An interview with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Feisal. “Saudi Arabia is changing at an incredibly quick pace,” he says. Looks as if he’s right, eh? Wow! Women drivers! Of course, it isn’t legal yet. From Spiegel Online, with thanks to Gabrielle Goldwater:
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Saudi Arabia has continually delayed implementing urgently needed reforms. Why is it going so slowly and why are reformers having such a hard time of it?
Saud al-Feisal: Saudi Arabia is changing at an incredibly quick pace, but we can’t allow ourselves any experiments. The primary goal of the government is to strengthen the inner cohesion of our country. Even the western democracies didn’t develop within just a few years. It took centuries, for example, until Great Britain gave women the vote.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The nation’s founder, Abd al-Asis Ibn Saud, and your father, King Feisal, introduced girl’s schools, telephones and television against the opposition of the conservatives. But today, the government can’t even seem to push the concept of driver’s licenses for women through.
Saud al-Feisal: In the 1950s or 60s, it was also much easier to introduce the telephone or telegraph than it is to allow women to drive today. It is a cultural and a societal question that is faced with deep-seated opposition.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you, personally, support the idea?
Saud al-Feisal: I am for it. Not just for philosophical and political reasons, but also for practical ones. It is not a religious question. Nowhere in the Koran is it written that women are not allowed to drive cars. In any case, there are many other — and more important — rights that have to be granted to women; like the right to vote, for example or the right to follow the career path they wish. There is also nothing in the Koran that would speak against these reforms either.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In mid-May, religious judges sentenced three Saudi intellectuals to six, seven and nine years in prison because they demanded that Saudi Arabia be transformed into a constitutional monarchy. Human rights groups are outraged.
Saud al-Feisal: I cannot speak about the judges in detail, but I was in fact disturbed by the fact that human rights observers were expelled from the court room during this trial. The federal prosecutor who was representing the government in the case pled for them to be admitted as observers.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does that not clearly show that the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia have the last word today?
Saud al-Feisal: The power of religion is not a negative power to us; rather, it is, as Crown Prince Abdullah repeatedly points out, a power that we must use in order to keep together our society. Where we do have a problem is with takfir — in other words, the tendency to denigrate people who think differently as heretics, as apostates …
SPIEGEL ONLINE: … and by declaring holy war against them. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Saudi residents are currently in Iraq fighting for the jihad. Does that alarm you?
Saud al-Feisal: We are very alarmed by that and we are doing our best to cut off recruitment in our country and to dry up their funding sources. Our border with Iraq is secure and the Iraqi government has now agreed to provide us with lists of Saudi citizens currently in Iraq. That is very good because as soon as we know we are dealing with one of our own citizens, we can help.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why is it that so many young Saudis turn their backs on their homeland to fight in foreign wars as Mujahedeen?
Saud al-Feisal: It is related to the images they see every day that come out of Iraq and Palestine. They consider what they see there to be an unjust war against Muslims. And in this part of the world, the principle of justice is of fundamental meaning. If a Saudi Arabian feels that he is being treated fairly, according to the same standards that are also valid for everyone else, he will always accept it. However, if he feels an injustice is being inflicted upon him, he will battle against it until his death. These days, you can’t just proceed against terrorism using the military. The problems in Iraq and Palestine have been thrusted upon us. They must be solved politically.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Twenty three years ago, King Fahd proposed a peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Nothing ever became of it.
Saud al-Feisal: There will be no peace as long as long as the conflicting parties don’t make compromises and move towards each other. From where we are at today, we consider it to be Israel’s move.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Israel is now going to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
Saud al-Feisal: That could be a good first step, if it is followed by others. But it will not be enough if other problems are not solved — especially the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In other words, if Israel capitulates further, we will make more progress.