Why did Saudi Arabia’s Sheikh Ghamidi succeed?

Saudi society concerns are still at the forefront and come before political, livelihood and artistic issues

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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The enormity of stock market losses, the drop in oil prices for the first time in years, ISIS massacres, terrorists' attacks in Riyadh and its suburbs and the football fever have all faded in Saudi Arabia this week in the shadow of one single story. Sheikh Ahmad Qassem al-Ghamidi appeared with his unveiled wife on television. According to Saudi local standards, this is tantamount to a nuclear bomb and the story soon developed into a controversy that hasn't settled yet on all platforms and levels.

This may seem like a silly issue in any other Muslim country but in Saudi Arabia it has shocked and angered many and become an amazing surprise to those in support of Ghamidi's move. The event thus confirms a severe division within Saudi society which consists of movements that express its diversity. Some threatened to sue Al-Ghamidi, though I don't know over what! While other considered him a modernizing pioneer whom history will immortalize. The certain truth is that Sheikh Ghamidi has shocked Saudi public opinion and reshuffled views once again - although many before him have made such a move, he's actually the first cleric to do so. Ghamidi has assumed influential religious posts and has accepted to be challenged by his rivals who accused him of hypocrisy and advising others of what he cannot do. It's on colleague Badria al-Bishr's show on MBC television that Ghamidi appeared with his unveiled wife in defiance of others, and Saudi media arenas became gripped in this controversy ever since.

Defying traditional norms

Truth be told, what's new does not only lie in the sheikh's boldness to defy traditional norms but also in the space of freedom which allowed the transmission of forbidden messages. It lies in the media figures' courage, some clerics being content to voice their opinions against Ghamidi without pursuing him and in the youths', sheikhs', women's and men's engagement in the controversy. Ghamidi's move created an atmosphere and a developed environment for interaction.

Modernization, not inactivity is the natural process

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Saudi society concerns are still at the forefront and come before political, livelihood and artistic issues although many try to play them down because they believe they are made up. They thus don't admit or rather fail to recognize the nature of social changes which accompany the passing of generations, the role of technology in daily life, as well as that of financial capability, education and travelling. All of these are important developing aspects which influence society regardless of how many continue to oppose them.

How do we detect social change and influence? I think this is the deficient aspect as few researches and polls have been conducted and even less have been published or actually have enough credibility to enable us to understand and evaluate what's happening and whether it's just bubbles or natural and real social change.

Sheikh Ahmad has succeeded in dragging those who oppose him to the square he wants – that of the wide public discussion. There are many squares in the country, like local universities who alone include more than 700,000 students representing the next generation which is strongly immersed in social networking and is interacting with what's being said much more than people have done before them. Therefore, modernization, not inactivity is the natural process here. Dialogue occurs in a healthy atmosphere as long as it has not been banned and as long as those engaged in the controversy only seek to gain the public opinion's support instead of imposing their opinions.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on December 18, 2014.


Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

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