Black Hole Kingdom

Organizing in the cracks of the Saudi state

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Pascal Menoret, Graveyard of Clerics: Everyday Activism in Saudi Arabia.
Stanford University Press, 264 pages.

I arrived in Saudi Arabia twenty years ago, as a young girl. Even now, the country exists in my mind most vividly in those early impressions: the stark lines of skyscrapers beneath a blinding sun, the blare of car-jammed roads hemmed in by vacant sidewalks, the menace of armored gates and endless cement walls. Young as I was, my body sensed the ambient hostility of these fiercely regulated streets. I could see that this was not a country built for public life.

Segregation was ubiquitous. Retail and dining areas were separated along gender lines, as were event venues, many office spaces, and even some private homes. The kingdom’s migrant workers were kept even further away. They were both everywhere—laboring in construction and sanitation, driving taxis, manning endless fast food chains, even living in Saudi homes as nurses and maids—and nowhere, muted by exploitative labor laws that deprived them of most civic rights, leaving them vulnerable to abuse, deportation, or imprisonment. Primarily South Asian and African, they numbered roughly thirteen million in 2019, making up over a third of the country’s population and more than three-quarters of its workforce.

I was taught to fear. I was coached early and often to comply with gender norms, to not discuss politics in public, to keep constant watch for the powerful religious police. I came to understand that a U.S. passport—I am an Arab-American—did not protect me from the security state. I once snapped a photo of the sunset from the back seat of my family’s car, after which the vehicle was swarmed by security officers. Unwilling to arrest a young girl, they took my father into custody for an entire, harrowing night.

It was this suffocating environment that drove several hundred Saudis to the streets of Riyadh on October 14, 2003—a historic event in the notoriously repressive kingdom. The demonstration was timed to coincide with its first conference on human rights, convened by then-Interior Minister Prince Nayef. The conference reeked of a particular form of Saudi hypocrisy, as the state mimed progressive reform for a Western audience, all the better to entrench its domestic terror apparatus.

As a child, I was taught to fear, coached early and often to comply with gender norms, to not discuss politics in public, to keep constant watch for the powerful religious police.

Shortly before the protest, the Saudi government had made a lukewarm promise to allow local municipal elections. This was transparently a gesture meant to impress the United States, at the time leading a disastrous “democracy building” campaign in neighboring Iraq. The country had never before extended suffrage to any of its citizens, but the impact of proposed elections, if they took place at all, would be negligible. Sa’ad al-Faqih, the exiled Saudi activist who called for the October demonstration, told the New York Times that such tokens would be “worthless” so long as Saudis were denied “freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

Al-Faqih and his followers’ demands would go unmet. Instead, over two hundred demonstrators were arrested, and several dozen, including three women, were sentenced to three months in jail. Marches scheduled in the following weeks and months ended before they began, preempted by an overwhelming security response. Meanwhile, at home in Jeddah, a major coastal Saudi city to the west, I never heard about the events in Riyadh. If I had, it would have been through the state-controlled media, which belittled and demonized the protesters.

Such are the conditions facing those who seek to take direct, public action in Saudi Arabia, where the Al Saud family has ruled its modern kingdom with unrelenting suppression since 1932. The state was founded on a violent commitment to hegemony, as the house of Saud “unified” the vast Arabian Peninsula by co-opting and dominating disparate Bedouin tribes, religious minorities, and political rivals. It has repeatedly met any sign of rebellion—from labor movements to the protests of its marginalized Shia community—with a swift and brutal response. The specter of state violence, and the state’s near-total control of the religious, educational, and social life, has rendered public protest nearly unthinkable for most.

In 2003, the government responded to the Riyadh demonstration by further expanding its surveillance powers. A series of “anti-extremism” campaigns were pushed through, drawing on rhetoric from the United States’ war on terror. Infractions as vague as “disturbing the public order of the state” or “endangering its national unity” became punishable as terrorist crimes, while anti-democratic crackdowns were rebranded as “security measures.” In this way, Saudi elites conveniently justified authoritarian tactics while enjoying the lucrative benefits of a “special relationship” with Washington.

Since then, the state has maintained a clenched sort of quiet, even as uprisings have repeatedly swept the wider region. During the events known as the Arab Spring, Saudi streets remained largely silent, and police swiftly shut down the few, scattered protests that did emerge, primarily in the eastern, Shia-dominated region. There, open fire from law enforcement left several dead, and hundreds more were detained. The state announced a national ban on protesting, issuing even stricter “anti-terrorism” legislation.

The Wealthiest of All Possible Death-Worlds

In 2017, newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spearheaded audacious crackdowns on prominent members of the political, academic, business and religious communities. In its wake, state hostility toward dissent—whether perceived or actual—has reached new heights, demonstrated most notoriously by the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Today, an untold number of political prisoners—estimates range from hundreds to over thirty thousand—languish in prisons. Many are subject to torture, and almost all are denied due process. Then again, even free Saudis lack political representation. The state has neither a constitution nor any form of legislative body; power resides instead with a dwindling number of elites. For a long time, the government staved off discontent with social spending and an array of public-sector jobs, funded by the state’s massive fortune. But in recent years, these policies have been scaled back as the crash in oil prices eats into the state’s wealth and squeezes the very middle class they helped develop.

The Saudi regime has also done much to limit political discourse online, investing vast sums in everything from Twitter bot armies to cyber security technology to track and prosecute interactions on private social media platforms. All authorized media outlets in the country are strictly pro-government. With its monopolies on both hard and soft power, the hegemony of the Saudi state appears all but total. As Pascal Menoret writes in his new book Graveyard of Clerics, Saudi Arabia is today a “death-world” in which political discourse lies entombed, caught between lifeless propaganda and the ever-present threat of violence.

Yet this is only part of the story. Like any authoritarian regime, the Saudi police state is imperfect; individuals still find the courage, desperation, or rage to resist, albeit in necessarily tenuous and provisional forms. In years of research and reporting, I have discovered stories of popular resistance that remain little-known after years of state suppression. I have met many activists and reformers, with a diversity of political perspectives, and covered the stories of women like Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Hatoon al-Fassi, and Eman al-Nafjan, who devoted years to advocating for the right to drive and the end of the patriarchal male guardianship system. I have come across numerous Saudis in Europe and the United States, where they have sought asylum after coming under fire for their beliefs. And I have spoken to dozens of family members of Saudi prisoners of conscience—many of them bewildered by their loved ones’ disappearances, all of them grief-stricken and afraid.

It is with this background that I approached Menoret’s book, which probes the history of activism in the kingdom. Beginning with the October 2003 protest, Menoret chronicles how Saudi activists, denied mainstream channels of democratic participation and trapped in urban environments intentionally void of “public squares,” have appropriated the state-sanctioned spaces of suburbs, mosques, and schools for covert political work. An anthropologist by training, he spent four years conducting field research in Saudi Arabia in the 2000s. He draws on these extensive in-person observations and interviews to examine the fate of “everyday activists” and their contradictory relationship to the state.

Graveyard is Menoret’s third study of Saudi Arabia, following Saudi Enigma (2005), a history of the modern state, and Joyriding in Riyadh (2014), an anthropological study of youth culture, car drifting, and urban life. His scholarship presents granular, often messy, accounts of “ordinary” Saudi lives, offering a welcome contrast to much of the narrowly political and economic analysis of the country that otherwise appears in the media. In Graveyard, he paints a picture of a fragmented but tenacious movement—or movements—that will likely surprise many casual Western observers of the kingdom.

There’s Been an Awakening

Any consideration of Saudi politics must address the religiosity that shapes private and public life there. While Saudi Arabia is frequently branded a “conservative” or “ultra-religious” nation, Islam’s role is nuanced and multi-layered. On the surface, the Saudi ruling class espouses a strain of performative, politicized piety born of their historic links to Wahhabism, a puritanical sect of Islam founded in the eighteenth century. Over the years, powerful Wahhabi clerics like Sheik Abdulaziz bin Baz have legitimized the Saudi royal family through religious decrees, including an infamous 1990 fatwa allowing American troops into the country.

In exchange, the Wahhabis have enjoyed expansive power over Saudi social and religious life through their heavy influence on public schools and universities, a fatwa bureaucracy, and the office of the Grand Mufti. They have also availed themselves of Saudi wealth to export their ideology abroad, including through the construction of hundreds of mosques and madrasas around the world. Some royals have sought to weaken the powers of the Wahhabi bloc but with little lasting success, as political crises often amplify their dependence on clerical endorsements. Even Mohammed bin Salman, who has branded himself a moderate and a modernizer, has left the clerics’ institutional power largely untouched.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly met any sign of rebellion—from labor movements to the protests of its marginalized Shia community—with a swift and brutal response.

Parallel to the self-serving enterprise of Saudi Wahhabism, however, runs a decades-old tradition of religious political critique. Menoret’s book focuses on this movement, known broadly as the Sahwa, or “Islamic Awakening.” Rising to prominence in the 1960s, the Awakening is a broad social organization that uses the language of the Qur’an and the functions of the mosque to resist the hegemony of the Saudi state. It has encompassed many theological factions over the years, from Salafism to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Menoret takes pains to detail the intricate and blurred theological lineages of the Awakening. Yet he emphasizes that the movement is defined by its actions, not its ideology. “Islamic action . . . contrary to the Western notion of ‘Islamism,’ is dynamic and points to practices, not texts and doctrines,” he writes. “Just as most believers are not dedicated activists, most activists may not be committed believers.”

Menoret also presents “Islamic action” as a form of post-colonial critique. Activists, besieged on all sides, have co-opted religious authority as means to resist the dual structures of Saudi despotism and Western imperialism, the latter of which many Awakening activists trace to the very founding of the state. Some of the Al Saud’s earliest crackdowns, dating back to the 1940s, were on civilians protesting American oil interests in the kingdom. Access to U.S. training, intelligence, and weaponry have long been pillars of the regime’s brutal domestic power.

More recently, the post-9/11 frenzy of anti-terrorist “cooperation” between Saudi Arabia and the West has justified further repression of political dissent. “To many of my interlocutors,” Menoret writes,

repression and liberalism were not two opposites but one and the same thing. It was for liberal reasons that the Saudi state cracked down on all manner of political activity: [the royal family] and its allies systematically labeled activists as extremists or terrorists . . . [and] it was for liberal reasons that the European Union and the United States were aiding some of the most repressive regimes on earth.

Islamic Awakening activists have often wielded the Saudi state’s professed religiosity against itself, accusing it of betraying the Islamic community to the Americans, who they cast as modern day “Crusaders.” (It was for similar reasons that Osama bin Laden advocated for the violent overthrow of the royal family.) The movement’s sights were on contemporary geopolitics, despite their references to medieval disputes. This point is worth underscoring. “The Islamic Awakening activists were not all necessarily very religious,” Abdullah Alaoudh, a United States-based academic and the son of one of the most prominent Awakening clerics, Salman Alodah, recently told me. “But they were drawing on the tools, language, and spaces that were available to them.” Alaoudh adds that they often blended Western ideas with Islamic teachings:

Take for example the word bayah, or allegiance to a leader. The Saudi government used this teaching to subjugate people, to demand loyalty and exert total control. The Awakening activists went back to the root of the word and compared it to ideas like John Locke’s social contract, saying that both sides, leaders and subjects, have terms and obligations. They saw ways the government was failing its people, and they criticized this—through a religious lens.

Alaoudh’s father paid a high price for publicly airing such a critique. He first caught the attention of the Saudi regime in 1992, after vocally criticizing its cooperation with the American military during the First Gulf War. Two years later, he was arrested for participating in a rare public demonstration and held for five years. Some two decades later, in 2017, he was among the first to be swept up in bin Salman’s mass crackdown. Today, Alodah remains in prison, where he faces the death penalty. Officially proscribed, cassette tapes of his sermons circulate as samizdat. More recently, he and his colleagues have also taken to social media. Though imprisoned, Alodah has over thirteen million Twitter followers. Many of Menoret’s interlocutors cite him as the leader who drew them to activism.

Visible Minority

The territories encompassed by modern-day Saudi Arabia were historically inhabited by Bedouin cultures. The Saud’s conquest of the peninsula, and its subsequent urbanization and proletarianization, has led to the erosion and widespread denigration of this heritage. Menoret’s affinity for Saudi society is obvious, and at times he seems almost to present himself as a defender of Saudi, and particularly Bedouin, authenticity. He laments the loss of “once elegant avenues” and “stately courtyard houses” that characterized the pre-suburban era, as well as the erosion of traditional values—a critique that not all of his interlocutors share.

Graveyard is almost wholly concerned with men. The limitations imposed by strict gender segregation, particularly in the early 2000s, would have made this largely unavoidable, but Menoret might have done more to include outside sources on the Saudi female experience. It is also worth noting that he makes little mention of how some Awakening activists have espoused deeply problematic, infantilizing messages about women. However, this single-gender focus does allow Menoret to express a sense of empathy for a frequently demonized group: young Saudi men.

This population has long been an object of mistrust, both domestically and abroad. The cultural notion of the “youth” as a discrete class in Saudi society emerged in the 1960s, coinciding with a new abundance of formalized leisure time afforded by high oil prices and wage labor. Increasingly educated and under-occupied, young Saudis—men in particular—became a constituency with which the government and Awakening activists had to contend. Like other social movements of the time, Awakening sought to draw in youth through outreach and political education, often marketing their programs as productive ways to alleviate boredom.

These efforts made Saudi officialdom increasingly uneasy; they feared both politicization and religious radicalization among this group. Having dubbed youth as “Saudi Arabia’s dangerous class . . . in need of supervision,” the government launched its own social programs directed at controlling and conditioning young people. In the 1970s, they established the General Presidency for Youth Patronage, which sponsored athletic events and swimming pools as a way to divert attention away from politics. Similarly, the Janadriyah Festival, launched by the National Guard, sought to cultivate a sense of civic pride by way of state-sanctioned nationalism. “Crushing collective action and entertaining the youth were crucial to the survival” of the monarchy, writes Menoret. He sees the Islamic Awakening as a more meaningful antidote to alienation and disenfranchisement, providing “purpose to generations of Saudis” and “[helping] members of the middle and the lower-middle class gain in confidence and self-respect.”

Saudi Arabia is today a “death-world” in which political discourse lies entombed, caught between lifeless propaganda and the ever-present threat of violence.

The importance of Saudi self-actualization becomes more compelling after readers journey with Menoret through some of Riyadh’s more “difficult” neighborhoods, where he describes the discrimination and everyday violence faced by Saudi Arabia’s disadvantaged. These bidun, or “lacking,” classes are sequestered in far-flung suburbs, where garbage and sewage fill the streets, and disaffected youth joyride through the night. Many are recently settled migrants from rural areas, branded disparagingly as “Bedouin” by sedentary compatriots who associate them with drugs and violence. Some of Menoret’s subjects are effectively stateless, deprived of Saudi citizenship due to oversight or neglect; often, when they move from rural areas to the city, their new dwelling is not officially registered with the state. This political limbo perpetuates their economic insecurity and fuels their sense of resentment and alienation. “Nobody governs us” reads one protest spray-painted on the side of a police station he visits.

I, too, witnessed the decrepit, graffiti-tagged walls described in these neighborhoods, which Menoret compares to French banlieues. As a woman, I felt particularly alienated in such areas, where groups of shabab, young men, moved restlessly amid walled-off blocks. They might have been seeking relief from repressive or abusive households, but their sisters, mothers, and wives had no such option. As Menoret notes, the atomized, single-family structure of the suburbs increased the isolation of women, who, unable to drive until 2018, were rendered more dependent than ever on men.

Calling All Cars

Menoret’s many drives through Riyadh neighborhoods allow him to introduce one of the other primary concerns of his book: the interplay of urban planning and political control, and the effects of suburbanization in particular. He describes the arrival of a powerful American oil company, which would come to be known as Aramco, in the 1930s. A few years after its first contract with the King, Aramco began constructing “California-style suburbs” for its American personnel in the Eastern Province, relegating “coolies”—Saudi laborers—to segregated, subpar living conditions.

The poor treatment of Saudi workers sparked numerous uprisings in the 1940s and 1950s, including strikes and a bus boycott, all of which were brutally suppressed. Rather than listen to the demands of workers, Saudi authorities deferred to Aramco’s housing model, building even more grid-like subdivisions that were “easy to police.” The municipality of Riyadh began as early as the 1940s to build subdivisions that mimicked “Aramco’s Levittown” in the east.

But Saudi oil infrastructure continued to fuel uneven development, and growing tensions over inequitable working conditions fomented further demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts. Alarmed, the Saudi government doubled down on city planning, commissioning European planners to help tame the growing urban population. Chief among these consultants was the Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis, who touted a vision of superblocks and main streets that would “shield” residents from “toxic political ideas.”

Once the oil boom began in earnest, cities quickly expanded far beyond the dimensions envisioned by Doxiadis. Riyadh’s developed area swelled by over 1,000 percent from 1976 to 1987, with inhabitants spread across “far-flung, flat, monotonous grids.” Absent any public transportation, life was utterly dependent on automobiles, transforming Saudi society into what Menoret describes as a “world of citizen-commuters.” This unmitigated sprawl was a double-edged sword for the regime. Both cloistered and diffuse, far from the fulcrums of power, these suburbs became the site of a new generation of Islamic Awakening activists, who organized networks of smaller groups that spread into disparate neighborhoods, thereby connecting them.

Central to this fragmented organizing structure were “car groups,” each of which was composed of an activist leader and several male students. The leader-driver would pick up the students, often en route to mosque or school, and fill their long commutes with religious and political activities. This routine fostered a sense of camaraderie that often extended into social activities, like group meals or recreational trips. For some, these friendships were a primary attraction of the Awakening. In an age of isolation, writes Menoret, the movement “was predicated upon the ability to drive through suburbia and to bring together individuals who lived scattered across vast expanses of land.”

Like any authoritarian regime, the Saudi police state is imperfect; individuals still find the courage, desperation, or rage to resist, in necessarily tenuous and provisional forms.

For many teenagers, joining “awareness groups”—which can range from Harry Potter book clubs to self-help seminars—was first and foremost a domestic rebellion, an excuse to escape controlling parents who would bless their sons’ sudden interest in the mosque or school. One twelfth-grade Awakening activist describes how joining the movement was his way of declaring “independence from the house.” This simple contrarian choice, however, would eventually “change his life,” as his participation in Awakening activities nurtured in him a sense of communal identity and civic duty. “Our reality is pathetic, and when you look into the past and read that our civilization was glorious, you become obsessed, you want to go back to this,” he tells Menoret. “But the actual issue, after your interest has been sparked . . . is how to do it. How can you possibly do something?”

This question hangs over Graveyard. The fact that most Awakening groups rarely turn to outward-facing action is hard to ignore. Aside from planting the seeds of self-esteem and sparking an interest in religious and social issues, the groups are, by design, insulated from politics as such. The periodic arrests of religious leaders who became too outspoken have effectively muted the Awakening’s political message. In order to maintain access to the government-run schools and mosques in which they organize, Awakening leaders are often forced to both deny their political intent while also avoiding the appearance of being “too religious.” Thus constrained, the groups have often lost members to disillusionment, or slid into the more innocuous realm of self-improvement. “Many activists I had met seemed to be holding the Quran in one hand and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in another,” Menoret observes.

Cracks in the Kingdom

Indeed, the general impression left by Graveyard is one of frustration, longing, and even futility. By the time Menoret arrives at his final section, “Leaving Islamic Activism Behind,” its title feels inevitable. He chronicles the growing cynicism of many of his subjects, who, exhausted by “the void of the political sphere and the impossibility of organizing within it,” peel off from their former groups. This disillusionment appears to touch him; he confesses of being overwhelmed by the “vast space of suburbia” around him. At the end of the book, Menoret comes close to calling the game in favor of the “state elites,” who “remained in control . . . protected by police repression . . . and also by the massive sprawl they had patiently engineered.”

Yet the closing lines of Graveyard strike a note of hope, however tentative. The conventional wisdom about Saudi Arabia has been unduly pessimistic, Menoret argues. He credits the Awakening for attempting any form of resistance at all, and faults those who seek to measure only its institutional impact—perhaps as much to console himself as to instruct his readers. “One needs to replace a top-down story, that of Islamic activists conquering the state, with a bottom-up one,” he writes. While “taking over the state was never an option” for Islamic activists in Saudi Arabia, “organizing in its cracks was.”

After reading Menoret’s book, I reflected on my own relationship to the kingdom, a place I often found stifling, but which I also grew to love. I can recall fleeting moments of exhilaration while driving along Jeddah’s salt-aired Corniche Road—for many years in the passenger seat, and then, after 2018, behind the wheel. But I also remember seemingly endless, sun-bleached days; lifeless cementscapes; and the simmering frustration I felt as a young woman with nowhere to go. I think of my friends and relatives there, living in financial and social precariousness, suspended between a larger sense of cynicism and their modest, private hopes. I think of the lives they’ve built inside long stretches of ambivalence, of the good times we have had together despite everything.

I also think of the cost others have paid for daring to disturb Saudi Arabia’s inert status quo. Of their loved ones’ laments. Of their frustration. Why did they try? these cries seem to be asking. Nothing ever changes. The House of Saud is still armed to the teeth, still backed by world superpowers. Yet if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that things can always change, and swiftly. In closing his book, Menoret speculates that the Awakening may not be dead “but in abeyance.” At this, I find myself reaching for a phrase I’ve heard in countless political discussions: Allahu ‘alam. “God knows.”

Sarah Aziza is a writer who splits her time between New York City and the Middle East. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Washington Post, Harper’s, and The Intercept, among other publications.

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