Exiled Saudi Arabian Academic Speaks at CSI Lecture

ZURICH – “Saudi intervention has led to the suppression of peaceful protest and the demise of democratic forces in the Arab world,” warned Dr. Madawi al-Rasheed at a public lecture sponsored by Christian Solidarity International on Tuesday: “The empowerment of the Saudi regime by its Western allies has led to the spread of Saudi religious and social norms” in the region, including intolerance of religious minorities and marginalization of women.

In a public lecture in Zurich, Switzerland, al-Rasheed described a multi-pronged Saudi strategy to counter forces of democratization in the region after the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011. The Saudi regime “feared the transformative potential inside Saudi Arabia itself” of these uprisings, which initially resulted in the overthrow of Saudi allies in Tunisia and Egypt, al-Rasheed noted.

In response, al-Rasheed said, the Saudi regime used its oil wealth to prop up Arab monarchies and military regimes, and sent troops to put down Bahrain’s peaceful uprising. In Syria, the regime supported violent Islamists and helped to transform the Syrian uprising from “peaceful protests” into a civil war with “an incredible death toll.” Finally, in “a new, worrying change in Saudi foreign policy,” the regime, after being armed for decades by Western powers, has now embarked on “direct military intervention” in Yemen, resulting in a “humanitarian catastrophe in the poorest Arab country.”

“The most sinister impact of Saudi Arabian intervention” in the region, al-Rasheed warned, “is the sectarianization of these conflicts.” In Syria and elsewhere, “those who have the means of coercion, who can terrorize the population” – often militant Islamists sponsored by Saudi Arabia –“are gaining ground. Peaceful actors are not listened to.” Because of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of sectarian forces in the region, “sectarianism has become the only way for people to promote their causes, whether they are Sunni or Shi’a.”

As a result, “what we are witnessing now is the rise of religious nationalism” in the Arab world, an “extremely dangerous” movement that seeks the “homogenization of religious beliefs and practices.” “Religious minorities will be the first victims,” al-Rasheed predicted, but “nobody will be safe from it,” especially if it migrates from the Arab world to Europe and other regions.

“As long as the Saudi regime is able to project its power in the region, there will be no scope for the emergence of democratic forces,” al-Rasheed concluded. “The real change must happen in Saudi Arabia itself.”

Madawi al-Rasheed, a Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, is the author of A History of Saudi Arabia and most recently A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics and Religion in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime has revoked Dr. al-Rasheed’s passport in retaliation for her academic activities, and Saudi citizens found with her books have been punished by the state.

Her lecture was part of Christian Solidarity International’s continuing series on The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East. A video of her talk is available at www.middle-east-minorities.com.