The problem with Saudi liberals

Sunday 01/05/2016

The biggest problem that liberals in Saudi Arabia face is that nobody likes them. For the most part, the people of Saudi Arabia simply do not like the liberals and only a tiny minority hold, or are even interested in hearing about, similar political views.
Saudi Arabia’s liberals suffer a real lack of connection with ordinary people. In the eyes of many, these people are out of touch with the daily concerns of ordinary Saudis. They fail to engage with other Saudis, use language that does not resonate with them and talk about topics that do not concern them.
Instead, liberals are more focused on using social media to enter dense theoretical debates with anybody who disagrees with them. The problem? The people they are debating with are similarly out of touch with the majority of Saudis and their concerns. They do not engage with working-class Saudis but, rather, academics and intellectuals like themselves.
The discourse that is used by Saudi liberals walls them off completely from ordinary people, who have no chance to understand the ideas and arguments that liberals are trying to get across, let alone adopt. This is the reality that people in Saudi Arabia face from academics and theorists in their midst.
This is a huge gap between the liberals and ordinary Saudis, wherever they come from and whatever their background.
The liberals call, ceaselessly, for justice, democratic accountability and greater freedoms and protections — ideals ordinary Saudis should be in favour of. Despite this, a wall exists between those who are advocating for more freedom for the people and the people whose freedom they are advocating.
This is a problem that must be addressed directly, particularly as it is one that is only getting worse, as can be seen from the liberals’ troubling position on religion, which is very important to most Saudis.
In addition, the way liberals seek to set out their arguments and views indicates that they are as concerned about winning fame and renown as they are about actually achieving their idealised objectives. The people feel that Saudi liberals are selfishly concerned with their own interests, seeking to lead public opinion rather than engaging in real debate with the people, who are ultimately ignored and left out of the dialogue.
This is a dangerous state of affairs that has served to strengthen those who advocate dangerous views, including sectarianism and extremism.
The vacuum being left by liberals allows such preachers, who are able to engage with ordinary people in their own terms and speak their language, to gain popularity. These hate preachers convince people with their flawed arguments and gain popular support because they appeal to average Saudis emotionally, not just based on ideas. They might not know who John Locke or Adam Smith are but they are able to incite the passion of the masses. This is something that modern Saudi liberals are simply not able to do.
The liberals are trying to promote rights and are seeking to change laws, including calling for greater women’s rights. However, they seek to pursue this in an overtly sensational manner that is ultimately self-defeating, particularly as the Saudi government said it will respond to many of the demands for change, including pursuing a democracy that is consistent with the vision of the Saudi people.
Saudi liberals must learn how to engage with the Saudi people, and on what issues, if they want to be able to effect change.