Following the Arab Spring, there have been suggestions that the image of the Middle East has been improved, according to some mystical set of standards, and that the need to dispel stereotypes is no more. I believe this is false, the framework around the Middle East, on whole, has not changed. The Orientalist and Islamophobic lenses remain firmly before the eyes of analysts, even adopted by some locals of the Middle East themselves, who chose to practice ‘self-Orientalism’. Recently, I have become interested in whether this problem of framework does, or does not, plague the field of Middle East Studies. So far, the most successful classes I have come across were ‘Arab Revolutions’, with Mark Levine, and ‘Middle East Narratives’, with Daniel Brunstetter, as both incorporated voices directly from the Middle East, either via guest speakers or Skype calls, and both placed an emphasis on historical context. It was not so much what was being said by these ‘voices of the Middle East’ that added value, rather, it was the simple attempt to dispel the prevalent ‘Otherness’ that is perceived about the region.
Over the past quarter, however, in which I took two US Foreign Policy classes, I have been introduced to a new brand of Middle East Studies. The first of these classes issued a disclaimer at its start that the class will span a history of America’s relation to the world, except the Middle East. I haven’t the slightest idea why. The second class, while well intentioned, offered analysis of the Middle East no deeper than a Thomas Freidman article. “Saudi Arabia is like a pile of sand. And if you poke it, oil will burst out. Kuwait is just a smaller version, it’s about the size of this campus!”, explained my professor. While I busied myself, looking around for the nearest hard surface to bash my head on.
He went on to say how “volatile” the region is, and that the Arab Spring meant only problems for Washington. A student asked what the Arab Spring “in countries like Saudi Arabia” would mean – at which point I felt like the ‘problem child’ of a family. My professor responded that he wasn’t too sure, but that there were “terrorist sympathizers” in “those kind of countries”. I watched as my fellow classmates feverously took notes. For them, his opinion was Truth. It was one of those moments when you are faced with a choice: should I just let it go? Or, do I bother pointing out how his viewpoint itself hinges on the assumption that anything is only worthy if it is stable, predictable, and in accordance with the desires of Washington, while all else, apparently, is “terrorist sympathizing”. I grew frustrated; he had stripped Saudi Arabia of its diverse peoples, complex history, and current changes. I was also resentful of how he managed to portray the Arab Spring as ‘scary’ by pointing to its supposed inevitable Clash with ‘Terrorists’, all while alarming my impressionable classmates in the process.
As a result, later in the course, I found myself using the open-ended essay assignment as an opportunity to list “proofs” that “change” was happening in Saudi Arabia, and that it was more than a terrorist-loving pile of sand. Only after submitting it did I realize that, although I was trying to problematize his flat commentary, I only did so by pointing to examples that aligned with what I knew he would consider “US values”. I came to the frustrating conclusion that I had just succumbed to the temptation of arguing within his same framework of judgment. And it is a temptation, isn’t it? It is tempting to practice the far easier method of simplifying Saudi Arabia, and more broadly the Arab Spring. It is easy to idealize it, and point to all the aspects that we know will please whomever it is we’re debating with.
But the fact is that the “Arab Spring” is a term fit only for the relativists’ playground. There is simply no way around it; it has been assigned different meaning by different people, and you will find elements within it from absolutely every single strand of political thought. As a result, very little can be said generally about the Arab Spring. In fact, it’s questionable whether anything can be said of it at all. But that is the role of the writer, isn’t it? To at least try and create meaning around what they observe, while acknowledging that the influence of perspective is always present when doing so.
And so, in this post, I will symbolically resubmit that essay, leaving behind the pressure of appealing to a Thomas Friedman–like professor. I will attempt to look at what the Arab Spring has meant for current Saudi political discourse, how it has fueled the rights movement that is being pioneered by the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), resulting in arrests and trials of its co-founders, as well as highlight a few cases of Saudi citizens who have witnessed its activities and explore the patterns of exclusion and Otherizing throughout.
I recall the moment I read a tweet by Mohammed al-Qahtani, one of the ACPRA co-founders on trial, in which he wrote, “the government wanted to intimidate us (himself and fellow activists Abdullah al-Hamid) by putting us on trial, so we have decided to put the government on trial!”. Is it possible, I wondered, for two individuals to put an entire government on trial? Do they really have the power to do so? Continue reading