Saturday, March 18, 2006

Saudi Arabia, socialism and Islam

Today I took part in the anti-war demonstration in central London. It seems to have attracted relatively more mainstream peaceniks and rather fewer lefties and Islamists than similar marches in previous years. Nevertheless, I'll use the occasion as an opportunity to republish this article, which was written following a visit to Saudi Arabia four years ago. It originally appeared in the 9 November 2002 edition of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty publication Solidarity.

George Orwell himself probably could not have thought up a name as archetypically Orwellian as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. But that is the name the police go by in Saudi Arabia, and their control of public space is almost total. Riyadh is what the fictional 1984 looks like in the actual 2002.

Punishment for the slightest criticism of the system is harsh. Torture, amputations and executions are routine. There are no political parties, no elections, no independent judiciary, and no independent human rights organisations. Welcome to a country described by Tony Blair as 'a good and dependable friend to the civilised world'.

It is a good and dependable friend to the US in particular, which has based around 20,000 troops there since 1991. Saudi Arabia deserves the description of imperialist client state every bit as much as Israel. And it is no secret why the west sponsors this particular client. It is home to 25% of proven world oil reserves.

But how should socialists understand Saudi politics? It is probably more useful to consider Saudi Arabia as a capitalist dictatorship that exploits religion to secure legitimation rather than a genuine theocracy.

True, the monarchy justifies its rule by King Fahd's formal title of 'custodian of the two holy mosques'. But for the royal family and its hangers-on - a milieu saturated with Johnny Walker Black and imported prostitutes - the pretence of Islamic conviction is a mere flag of convenience. If devout they be at all, their devotion is to the oil wealth that has made them the contemporary personification of Mammon.

Muslim radicals see the House of Saud in the same light as Trotskyists regarded the ruling class in the former USSR, misruling in the name of their highest ideals. They would consider it, so to speak, a 'degenerate Islamic state'. And on some accounts, the country may now be close to Islamic 'political revolution'.

Leading commentators have argued that such is the distaste for the decadent ruling elite, a single inflammatory speech from a radical cleric is all it would take to bring the regime's collapse. In the homeland of Osama bin Laden and almost all of the September 11 hi-jackers, that could come at any time, without the slightest warning. What would emerge would truly be an ideologically-driven Islamic fundamentalist state, with incalculable consequences across the Middle East.

Earlier this year I spent several weeks on a journalistic assignment in Saudi Arabia, visiting Jeddah, Riyadh and the oil-dominated Eastern Province, a virtual state within a state controlled by Saudi Aramco.

The first challenge was getting in at all. Visa applications from journalists are routinely refused, so I was forced to lie about my occupation. The next difficulty came in even arranging interviews. I wasn't looking for controversy, but rather for information on the oil and tanker shipping sectors, with a view to the sort of routine analysis that fills the pages of the western business press.

But such is the fear of even accidentally falling foul of the state that several people halted appointments after a few minutes, once it became clear that I was a reporter. Others spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Nor was the local media much of a source of information. The English language press reported little beyond the latest Israeli atrocities in Palestine and the speeches of prominent mosque leaders, while many internet destinations were blocked.

There was no question of getting out and talking to ordinary people. Although there isn't a curfew, there might as well be. No public entertainment is available whatsoever. Saudi Arabia is one of only two countries in the world that forbids cinemas. Western films circulate legally in video format, although strict censorship sees even kissing scenes scissored out.

With public consumption of alcohol strictly prohibited, there are no bars. The few coffee shops are inhabited exclusively by men, and closed by evening. The position of women remains worse than the position of blacks under apartheid.

In South Africa, blacks could at least wear what they liked, drive cars and trucks, or eat in black sections of restaurants without white accompaniment. In Saudi Arabia, the veil is strictly enforced, while women are denied driving licenses and can only eat out if accompanied by a male family member, in specially segregated 'family sections' of restaurants.

Saudi Arabia's social structure is unique. The royal family is absolutely parasitic on the country's oil wealth, which enables it sustain a bloated state bureaucracy that - until around a decade ago - was able to guarantee employment to all Saudi men .

Most productive work is undertaken by the five million or more non-nationals in a population of 23 million. A relatively small layer of mainly European or middle class Indian expatriates dominate professional and managerial jobs.

Most Britons I spoke to were earning around the same as they would in a similar job at home. But because salaries are tax free, and accommodation on one of the so-called 'compounds' for westerners part of the package, in real terms they were about twice as well off.

Many were younger people intending to work five or ten years and save what they could. Others were typically older men seeking a new start after collapsed marriages.

Expat life is made more bearable by compound parties thrown almost every night of the week, fuelled by home-brewed hooch and casual sex, and largely tolerated by the authorities. Such behaviour is probably more a reflection of their alienation than the desire for a good time.

There are in addition millions of immigrant workers - Filipinos, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis - doing the manual jobs, working the waterfront, driving the taxis and cleaning the hotel rooms. They are again there for the money, and most will freely tell you that they hate the place.

Until the immediate past, the native Saudi proletariat was almost non-existent. But with mass unemployment in recent years - perhaps reaching 20%, although the government sits on the statistics - there has been a policy known as 'saudisation'.

Private companies are faced with the requirement to fill an increasing proportion of jobs with Saudi nationals each year. In a bid to diversify away from oil, the state has also sought industrialisation, constructing purpose-built cities such as Jubail, with its huge petrochemical plants.

For the first time, there is now a layer of Saudis in blue collar work. But as far as anyone is aware, there are not even the first stirrings of trade unionism, let alone socialist organisation.

Normally one of the first things I do when visiting a country on assignment is to seek out local leftists and arrange face-to-face discussions. But Saudi Arabia is one of the few large countries in the world to lack a known socialist current of any description, even in exile.

Yet there is said to be massive discontent just below the surface. While normal methods of socialist agitation are almost impossible, one possibility of revolutionary contagion did occur to me. Most guest workers earn enough to make annual visits to the families left behind in their countries of origin. Pakistan and the Philippines have both seen growth of Trotskyist trends in recent years.

But the likelihood must be that Islamic fundamentalism will fill any vacuum long before socialists ever could. What attitude should we take to insurrection, if and when it comes?

'Left' and 'right' are meaningless adjectives applied to official politics in Saudi Arabia. Of course we have no truck with the monstrous regime in Riyadh.

But to argue that socialists therefore should back clerical uprising as somehow an 'objectively anti-imperialist' progressive alternative to the existing government fails to convince me at all. Tragically, that is a mistake which much of the British left - unable to grasp the ideas of Third Camp politics - could shortly make.

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