January 29, 2010 Special Dispatch No. 2780

Reformist Writer's Account of the Saudi Liberal Movement

January 29, 2010
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 2780

In May, June, and July 2009, Jordanian-American intellectual Shaker Al-Nabulsi published a series of articles on the Saudi liberal movement. One of his premises is that liberalism is a natural outgrowth of Islam, and as such, liberalism's local form is an integral part of Saudi society's life and spirit. He reviewed the history of liberalism in the country, set out several sections of the movement's creed, and explained the obstacles it faces in advancing the liberal agenda in Saudi Arabia.

In his articles, Nabulsi rejects claims by the movement's rivals who insist that it is a foreign transplant in the country, and claims by its critics that it has no impact on the Kingdom. The importance of Saudi liberalism, Nabulsi explains, stems from the position of Saudi Arabia amongst the Arab and Islamic countries.

Nabulsi writes, "Saudi Arabia is the barometer of the Arabs in many matters, and liberalism is one of them. Any advance in liberalism in Saudi Arabia will project positively on the progress of liberalism in the Gulf and in the other Arab countries – while any regression in it will have negative ramifications throughout the Arab world. Saudi Arabia's liberals bear an historic and weighty responsibility."[1]

Nabulsi explains that Saudi liberalism has advanced rapidly in the past four years, following events that traumatized Saudi society: Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait, the events of 9/11, and the attacks in the country by Al-Qaeda and Shi'ite terrorist groups during the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. He says, "These terrorist crimes proved to Saudi intellectuals who were sitting on the fence, not identifying with any element [either liberal or Islamist], that the extremist-fundamentalist stream currently in control was contemptible, bloodthirsty, fanatical – and that this boded ill for the future of the country."[2]

Following are excerpts from Nabulsi's series on Saudi liberalism:

Who Are the Saudi Liberals?

Nabulsi presents the Saudi liberal movement as "large groups of intellectuals, authors, poets, and activists in the realms of culture, the arts, and the press, acting without a central organization, but for a common aim... True, [the Saudi liberal movement] has no organization, no leader, and no spiritual or political father. It is not managed as a unified front, and does not speak with Saudi public opinion as a single group. But... it is present at every event, supports and helps every [trend of] innovation and every [aspect of] progress in the administration of the country."[3]

Nabulsi goes on to give a long list of intellectuals, primarily writers and poets, who were active in Saudi Arabia, particularly in Hijaz, starting in the mid-20th century, which he sees as representative of the beginning of the liberal movement.[4] Among these are Muhammad Hassan 'Awwad, Hamza Shahata, Taher Al-Zamakhshari, 'Aziz Dia, and others who lived and were active during the 20th century, and the writer 'Abdallah 'Abd Al-Jabbar, who is active today in Egypt.

According to Nabulsi, women constitute a major sector of Saudi liberals: "[The liberals] defend women's rights and the necessity of giving women education, work opportunities, and rights like those of men. These efforts are made by dozens of liberal Saudi women journalists who write daily or weekly in the Saudi press, and by dozens of Saudi women poets and writers... It would not be an exaggeration to say that most women... producing various types of writing – articles, research, prose, and poetry – and most women artists too – support liberalism, and preach it, and build it."[5]

The Saudi Liberal Agenda

Nabulsi presents the main issues dealt with by Saudi Arabia's liberals. He says that their social and political agenda are headed by the following:[6]

1) Supporting every government decision leading to change and development.

2) Supporting freedom of thought and opinion, respect for the opinion of the other, refraining from declaring other Muslims to be apostates (takfir), and keeping religion out of political, ideological, cultural, and social disputes.

3) Believing that there is no human mediator between the Muslim and his God, and therefore that clerics must focus on guidance and on preaching for correction, without categorizing Muslims and others as unbelievers and believers.

4) Supporting calls for amending education, particularly religious education, so that it will meet the demands of the modern age.

5) Supporting women's affairs, and in particular the need to give them equality in education and work opportunities, and in civil rights and obligations. Also, supporting equal rights for all Saudi citizens.

6) Encouraging popular participation in the activities of the state and of the government.

7) Supporting government aid to civil society institutions, such as culture clubs, workers' unions, and the like.

8) Encouraging the abolition of bans on the importation of certain books into Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Liberals' Attitude towards Their Rivals – The Islamists

As mentioned, Nabulsi's basic assumption is that liberalism stems from Islam, and that Islam is the source of the Saudi liberals' inspiration for their cultural vision. He describes the liberals' attitude towards Islam and their main ideological and political rivals, the Islamists, as follows:

1) "The liberals believe that the purpose of all religions is to benefit man. There is no religion and no religious text that contravene man's benefit. Islam is the most rational and liberal religion: 'So let him who will believe, and let him who will disbelieve' (Koran, 18:29).' Islam liberated man from worshipping idols; it is Islam that freed the human mind, and called upon it to go out and think, to hope, and to use intelligence in everything concerning human life.

2) "The liberals hold to the Islamic belief that the human mind has a tremendous capacity for great accomplishment throughout history, and that [these accomplishments] are what led man, at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, towards the great scientific achievements that he now possesses.

3) "The [Saudi] liberals do not see the other side, i.e., the Islamists, as the enemy – they see them [merely] as a [rival] group standing against the trend of modernity... The modern Saudi state has from its very beginnings run up against these extremist Islamists, who set themselves against modern phenomena (such as modern transportation, modern media, help from foreign elements... women's involvement in public life, studying abroad, etc.). This group has relinquished [some of] its objections, and in future will gradually relinquish [more of] them in deference to the logic and circumstances of the era, and because its ideas have no place in the agenda of current history. This has in fact happened, although not many predicted it. Where is Saudi Arabia today, and where was it 50 or more years ago?

4) "The liberals believe that the main reason for the Islamists' hatred of the West is their view that it is responsible for the elimination of the Islamic Ottoman caliphate in 1924, and that it is responsible for the end of shari'a rule during the colonialism that was forced upon the Muslims. Therefore, war against the West means jihad in order to reestablish the Islamic Caliphate."[7]

The Liberals' Attitude towards the West

The Saudi liberals' attitude towards the West and Western culture, according to Nabulsi's theory, is complex. On the one hand, the liberal thinkers and movements that ushered in the Enlightenment in the West are viewed by them as a model: "It is the aspiration of most Saudi liberals that the West's scientific, rational, and cultural reality will soon be the Arabs' and Muslims' as well. This does not mean that we will [adopt] every Western [way], including [the West's] unique social values, particularly the moral values concerning women, which have served most of us as a pretext to flee from Western culture...

"The West is not interested and does not devote itself to the spread of its moral values, because its wise members know that any nation's values are the product of a particular culture and a particular climate – like the tropical date palm needs a warm, rainy climate. But there are general values in which everyone believes, and to which all religions preach."[8]

On the other hand, Nabulsi states, the liberals are forced to defend themselves against their critics, who claim that liberalism is a foreign Western element that the local liberals are trying to bring into their country. Nabulsi devotes a considerable part of his articles to disproving these claims. He says that every society has its own liberal movement, with its own unique characteristics, and that these movements have similarities, including similar mechanisms: Just as there is British, French, or American liberalism, there is also Saudi liberalism.

He said that the fear of Western liberalism as a type of cultural colonialism is unwarranted, because "Western liberalism belongs to the West, not to us. The West has not mobilized armies to impose its liberalism on us, and it is not going to do so."[9]

Achievements of Saudi Liberalism

Nabulsi presents a list of Saudi liberals' achievements, including backing reform moves by the Saudi government, achievements in cultural offerings, increased openness in the Saudi media, the advance of the struggle for women's rights, and the visible presence of Saudi liberals among the political commentators in all Arab media:

1) "Saudi liberalism represents the fundamental basis, the strong prop, and the enlightened sector [that supports] all measures of reform in all areas of the Saudi state and society. [The positive feedback regarding these measures from liberal intellectuals] reassured the political leadership about the integrity of its moves, the justness of its expectations, and the sincerity of its goals.

2) "Saudi liberalism is highly representative of modern Saudi culture, including stories, poems, biographies, social research, and other cultural genres, in addition to all forms of the plastic arts...

3) "The Saudi liberal stream has contributed much to the development of Saudi media, and to the openness [that characterizes it] today. This is particularly [apparent] in the press, where self-criticism is more possible than in the other media. A careful look every day at the bold and dedicated self-criticism in newspapers such as Al-Watan, Al-Riyadh, 'Okaz, Al-Jazirah, and Al-Yawm, in the Saudi papers published abroad, and on the liberal websites attest to the great progress of Saudi liberalism. However, there is a long way to go...

4) "Credit should be given to the Saudi liberal movement for its positive position on women's rights, and women's equality to men with regard to education and work opportunities... The Saudi liberals may be the only ones to take this positive stand vis-à-vis women's rights, which stem from rights set out by Islam. This stand is accompanied by a modern point of view that looks broadly at the situation of women in the rest of the world, and in the Islamic world in particular.

5) "Saudi Arabia has a group of liberal political commentators – media stars – who light up the Saudi sky with their articles and with their illuminating political discussions on the television channels. Without naming names, so as not to overlook anyone, it can be said that, as far as their knowledge and objectivity goes, Saudi liberal political commentators do not fall short of their colleagues outside Saudi Arabia, who enjoy a much greater degree of freedom." [10]

Nabulsi also mentions "the new Saudi national education, which the Saudi political authorities are encouraging and implementing," as well as "the national dialogue conferences, held in recent years, beginning in 2003," and "the interfaith and intercultural dialogue which Saudi Arabia led," characterizing them as moves made possible by the support of the country's liberals.[11]

The Obstacles Facing Saudi Liberals

Nabulsi goes on to list the following elements that he perceives as obstructions for Saudi liberals:

1) "The liberal movement is a clear threat to the interests of their fanatical opponents, [the Islamists], who see liberalism not only as a 'repulsive imported Western commodity' but also as a threat to their own societal, cultural, and economic status."

2) "The discrepancy between Saudi Arabia's economic development and social development has caused social opposition to all liberal phenomena brought in by the economic development."

3) "Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s the country hosted political Islam leaders who had been expelled from their own countries, along with their groups of followers... It was the main ideologues among them who drew up the religious and ideological curricula [for the Saudi schools] and compiled entire books that are studied in the country's schools... Thus they set formidable obstacles for the liberal movement, for opportunities for change, and for measures promoting development and modernization..."[12]

4) "The confusion between Western liberalism and Saudi liberalism [and the depiction of Saudi liberalism as an emulation] of the values, customs, and ideas of Western liberalism, are one of the frustrating obstacles [holding Saudi liberalism back]. Particularly considering that the Muslim Brotherhood has fostered its black and fanatical ideas towards the other, particularly towards the West, onto Saudi society."

5) "The greatest obstacle in the path of the advancement of liberalism in Saudi Arabia is the movement's inflexibility – its lack of sufficient ability to reconcile with the other side [i.e. the Islamists], which doesn't possess the slightest flexibility or ability to reconcile, either."[13]


[1] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 20, 2009.

[2] Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, May 16, 2009.

[3] Al-Watan Saudi Arabia, May 23, 2009.

[4] Al-Watan, (Saudi Arabia), July 18, 2009. The list of figures active throughout the second half of the 20th century is aimed at disproving the claim that the liberal movement in Saudi Arabia is a new phenomenon that began in the 90s.

[5] Al-Watan, (Saudi Arabia), June 27, 2009.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) May 23, 2009.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) May 30, 2009.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 30, 2009.

[9] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 30, 2009.

[10] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 13, 2009.

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 27, 2009.

[12] During these decades, Saudi Arabia took in prominent figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and other political Islam movements, including Muhammad Qutb (the brother of fundamentalist Sayyed Qutb) who came to the country in 1972 and was given the post of lecturer in Islamic studies at Al-Qara University in Mecca.

[13] Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, June 20, 2009.

Share this Report: