qaradawi’s more controversial views on Israel and the U.S. invasion of Iraq have sidelined any potential for a role in an Islamic feminist movement. Prince Alwaleed is not regarded as especially religious. [12] [13]

Marwa Al-Saleh is the founder and general manager of, a web design and Internet marketing company in Al-Khobar and a principal advocate on the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. She argues that most Saudi women are unaware of their rights contained in Islam and view any kind of demand for their rights as conflicting with Islam. Rasha Alduwaisi, a 30-year-old Saudi mother who is also active with the Facebook campaign, is more blunt: “Saudi women are raised to be subordinate, and grew up with the society drilling in them that their issues are marginal.” [14]

Al-Saleh and Alduwaisi are among today’s 7.6 million Saudi women with the median age of 23. They came of age or reached young adulthood in a post-9/11 world. They are highly educated, entrepreneurial and technologically savvy. More than 60 percent of Saudi university students studying domestically and abroad are women. Saudi women under the age of 30 grew up with satellite television, the Internet and mobile phones. Their broadened view of the world far exceeds that of their mothers and older sisters. [15]

Western Influences and Conflicts

While Saudi women, especially those who have studied in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, marvel at the freedoms that the West has to offer Muslims, they say Western feminism is an anathema because it is perceived as a threat to Islamic societies. Coleman notes that many Saudi men view Western feminism as promoting divorce, promiscuity and a breakdown of the family. Feminism, as defined by Western standards, has such negative connotations that the word itself severely hampers any progress to galvanize women to develop a grassroots movement. [16]

Western-educated Saudi women, however, would be hard-pressed to say they have not been influenced by Western feminism. The feminist movement laid the groundwork in the late 1960s and 1970s to open doors for wider education opportunities. Among those opportunities are gender studies in university curricula. Muslim women’s exposure to the feminist influences in academia have broadened their thinking and sharpened their critical thinking skills. Yet they also recognize that bringing such a movement home is doomed to failure.

Some young university students like Rawan Mj Radwan see some accommodation for Western feminism thought. Radwan observes, “If women choose to take up the Westernized path such as let go of their hijabs and change everything they were brought up on just to please themselves then they’re doomed. But if Saudi women can look to find a midway station between Islamic values and the ways of the West, then success stories would be heard all around.” [16]

Perhaps the best example of the dichotomy between Western feminism and a Saudi-Islamic version is the family structure. Saudis perceive Western feminism as advancing the rights of individuals over the best interests of the family, and by extension the Muslim community. Islamic scholar Dr. Lois Lamya’ Al-Farugi points out that Western activists view arranged marriages as an assault on individual freedoms.

However, Muslims view such intense family participation in the future of marriage-age family members as advantageous to the individual, the family and the community as a whole because it strengthens the cohesiveness of the family. Arranged marriages instill safeguards to protect the harmony of the family. Promoting individualism threatens the very nature of social interdependence. [17]

Further, Western feminists seek what Al-Farugi calls a “unisex” society in which there is a single set of rules for both sexes with women assuming more traditional male roles. Al-Farugi wrote, “The roles of providing financial support, of success in career, and of decision making have been given overwhelming respect and concern while those dealing with domestic matters, with child care, with aesthetic and psychological refreshment, with social interrelationships, were devalued and despised.” [17]

The Western feminist ideal of the roles of men and women counters the deep-seated belief among Muslims, especially Saudis, that men and women are separate but equal. This is evidenced in the Qur’anic verse 33.35: “For men who submit (to God) and for women who submit (to God), for believing men and believing women, for devout men and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember God much and for women who remember—for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward.” [17]

Although Western and Saudi-Islamic feminism are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of women’s rights, a balance, as argued by Radwan, is possible. Arranged marriages should be abolished and a woman’s right to marry the partner of her choice should be honored, but family participation and advice in that choice should not be ignored [18]

No Appropriate Saudi Leader

The question that remains, however, is how to shape the movement and what kind of image it will project. Seeking role models is not a habit that Saudi women indulge. Saudi female filmmakers, racecar drivers and pilots hold little appeal to young women because they are perceived as pursuing these professions at the expense of Islam. Their role models are generally confined to the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Khadijah bint Khuwaylid. Aisha greatly influenced the Prophet’s thinking and he praised her in an often-quoted hadith, “Learn half of your religion from that red-headed one!” Aisha is said to be responsible for a great many hadiths, which are the sayings and deeds of the Prophet. Khadijah was a successful businesswoman before and after her marriage to Muhammad.

Several Muslim women have picked up the cause of Saudi women’s equal rights. Egyptian-born and Saudi-raised journalist Mona Eltahawy has struck a strident tone in recent years in advocating against the oppression of Saudi women. Saudi Wajeha Al-Huwaider founded the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia and waged a “No to the Oppression of Women” campaign to bring attention to domestic violence. Mai Yamani, a London academic and expert on Islamic feminism, is a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam and its treatment of women. [19] [20] [21]

None of these women, however, has garnered a following in Saudi Arabia because they are perceived as speaking to a Western audience and not Saudis. Eltahawy advocates a west-leaning feminism and supports France’s ban on the burqa. [22] Saudi women perceive Al-Huwaider and Yamai as too strident in their condemnation of Saudi society. [23][24] But the prevailing theme in numerous interviews with Saudi women is that Eltahawy, Al-Huwaider and Yamani do not wear the hijab. These activists do not present the image of how Saudi women perceive themselves. One Saudi journalist remarked, “If I was looking for role models, I’d want women who looked and talked like me, covered with the hijab and addressing me as a Saudi woman. Not some Western ideal of what a Saudi woman should be.”

In addition, young university students are reluctant to pick up the mantle for fear they will be perceived as engaging in un-Islamic behavior of vanity and pride.

Interpretations of Sharia

Yet even if a Saudi-Islamic movement takes root and the Saudi government’s reform agenda includes programs to level the playing field among men and women, much tougher issues stand in the way. For example, a major bone of contention among Saudi women is how domestic courts administer rulings.

The Saudi judicial system follows Sharia, a malleable set of guidelines that govern the daily lives of Muslims and dispenses justice in criminal and civil affairs. Sharia is widely interpreted by Islamic scholars, most of whom are graduates of Saudi Arabia’s Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh. Yet Saudi judges often interpret Sharia based on their own personal experiences and views. Tribal customs and traditions also play a central part in many rulings. Tribal issues, in particular, seriously impact divorce and child custody issues to protect a tribe. Women often see favorable rulings going to husbands, brothers and fathers. [24]

The Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia’s consultative body, has been working since 2007 to codify Sharia to give consistency in criminal and domestic cases. This allows the courts to establish case precedents, thus taking away much of the power of judges who must refer to the rule of law instead of tribal customs and their own personal opinions. [25]

While codification of Sharia will be a giant leap forward in Saudi judicial reform, it also might be a case of being careful for what women activists wish for. Who interprets Sharia and how it is interpreted will have a long-term impact on the future of Saudi women. Middle East scholar Coleman notes: “Islam guarantees women many rights, but ultimately there are limits in interpretation. There are more progressive interpretations that can get women very far, but there will always be those who want a more conservative interpretation that will impede rights for women. Protecting those universal rights ultimately depends on a separation of the religious and legal spheres.”

Coleman added that what “rights Islam grants women is contentious subject—one that progressives and conservatives debate.” [26]

Saudi women do not necessarily want to debate every aspect of Sharia but lay claim to the undisputed basics in the Qur’an and Sunna: the right to an education, inheritance and not to be subject to forced marriage. Radwan said a common law would prevent interference from male family members who disagree with the choices of sisters or other female relatives, choices that are their rights in the first place. [27]


Saudi feminists have wisely steered clear of overtly incorporating Western feminist themes in discussions of a movement. The backlash among religious conservatives would be swift and damaging to efforts to engage Saudi society in meaningful dialogue about women’s rights. By the same token, Western feminists have generally displayed remarkable restraint by not demanding instant change in Saudi Arabia despite exhortations from some human rights groups. Saudi women recognize they are walking on a fine line between exerting pressure to achieve equality and radicalism. Yet it is not possible to separate Western and Islamic feminism. Saudi women can learn organizational methods and promote the less threatening aspects of the Western movement, such as employment and education, without compromising their religion or culture. The key to attracting Saudi men as supporters is to leave the Western rhetoric behind.

This also means advocating for leadership positions in government, law and business, but ignoring calls from some Islamic feminists to lead prayer and become muftis because it’s contrary to how Saudi women view Islam.

It has never been a major issue as to who speaks for Muslim women in the campaign for equal rights, but few Saudis would disagree that often appearances are everything in Saudi society. Without a powerful male figure in a ministerial position as a vocal ally, and without young hijab-wearing women speaking the same language as their male counterparts on a religious and cultural level, a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement is unlikely to get off the ground.


[1] Author interview with women’s rights activist Rasha Alduwaisi (11-03-2011)

[2] Author interview with women’s rights activist Marwa Al-Saleh (13-03-2011)

[3] Saudi Women Revolution Facebook [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[4] Author interview with Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy for the Council of Foreign Relations (12-03-2011)

[5] Badran, Margot, Islamic Feminism: What’s in a Name?” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 17-23 January 2002 [] (Retrieved 11-03-2011)

[6] Yamani, Mai, “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives (Ithaca Press, 1996)

[7] Wadud, Amina, “Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective” (Oxford University Press, 1999)

[8] Author interview with Saudi Western university student and former journalist Rawan Mj Radwan (14-03-2011)

[9] Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh interviews

[10] Coleman interview

[11] Coleman, Isobel, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East” (Random House, 2010)

[12] Al-Qaradawai, Yusuf, “The Status of Women in Islam” [] (Retrieved 27-02-2011)

[13] Lemmon, Gayle Tzemach, “The Hillary Doctrine,” Newsweek, 6 March 2011 [] (Retrieved 07-03-2011)

[14] Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh interviews

[15] Index Mundi [] (retrieved 15-03-2011)

[16] Radwan interview

[17] Al-Farugi, Lois Lamya’, “Islamic Traditions and the Feminist Movement: Confrontation or Cooperation?”, undated [] (Retrieved 03-03-2011)

[18] Radwan interview

[19] Mona Eltahawy official website [] (Retrieved 01-18-2011).

[20] Khan, Riz, “Saudi Arabia: Fundamental Change?” Al-Jazeera English [] (Retrieved 22-02-2011)

[21] Dr. Mai Yamani official website [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[22] Brown, Ryan, “In Defense of the Burqa Ban” Salon, 12 July 2010 [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[23] Young, Jennifer, “Wajeha Al-Huwaider: A Brave Heart!” November 2009, Al Waref Institute [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011).

[24] Yamani website

[25] Wagner, Rob L., “Saudi Arabia Gets Ready to Put Order in its Courts,” The Media Line, 24 February 2011 [] (Retrieved 25-02-2011)

[26] Coleman interview

[27] Alduwaisi, Al-Saleh and Radwan interviews

Saudi Women’s Empowerment: Deep Pockets, Not Political Activitism, is Leading to Independence

By Rob L. Wagner
Peace and Conflict Monitor (University for Peace)
February 01, 2011

Journalist Rob L. Wagner examines the growing wealth of Saudi Arabian women, who under Sharia have complete control of their finances. Changes in commercial and real estate laws have given women more flexibility in investing their money in business opportunities. However, Saudi society is slow to embrace such changes, creating roadblocks for women seeking to develop profitable businesses. Yet changes in Saudi society are coming from young Saudi women who came of age in the post-9/11 era. They are returning from Western universities armed with degrees and expectations that jobs and investment opportunities are available.

The image of Saudi Arabia’s women as powerless and victimized in a patriarchal society is slowly evolving into portrait of women who have the tools to chart the course of their future. Studies performed in Saudi Arabia and by foreign think tanks show in the past two years that Saudi women are emerging with influence, not through a political base or waging activist campaigns, but through massive financial clout.

Demographic shifts in the past three decades indicate a slight change from a male-dominated society that controls Saudi finances to an economy that is more egalitarian, although in 2011 parity in the workplace and the pursuit of employment and business opportunities remain elusive for women. While middle-class Saudi women are becoming wealthier, they are either unwilling or unable to use their money to increase their wealth or participate on the same playing field as Saudi businessmen. Major obstacles facing Saudi women are male guardianship rules applied inconsistently throughout the government and private sectors. Most Saudi women are still required to register their businesses through a male sponsor or agent, although the Saudi commercial laws have been changed.

Financial Influence

However, changes in the population, greater access to information, and deep pockets are giving Saudi women growing economic influence that just a decade ago was unthinkable. According to Saudi Arabia’s statistics department, the country’s population grew by about 18 million to 25 million people between 1975 and 2009. Population estimates include 7 million expatriates. An estimated 13.3 million Saudis are under the age of 34 in which half are women. About 70 percent total Saudi population of 18 million. [1]

In 2010, the Cayman Islands-based asset management company Al-Masah Capital reported that Saudi women controlled an estimated $11 to $12 billion in assets in Saudi banks. Fahd Al-Sultan, secretary-general of the Saudi Council of Chambers, in October provided a brighter picture of Saudi women’s economic power. He noted that he expects women’s investments to reach $18 billion by 2018. Further, the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce estimates that women invested about $1.9 billion in real estate. [4] [7]

Yet, by January 2011, the pace of Saudi female investments remained slow. Al-Masah Capital’s chief executive officer, Shailesh Dash, acknowledged that while Saudi women’s money “currently yield negligible returns into enterprises or investment activities, (it) can earn profitable returns as well as boost money supply.” [3]

The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce’s own study and a 2007 Gallup poll confirm that Saudi women are not taking advantage of their funds although they have a strong foothold in the Saudi business community. Sixty-one percent of the private firms in the Kingdom have are female-owned. About 72 percent of those female businesses are outside the home and 92 percent have employees on the payroll in companies. These businesses include jewelry and fashion shops, beauty salons, marketing/public relations, event management, and consulting. [1][2][8][14]

Better Educated

Saudi women born before 1975 operate or own most of these businesses. Waiting in the wings is a new generation of Saudi women who came of age in a post-9/11 Saudi Arabia. In 2010, Saudi female undergraduate and postgraduate university students made up 25 percent of an estimated 15,600 Saudis studying in the United Kingdom with an emphasis in such fields as chemistry and microbiology. During the 2007-2008 academic year, the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education awarded 5,000 Saudi students scholarships to study in the west, particularly in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2010, an estimated 58 percent of Saudi businesswomen possess university degrees, with one-third of those women earning their degrees outside the Kingdom.

Nearly 40 private and public academic facilities provide post-secondary school education for women. Among them are the private colleges Effat and Dar Hekma, which offer liberal curricula with an emphasis in preparing women for employment. The number of young women obtaining Bachelor of Arts degrees tripled between 1995 and 2006 to 340,000 students.

These women are a breed apart from the previous generation. Returning graduates have lived in a Western environment for as long as five years. They have grown up with access to satellite television and to the Internet. They are also the primary beneficiaries of a gradual lessening of restrictions of women’s activities under King Fahd and the accelerated education programs pushed by King Abdullah after he assumed the throne in 2005. [5]

However, these same women armed with university degrees are coming home to a 24 to 28 percent female unemployment rate. Saudi women lag behind their Gulf neighbors. The United Arab Emirates employs 59 percent of its female population; Kuwait employs 42 percent, with Qatar and Bahrain at 36 and 34 percent respectively.

Although young women under King Abdullah’s programs now comprise of more than half the university graduates, following through with job programs for graduates have been inadequate.

Siham Al-Issa, the scholarship director for Princess Noura University in Riyadh, argues that government regulations prevent women from contributing to the Kingdom’s economy. “We should adapt to the new changes … unemployment is high among Saudi women and I think it is time that we act to activate the woman’s work in the private sector … this is a fundamental demand and we should work to remove all obstacles facing it by gradually educating the society about such realities.” [6]

Significant Roadblocks

Obstacles preventing Saudi women from achieving economic parity include [8]:

· No reliable government infrastructure to grant female-oriented businesses business licenses

· No reliable public transportation, an urban driving ban on women, and the high cost of taxis and private drivers

· International travel restrictions that include no traveling without a male guardian and inconsistent enforcement of those restrictions

· Government-issued business visa and work permit restrictions for foreign women and foreign wives of expatriate workers

· Inconsistent enforcement real estate laws and access to public services

· Little or no decision-making powers in government women’s sections

· Lack of access to commercial bank loans and other funding mechanisms

These obstacles force women to circumvent government red tape. Supportive male guardians help female family members by signing a notarized document to allow the woman alone outside the Kingdom. Female-owned businesses, such as jewelry or clothing stores, may open under a different licensing category because there is no licensing category for a female-owned jewelry store or because female applicants face more scrutiny.

These methods, however, only skirt the law and provide no solution to prompting the Saudi government to recognize the needs of Saudi businesswomen.

It took Samia Al-Edrisi, CEO and chairman of the board of the Eastern Forum Company for Development and Advancement, two years to establish her real estate company in the Eastern Province. The primary roadblock was the names of 24 women listed as investors.

Local government officials were reluctant to grant a license, but never specified their concerns. The government sought a closer look at the company, yet never provided information on the laws and regulations Al-Edrisi was expected to follow. [9]

Yet Saudi Arabia has taken some incremental steps to ease restrictions, although initial attempts to open employment doors for women failed. Perhaps the most significant step was an effort in 2005 by then-Minister of Labor Ghazi Al-Ghosaibi to permit women to work in lingerie shops. Al-Ghosaibi, known for his liberal attitudes toward women’s rights, spearheaded the effort. However, shop owners refused to hire women fearing interference from religious conservatives, particularly the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The ministry’s efforts failed, revealing that the theory of female empowerment, even when given at the highest levels, are not compatible with the reality of dealing with conservatives who continue to hold virtual veto power over many government decisions. [10]

The lingerie shop issue, however, served as a lightning rod for equally bold moves by the Saudi government that were successful. In 2008, Makkah’s governor, Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, abolished the law banning men and women from interacting while conducting business. During the same year, the Labor Ministry under Al-Ghosaibi made it legal to allow women to not only choose where to work but no longer seek a mahram’s permission to seek work or change jobs. In addition, travel restrictions were eased slightly in which a ban was lifted preventing women from staying alone in hotels. [11]

Ministry decisions are not made in a vacuum, but are a response to the shifting social attitudes of the Kingdom. Although Al-Ghosaibi, who died in August 2010, and King Abdullah have long established their credentials as supporters of the right of women to work and engage in commerce, the impetus comes largely from women born after 1975. They came of age when the Internet was in its infancy and offered a daily window into Western culture. As young women graduate from Saudi and foreign universities, they are less likely to wear the niqab (face veil) and more likely to socialize in a mixed environment. Working alongside men in private universities and businesses is not uncommon.


The question looms, however, that if King Abdullah and some high-ranking Saudi government officials support the right of women to work and access business opportunities, why is progress slow? The snail’s pace in part lies to the unique and often misunderstood fashion in which the Saudis govern themselves. The government often announces proposed laws to test the reaction of Saudi conservatives. An outcry from the conservatives will put the law on hold and it may die a silent death. No reaction gives the government the green light. Another—and much more nebulous—obstacle to progress in women’s rights is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Saudi society. Tribal customs and tradition play a pivotal role in fundamental changes in society and often supersede codified laws and even Sharia. Simply, if Saudi society is not ready for women in the workplace or running their own businesses, then it won’t happen whether or not there is a law giving women these rights. [12]

However, John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, posits that Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, are ready to empower women. He points to a 2007 Gallup poll that 61 percent of Saudis believe that women should have equal rights and 69 percent of Saudis say women have the right to work outside the home. The same poll shows that 61 percent of Saudi women say they are entitled to drive a car, while 76 percent said they should choose their own job. [13] [14] [15]

Saudi Arabia’s increasing participation in the United Nations’ efforts to get countries on board to eliminate discrimination against women and its recent appointment to the UN’s newest agency, UN Women, appear to acknowledge that Saudi society is ready for change. [16]

Saudi economist Abdullah Alami, who is petitioning the Shoura Council to end the Kingdom’s driving ban against women said, “Saudi Arabia has signed the international conventions of non-discrimination against women, (and) it is crucial that women are not discriminated against.”

[1] Saudi Arabia Sees 333% Population Boom Over 34 Years, Rianovosti (Retrieved 06-1-10)

[2] Saudi Looks into Possible Ministry for Women’s Affairs, by Iman Al-Khattaf, Asharq Alawsat, 27 September 2010 (Retrieved 27-09-10)

[3] Saudi Women Crowned Billionaires in the Middle East, by Sumayyah Meehan, Elan Magazine, 10 August 2010 (Retrieved 25-08-10)

[4] Forum Calls for Body to Enlighten Women on Social, Economic Roles, by Walaa Hawari, Arab News, 6 October 2010 (Retrieved 11-11-10)

[5] Saudi Women Simultaneously Navigating the Classroom and British Culture, by Rob L. Wagner, The Media Line, 13 July 2010 (Retrieved 13-07-10)

[6] Saudi Aims for Bigger Female Role in Economy, Emirates 24/7, 19 August 2010 (Retrieved 21-08-10)

[7] Kingdom to Provide Investment Opportunities for Saudi Women,, 19 August 2010 (Retrieved 01-09-10)

[8] Businesswomen in Saudi Arabia: Characteristics, Challenges, and Aspirations in a Regional Context, by Noura Alturki and Rebekah Braswell, July 2010 (Retrieved 01-08-10)

[9] Changing Role in Women in Society, by Molouk Y. Ba-Isa, Arab News, 15 June 2010 (Retrieved 29-06-10)

[10] Author interviews with Saudi female journalists and professionals, 2004-2005 and 25 April 2010

[11] Women’s Rights Gain Focus in the Kingdom, by Jafar Al-Shayeb, Arab News, 15 June 2010.

[12] Author interview with former Shoura Council member, 19 January 2006

[13] Why Don’t Women Have More Rights in Muslim Countries? by John Esposito, Washington Post, August 2010 (Retrieved 11-11-10)

[14] Word on the Street: What Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush Get Wrong About Muslims, by Fawaz Gerges, Democracy, Summer 2009 (Retrieved 11-11-10)

[15] Muslim Women Reclaiming their Rights, by John Esposito, Washington Post, July 2009 (Retrieved 02-12-10)

[16] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations report, 29 November 2007 (Retrieved 14-01-11)

[17] Author interview with Abdullah Alami, 13 January 2011.

Saudi Arabia’s Counterterrorism Successes and Failures

Special ReportUniversity for Peace (Peace and Conflict Monitor)

Last Updated: 08/01/2010

Rehabilitation and Deradicalization: Saudi Arabia’s Counterterrorism Successes and Failures

Rob L. Wagner

Journalist Rob L. Wagner examines Saudi Arabia’s “soft” rehabilitation program to return Islamic extremists to the “true Islam.” Although the program in its seven-year history has suffered setbacks, its 10 percent recidivism rate points to potential long-term success. The program mixes religion and tough love to return reformed militants to Saudi society in a culture that guards its privacy and values its dignity. With more than 3,000 men successfully passing through the program, Al-Qaeda sees the Saudi government’s efforts as a threat to the group’s recruiting efforts to win the hearts and minds of young Saudis.

Since Saudi Arabia implemented its rehabilitation program to combat extremist ideology among Al-Qaeda captives and released Guantanamo Bay detainees, Western counterterrorism experts have been divided over the program’s long-term effectiveness.

Characterized as “soft’ rehabilitation, the Saudi government has seen only a 10 percent recidivism rate among program graduates returned to Saudi society. The Saudi program and its related counterterrorism efforts appear remarkably successful given that the recidivism rate in Western nations – specifically the United States and the United Kingdom – ranges from 60 to 70 percent.[1] [2] But is seven years long enough to accurately gauge the success of a program that is novel, if not radical, in its concept? The answer is no. Yet it appears that Saudi Arabia is pursuing a path to stem Islamic militancy that could achieve long-term positive results.

The Saudi program, combined with its expansive counterterrorism policies, renews the debate of rehabilitation versus incarceration as the most effective means to deter criminal activity. Rehabilitative efforts in the United States criminal justice system gave way to stiffer prison sentences in the 1970s. Little consideration for rehabilitation as an alternative has been given since then. The key component in the Saudi counterterrorism efforts is religious instruction to return militants to the right path of Islam. Secular nations have long been skeptical of using religion as a tool to rehabilitate prisoners, but critics fail to appreciate the role Islam plays in Saudi society.


The Saudi program of intense religious instruction, counseling, and post-release monitoring has kept the recidivism rate low. The Kingdom has taken its rehabilitation cues from Egypt, which had originated the concept in the 1990s.[3] Singapore and Indonesia, most notably, have followed Saudi Arabia’s lead with their own versions of rehabilitation.

Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group program, which uses religious instruction as a primary teaching tool, has been deemed a success by the government. About 40 prisoners – approximately two-thirds of the militant prison population – graduated from the program with none returning to extremism. [4] The Indonesian government, however, acknowledged that its program failed. More detainees returned to militancy than those who renounced extremism. But Indonesia did not follow the Saudi and Singapore models. It instead opted for a scheme conceived by the police. Program officials eschewed the religious approach and did little to challenge militants’ ideological beliefs. Rather, the program focused on non-violent alternatives and turning detainees into informants. [5]


Following the May and November 2003 residential compound bombings in Riyadh, the Saudi Ministry of Interior created its rehabilitation program by establishing an advisory committee containing four subcommittees. [15] The subcommittees are the Religious subcommittee, the Psychological and Social subcommittee, the Security subcommittee, and the Media subcommittee. Perhaps the most important panel is the Religious subcommittee that consists of about 100 scholars, clerics and Islamic studies professors from the Kingdom’s top universities. Subcommittee members engage in fierce ideological debates with prisoners in an effort to steer them towards the proper interpretation of the Holy Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious subcommittee members discovered that many prisoners never had formal religious training. Detainees relied on non-government approved literature, friends and acquaintances, and extremist websites for information on Islamic interpretations. [6]

The Psychological and Social subcommittee comprises of psychologists and social scientists who investigate the prisoner’s family dynamics and psychological fitness for release. The committee also provides financial assistance to the prisoner’s family. Financial assistance for former prisoners is a common cultural tradition to ease re-entry into Saudi society. This subcommittee also illustrates a remarkable advancement in Saudi society since psychological examinations are deemed socially unacceptable and are relatively rare in the medical community.

The Security Subcommittee is the function of the Ministry of Interior. Ministry personnel determine whether a candidate for release poses security risks and establishes a monitoring system to ensure freed prisoners behave responsibly. It should be noted, however, that direct evidence linking prisoners to murder usually precludes them from release.

The Media Subcommittee distributes literature, educational materials and DVDs to schools, mosques, and media outlets. The materials target young Saudi men about the trap of extremist ideology with resources available to channel their tendencies towards militancy. [7]


The relative success of Saudi Arabia’s “soft” deradicalization program is primarily due to its religious instruction. [6] A lack of understanding of Islam by Western counterterrorism experts has given short shrift this aspect of rehabilitation. To understand why the Kingdom’s program has worked to date is to understand Saudi society. Saudis live their lives according to principles of the Holy Qur’an, which not only serves the spiritual needs of Muslims but is also looked upon as a behavioral guide. Even the most secular or liberal Saudi engages in the basics of Islam: prayer, performing Umrah, and practicing moderation and tolerance.

This is not to say that being a Saudi Muslim is easy. Conflicting fatwas, confusing interpretation of the Qur’an among the Kingdom’s leading Islamic scholars, and unemployment conspire to push young men away from the true Islam. Some Saudis even point to the Kingdom’s education system, which places an emphasis on wars won during the time of the Prophet instead of the Prophet’s message of peace and tolerance, as a potential contributor to young Saudis embracing extremism.

The Religious Subcommittee identified these issues as among several reasons for Saudis embracing militancy. Committee members deconstruct prisoners’ religious justifications for committing terrorist acts through six-week courses. Discussions focus on takfir (such as denouncing prominent Islamic scholars as unbelievers), bay’at (allegiance), walaah (loyalty to the Ummah, or Muslim community), the definition of terrorism, and jihad (military and personal struggles). Discussion, for example, may address how to wage jihad, which can only be undertaken by government order that is executed only by the country’s ruler. A fatwa issued by an ideologue aligned with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula does not have the government or religious endorsement to wage jihad.

The ultimate goal is for the militant prisoner to recant his ideology and brace the true Islam. But from a practical standpoint recanting one’s ideology may not be as important as behavior modification.

Part of the problem of determining whether the Saudi program can be successful in the long run is whether a militant prisoner recants his destructive ideology. Jessica Stern, the counterterrorism expert and faculty affiliate at the Belfer Center’s International Security Program, noted earlier this year that veteran militants may simply tire of the lifestyle. “Since terrorism is generally a young man’s profession, some ex-detainees might deradicalize when in fact they have simply chosen to retire from violent activity. In such cases, deradicalization programs may get credit they do not deserve.” [8]

Stern suggests that “extensive post-release surveillance” of ex-prisoners may be a better deterrent to resuming terrorist activities than a deradicalization program.[8] It’s not unreasonable, however, to place less emphasis on ideological change and more on behavior modification. Certainly some Muslims may sympathize with some of Al-Qaeda’s objectives, but they would never think to act upon those sympathies. Likewise, a former militant may keep his extremist ideology but never act on it.


Saudi Arabia was criticized following 9/11 for its slow response to condemning terrorism. Although clerics did indeed condemn terrorist acts, these condemnations were largely underreported in the Western media in the months following the attacks. By the same token there was reluctance among Saudi clerics to issue strongly worded fatwas because the fight against terrorism was perceived as a political and military matter and not subject to religious comment. That changed following the 2003 Riyadh bombings and the subsequent bloody battles in 2004 between Saudi security forces and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. During this period Al-Qaeda cell was led by Abdulaziz Al-Murqin, a charismatic high school dropout who cut a bloody swath of violence from Riyadh to Yanbu to Al-Khobar.[9] [10] [11]

Whatever reluctance Saudi religious leaders exhibited in the early years after 9/11 disappeared once Al-Muqrin arrived on the scene. The Saudi government waged a three-prong attack on militants: Engage in combat with Al-Qaeda in which taking prisoners was less important than quick elimination of the threat to protect innocent lives; arrest and detain individuals supporting Al-Qaeda; and wage a public relations “naming and shaming” campaign that publicly identified militant fugitives. [12]

Further, the Saudi media as a matter of editorial policy published graphic photographs of Al-Qaeda’s dead victims to illustrate the group’s barbarity. Widespread and virtually uncensored coverage of Al-Muqrin’s attacks coupled with an aggressive government policy to reward tipsters to report militant activity strengthened Saudi public sentiment against extremists. [12]

When Al-Muqrin was killed in a shootout with security forces in Riyadh in June 2004, much of Al-Qaeda’s momentum was further eroded. Al-Muqrin’s death allowed the Ministry of Interior to focus more on capturing prisoners to gain valuable intelligence. [12]

Between 2003 and 2007, more than 9,000 individuals suspected of being terrorists or supporting terrorists were arrested. In 2008, 56 individuals accused of funding terrorists causes were arrested. Twenty were prosecuted. [14]

Perhaps the most surprising element of the Kingdom’s war against extremists was the launching of its “Most Wanted” list in 2004. Multiple lists consisting of scores of suspected militants were issued. Arabic- and English-language newspapers and television news stations published and broadcast photographs and brief biographies of all men on the “Most Wanted” lists. Saudi society is intensely private and naming and shaming criminals is not part of the culture. Indeed, the Saudi judicial system does not permit defendants in criminal cases to be identified in the media because it may bring shame to innocent families. The Saudi government not only broke this unwritten policy, but had some detainees recant their extremist ideology on national television. [9] [12] [15]

The campaign appears to have worked. More than 3,000 young men have participated in and successfully completed the rehabilitation program. The caveat, however, is the less well-known fact that an unknown number of Al-Qaeda operatives have refused to participate in the program and will not renounce their ideology. Those men remain in custody. [2]


In June, Western skepticism of the rehabilitation program was intensified when the Saudi Ministry of Interior announced that 25 of the 120 Guantanamo Bay detainees who graduated from the scheme resumed extremist activities. Eleven are believed to have joined Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. Following Al-Muqrin’s death, the cell’s leadership quality was poor. The group moved to Yemen to reconstitute itself with released Guantanamo Bay detainees and rehabilitation program graduates. [12] [13] The cell’s operational leader, Othman Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, is a former Guantanamo detainee. Yet, when viewed in the context that more than 3,000 men have successfully completed the program, the recidivism rate among is hardly a blip.

But the core of the revived Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is made up of what are considered veteran, if not quality, leaders devoted to waging a sustained war against Saudi Arabia and the West. Accompanying Al-Ghamdi are former Guantanamo detainees and Saudi recidivists Said Al-Shihri, Al-Ghamdi’s deputy, and Ibrahim Rubaish, the cell’s chief theologian and ideologue. Also included in the cell is Abu Hareth Muhammad Al-Awfi, who returned to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo in 2007. [16] [17]

Not unexpectedly, Al-Qaeda, with its now intimate knowledge of the workings of the rehabilitation program, sees the scheme as a threat to its existence. The group announced in August 2009 that it is targeting a successful component of the program that allows for voluntary surrender of extremists. By voluntarily surrendering to Saudi authorities, militants are eligible for rehabilitation, post-detention counseling, and financial assistance to return to Saudi society. Al-Qaeda hopes to convince the fence-sitters longing to give up the militant lifestyle to remain in the fold. Al-Qaeda also hopes to disrupt the ideological underpinnings of the program by attempting to reassert their own interpretation of what is the right path of Islam. [18]

Although it’s unclear how Al-Qaeda will attack the program, the cell’s strength continues to be its propaganda machine via the Internet to reach wavering extremist sympathizers and fugitive militants.


It takes decades to accurately chart recidivism rates. To characterize the Saudi rehabilitation model as an unqualified success is not correct. Yet a 10 percent recidivism rate is enviable by any criminal justice standard. The long-term success of the program will depend largely on the program’s aftercare of released detainees. Aftercare not only includes ongoing counseling, but consistent and sustained monitoring of individuals to determine who the person keeps company with and who is his spiritual guide and mentor at the neighborhood mosque. Healthy family relationships and emotional support also are key factors. Not addressed specifically by the Saudi government is what will be done with captured repeat offenders. However, as of July 2009, 327 accused terrorists were tried, convicted in Saudi courts and sentenced up to 30 years in prison.[19]

[1] U.S. Department of Justice Recidivism Statistics (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[2] Saudi-US Relations – “Rehab the Terrorists, With Love” by Robert Lacey (Retrieved 04-07-2010)

[3] Dawn – “We Must Reclaim Islam”: (Retrieved 06-07-2010)

[4] Carnegie Endowment – “The Best Guide For Gitmo? Try Singapore” By William J. Dobson: (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[5] The Jarkata Globe – “Terrorist Rehab a Failure” 26 June 2010: (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[6] Saudi-US Relations – “Extremist Reeducation and Rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia” by Christopher Boucek: (Retrieved 06-07-2010)

[7] Carnegie Endowment – “Saudi Arabia’s “Soft” Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation and Aftercare” by Christopher Boucek (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[8] Foreign Affairs – Jessica Stern on Deradicalization: Retrieved 05-07-2010 (Retrieved 04-07-2010)

[9] Author interviews with clerics, Saudi journalists and Saudi counterterrorism officials in Saudi Arabia, April 2004 to April 2007.

[10] “5 Westerners Slain in Yanbu” by Edgar C. Cadano, Saudi Gazette (print), 2 May 2004

[11] “Carnage in Al-Khobar” by Joe Avancena, Saudi Gazette (print), 30 May 2004

[12] “Wanted: SR7M Bounty Hunt” by Rob L. Wagner, Saudi Gazette (print), 29 June 2005

[13] “Bitter High School Dropout Who Became a Flamboyant Killer” by Rob L. Wagner, Saudi Gazette (print), 20 June 2004.

[14] Country Reports on Terrorism 2008: (Retrieved 05-07-2010)

[15] Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia – Initiatives and Actions to Combat Terrorism: (Retrieved 08-07-2010)

[16] Long War Journal – Saudi Recidivists: (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[17] Fox News – “Al-Qaeda Commander in Saudi Custody May Still Pose Threat From Prison”:,2933,495984,00.html (Retrieved 03-07-2010)

[18] Asharq Al-Awsat – “Al-Qaeda Targeting Saudi Rehabilitation Program” 9 August 2009, by Turki Al-Saheil: (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[19] Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia – New GAO Report Commends Saudi Arabia’s Efforts to Fight Terrorism and Terror Financing, 30 September 2009 (Retrieved 08-07-10)

Q&A: Sabria Jawhar

University for Peace, Conflict and Monitor (03 May 2010)

Sabria Salama Jawhar is a columnist for the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia-based Saudi Gazette newspaper and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post and She is the only Saudi woman journalist who writes specifically for Western readers. She was named in March as one of the “most influential Arabs” on the Dubai-based Arabian Business magazine’s 2010 “Power 100” list. In recent years she has gained a following among Muslim women for advocating for women’s rights as defined in the Holy Qur’an, a stark contrast to most international human rights organizations that seek Muslim women’s rights in the context of Western democratic ideals. Her opinions have alienated many Saudis who complained her advocacy is at the expense of Saudi customs and traditions. Western readers comment that her position on women’s rights is too narrow because it’s defined only by Islam.

Interview conducted by Rob Wagner.

Rob Wagner: Tell me about your background and where you grew up.

Sabria Jawhar: I was born in the holy city of Madinah. Even today it’s a small and close-knit city where everybody knows their neighbors. Of course it’s the home of the Prophet’s Mosque, which has great religious significance to Muslims since Madinah was home of the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. I’m the youngest daughter of 11 children, six brothers and four sisters. My family was originally from Yanbu, a small farming town on the Red Sea. My dad was chief of a prison in Madinah after he and my mother moved there. My dad is retired now. I grew up in a religious home but my parents were very liberal by Saudi standards. As a kid I was allowed to make my own choices. I wore the abaya at an early age, although it was not required until puberty. I couldn’t wait to wear it, I suppose, because it was a symbol of maturity and adulthood. I loved and still love reading the Holy Qur’an and I memorized many verses when I was very small. In fact, I was more religious than most of my family members and one time my mother expressed concern that I was too religious. I learned English from television, especially cartoons, and usually often on my own separate from my schooling.

RW: Where did you go to school?

SJ: I earned my bachelor of arts degree at King Abdul Aziz University in Madinah and my master’s in applied linguistics at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah. I am now studying for my doctorate in applied linguistics at Newcastle University at Newcastle Upon Tyne in England. I should complete my studies in 2011. Basically, I am studying how English as a second language is taught to Arab-speaking students.

RW: A doctorate in applied linguistics is a far cry from journalism. How did you get from academia to being a journalist?

SJ: I was teaching high school but doing a lot of commuting. I mean hours and hours to and from school. Teaching high school was not particularly challenging to me and I wanted something different. I saw an advert in the Saudi Gazette, which is an English-language newspaper in Jeddah, that offered journalism courses to Saudi men and women. I signed up and was accepted. This was in 2003, I think. The course was taught by a Palestinian-American and covered the basics of journalism. You know, the who, what, where, when and why. How to conduct an interview. Record searches, although that’s impossible in Saudi Arabia. Journalism ethics. That sort of thing. I also took a course sponsored by the Lebanese Al-Naha Institute and the Professionals Institute, both in Jeddah. I completed the courses and was offered a job as a reporter. I was later promoted to supervisor of the Ladies Department. A Ladies Department probably sounds odd to some people, but most workplaces in Saudi Arabia, as well as public places like restaurants, are segregated by gender. It’s part of Saudi culture to keep men and women separate until marriage. In the Ladies Department I supervised sometimes up to a dozen or so women reporters – Saudis and Indian and Pakistani expatriates mostly.

RW: How did being separated from the main newsroom affect your job as a journalist?

SJ: There was no impact at all. We did our job in our office. We had free access to the newsroom. I participated in all editorial meetings, including the daily story budget meetings. Eventually I supervised male reporters. The Saudi Gazette, at least by Saudi standards, is pretty progressive in treating men and women the same and allowing us to work together. Now other Saudi newspapers do it, but it was fairly uncommon five years ago.

RW: What kind of stories did you cover?

SJ: I came to the Saudi Gazette right at the time that extremists were committing so much violence in Saudi Arabia, not only against Westerners and other expats, but Saudis as well. They attacked Western residential compounds, the US Consulate in Jeddah, kidnapped and killed one American. It was a disaster and was devastating to Saudis. It was a terrible time. I have many contacts in the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for internal security, and covered their efforts to capture these guys. I also covered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and interviewed along with other Arab journalists Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Kofi Annan and other foreign officials who met with the King and Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal in Jeddah.

RW: But you are not known as a reporter, but kind of a rabble-rousing opinion writer.

SJ: You mean a rabble-rouser as in a trouble maker? No, not at all. At the end of 2004 or early 2005, my editors found out that I had an opinion about everything and couldn’t shut me up. They thought a column would calm me down. So I started writing opinion pieces and it grew into a weekly column. Remember, the Saudi Gazette is an English language newspaper read by English-speaking expatriate workers, so Saudis didn’t, and still don’t, pay much attention to me. My audience is mostly Westerners so I write mostly for them. The column eventually turned into a platform to educate Western readers about Saudi culture and Islam because there is so much disinformation out there. Old stereotypes, generalizations and the perceived link between Saudi Arabia and terrorism — as opposed to the link of individuals who are Saudi and terrorism — still exist. I try to chip away at those myths. It’s true that some Saudis criticize me for thinking like a Westerner and abandoning the customs and traditions of Saudi Arabia. It’s not true, but I understand how that perception developed. My training is in Western style journalism and with opinion writing I occasionally use Western idioms, slang and humor to get a point across. This usually translates very badly into Arabic. I didn’t notice how badly until I started writing for the Huffington Post last year. Suddenly Arabic news websites and blogs started picking up the column and translating it into Arabic. Sometimes the translations were spot on and captured the nuances of the English version, but mostly the translations were too literal or there just wasn’t the right Arabic word or phrase to convey my message. At the end of the day, I kind of looked a little silly or disrespectful to Arabs. But it can’t be helped.

RW: In fact, your columns seem to indicate you are an equal opportunity critic of both the West and Saudi Arabia?

SJ: Yes, of course. They both deserve criticism, but praise as well when they get things right.

RW: So what is the message that you are trying to convey?

SJ: At the end of the day all Saudis and most Arabs, not to mention South Asians, are Muslims. We live our lives as Muslims and are guided by the Holy Qur’an. It will never change no matter how badly people of other cultures and religions want it to change. It’s important to point out that Saudi women, for example, want their basic human rights. We don’t want rights as defined by a Western politician, activist or an NGO. We want our rights as outlined in the Qur’an. If Saudi Arabia afforded all women the rights we are entitled to and not be governed by tribal or cultural customs and traditions, then Saudi women will achieve their ultimate goal. The obvious example is that that driving an automobile is not prohibited in the Qur’an. Everyone knows this. It’s not rocket science. This is a cultural issue. Naturally, women should be permitted to drive because there is no religious restriction. But keep in mind that most Saudi women do not see driving a car as an important human rights issue, just like we don’t see the requirement of wearing the abaya, or burqa, whatever you want to call it, an important issue. We view education and employment as vital to our basic rights as women. Well meaning human rights activists and Western politicians mistakenly believe that banning the burqa and demanding that Saudi Arabia allow women to drive are somehow vital rights issues. They are not. In fact, I agree that the burqa has no place in Western society. It defeats the purpose of the burqa as a tool to protect women from unwanted or inappropriate attention. In the West, all it does is attract attention from the wrong people. But having said that I believe it’s a woman’s right to choose. Common sense tells you, though, that an article of clothing or getting behind the wheel of a Lexus pales in comparison to getting a high school certificate or university degree, and then using that education to get a job that pays a good wage. And by the way, most of the Saudi women do get a good education. Six in 10 Saudi university students are women. The challenge is getting a job based on that education. I think somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of Saudi women are employed inside Saudi Arabia. That’s terrible, but significantly better than the 5 percent about eight years ago. Things are improving. Not fast enough for many women, but improvements nonetheless. Another example is male guardianship. This is a religious issue for Muslims, but is very narrowly defined in the Holy Qur’an and applies to the protection of women, such as a father or brother protecting an unmarried daughter or sister. Male guardianship does not apply to education and employment and I shouldn’t have to ask permission to get an education or a job. So guardianship is here to stay in Saudi Arabia, but its definition should not be abused by authorities to deny women the right to go to school or to work.

RW: Okay, so driving and throwing away the abaya are not important, why do people get it so wrong about Saudi Arabia?

SJ: The same prejudices that have plagued man since the dawn of time? I don’t know. I admit that Saudis haven’t helped their cause much. 9/11 was a traumatic blow for Saudis. The terrible loss of life involved 15 Saudis. Osama bin Laden was Saudi. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula caused a lot of damage in Saudi Arabia, so we have been victims of terrorism as well. I think the myth of Wahhabism has something to do with it. Wahhabism is an invention of the West. It’s the new communism, the new threat to Western civilization. Wahhabism is defined by the Western media as this austere form of Islam that leads to extremisms and fuels terrorism. There is no such thing as an austere form of Islam. It is just Islam. Anybody can read about it in the Holy Qur’an. There are no revisions of the Qur’an. There is no so-called modern Islam. It is only Islam. Yes, there are secular Muslims, liberals, moderates and extremists. It all depends on how you interpret the Qur’an. Each person has their own interpretation. Islam is not a buffet, but many people treat it as a buffet. They pick and choose aspects of Islam that are comfortable to them. That’s human nature. Even to the Western extremists who perceive Islam as a threat pick and choose aspects of the Qur’an that fit their agenda. I, for one, consider myself a moderate Muslim, but at the end of the day I try to stick as closely to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as possible. Just like most Muslims. But you know what? Muslims don’t think of themselves as Wahhabists. We never use the term and we never think in those terms. There is no Saudi government edict that makes us a Wahhabist nation and we don’t export a Wahhabist ideology. The West projects is own religious history on Muslims. A Christian may say “I’m a Baptist or I’m a Methodist” because there are many different branches in Christianity. But there are only Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Muslims don’t walk around saying “I’m a Wahhabist.” There’s no such thing. If you examine the media reports of so-called Wahhabism literature found in mosques throughout the West, you will never find the term Wahhabism or the definition of Wahhabism. The only definition of Wahhabism you will find comes from Western media. I agree that some literature found in mosques before 9/11 can be considered offensive, but it’s not Wahhabism, as the West puts it. And what’s been ignored is the reform efforts by King Abdullah to eliminate the fundamentalist interpretations of the Holy Qur’an in Saudi textbooks and religious textbooks.

RW: You say the West has this preconceived idea about Saudis and Islam, but what is your experience with the West on a personal level?

SJ: I’ve lived in England for three years now. I’ve have visited the United States twice and I am a frequent panelist or guest at many conferences or symposiums in Europe, including Sweden and Germany. I get out. Americans are warm and friendly. I, of course, wear the hijab, but I have never felt threatened or signaled out. Americans, at least in my experience, seem so non-judgmental on a personal level. My experience in England has largely been the same, although I was once accosted by some teenagers who asked me if I was carrying a bomb under my hijab. They were persistent, loud and scary, but I know it’s an anomaly. My professors, and especially my mentor, at Newcastle University are incredibly supportive. They go out of their way to be friendly and provide whatever help I need. I couldn’t have chosen a better academic environment than Newcastle. I will be sorry to leave Newcastle once I am finished with my studies.

RW: When you go back to Saudi Arabia for school breaks, what differences do you see between Saudi Arabia and the West? What do you like and not like about the West?

SJ: England and the U.S. are incredibly open and for a Saudi that is very exciting but also a little disturbing. Public displays of affection, sexually-oriented advertising and behavior are troubling to us. But the transparency of government, the quality of municipal infrastructure, wide choices of entertainment, the friendliness of the people I encounter and simply the way people behave in public is exciting. I accept and adopt some Western values in my daily living. One must just to survive in an alien culture, but I do this because I want to. It’s part of being a citizen of the world. But I will never adopt Western values that conflict with my religious, although Western culture is very compatible to Islam. Saudis love Western culture. We love American movies and TV shows. My brother loves “Friends” and if I have to see one more episode I will probably be driven insane, but the point is that Saudis love this type of entertainment. It doesn’t mean we all will go out and set up house with three unmarried guys and three unmarried girls, but we still can have fun observing it. I’ve been accused of being corrupted by the West, but the fact is you must be part of the international community to survive and be successful. I can chose to live in Saudi Arabia and never venture beyond is borders. Many Saudis prefer this, but I don’t. I like seeing what the world has to offer and I want to be part of it. On the other hand, when I am in England I get homesick for Saudi Arabia and I especially get homesick for my mom. When I am home in Saudi Arabia I feel comfortable with distinct moral lines between right and wrong and the proper way we all conduct ourselves as Muslims. Such lines in the West are too fuzzy and is confusing, especially to young people. In Saudi Arabia the family is everything. We are always preoccupied with our family’s safety and happiness. I’d say we love each other too much and it can be suffocating. Yet it’s better than having a weak family structure. In the West, many of these things are missing and that’s why, in my opinion, England has a difficult time dealing with hooliganism and excessive drinking. There are a lot of lost young people there. That’s not to say Saudi Arabia is paradise. Many young single men have little to do but drive fast cars, sip coffee and smoke sheesha (hookah). Unemployment among Saudi men is high. But like I said, both cultures can be compatible. There is enough common ground among Westerners and Muslims to get along fine.

RW: It’s one thing to say that West and Islam are compatible, but the perception in the West is that Islam is responsible for terrorism today and much of the killing of civilians is perpetrated in the name of Islam.

SJ: Yes, it is. Violence is often committed in the name of Islam. It doesn’t make the perpetrators Muslims, though. How can they be true Muslims when they twist the teachings of the Prophet to suit their own warped vision of the world? Muslims, and no more so than Saudis, are sickened by extremist violence. But using simplistic logic that terrorism committed in the name of Islam is representative of beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims is ridiculous. That’s like saying Timothy McVeigh and the Christian militia members in Michigan plotting attacks against U.S. law enforcement are representative of Christians. Or that the Irish Republic Army, or the group that calls itself the Real IRA, represent all Irish citizens who want Ireland reunited as a republic. There’s a reason there have been so few terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11, despite two American and British wars in Muslim countries, and the few attacks that have occurred originate from the same group of people. It’s because so few Muslims identify with that kind of cause.

RW: You are an Arab Muslim reaching out to a Western non-Muslim audience trying to dispel what you see as the myth about Muslims and Arabs. Isn’t a little like sticking your finger in a dike that is about to burst?

SJ: Maybe so, but what’s the alternative? Quit writing? Give up and go home? I am one of the few female Saudi writers trying to reach the West. Maybe the only one with a wide reach. Imagine if there were a dozen or two dozen female Saudi writers trying to set the record straight about the lives of Saudi women. A few years ago a female writer, Rajaa Alsanea, wrote “The Girls of Riyadh,” which I understand was part fiction and part non-fiction. It got a lot of attention in the West. Maybe for the wrong reasons because the book’s content had the titillation value of focusing partly on the sex lives of young Saudi women. But at least the Western reader got an idea that Saudi women were not robotic black moving objects under the abaya and veil. Other Muslim female writers are popular in the West because their stories tell of women who somehow overcame oppression and fought for an independent life. That’s all fine, but it seems Western publishers only want stories of tortured Muslim women who ultimately triumph over their evil oppressors. These books give a skewed view of Muslim women and Islam. There are only so many Muslim women oppressed and behind-the-veil stories that can be written. If enough Saudis, or simply Muslim, women write their opinions about Islam and the countries they live in, the perception can slowly change.

Rob Wagner is a California-based journalist and author who covered Arab and Muslim issues in Saudi Arabia from 2004 to 2007. He returned to Saudi Arabia in 2010 to conduct this interview and write a series of articles on Saudi women’s rights and the changes occurring today in Saudi society.

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: