Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector in Saudi Arabia

By Montagu, Caroline | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector in Saudi Arabia


Montagu, Caroline, The Middle East Journal


This article looks at the Saudi voluntary sector and its relationship with the ruling family, the Al Sa'ud. It suggests that the voluntary sector in Saudi Arabia is a major agent for socio-political dialogue and social reform and that civil society in Saudi Arabia functions by using traditional forms of social interaction, such as the charitable sector. NGOs constitute an important arena of civil society wherein citizens and the governing Al Sa'ud have the opportunity to carry out a dialogue.

This article focuses on civil society in Saudi Arabia, a surprisingly under-researched and somewhat unrecognized subject. It concentrates in particular on the Saudi voluntary sector and on the development of Saudi associational life as functioning arenas of civil society. Civil society in most Middle East and North African countries has received massive academic attention and a consequent wealth of studies; that of Saudi Arabia has been neglected, receiving relatively little, if any, attention.

Indeed, many people doubt the existence of civil society in Saudi Arabia, supposing that what they see as a hegemonic and primitive monarchy could entertain neither civility nor an associational society. Likewise, informed Western perceptions of the complexity and depth of Saudi Arabian civil society are unfortunately scanty, except for a few scholars.1 Equally, ignorance exists in the West about the prevalence of domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the domestic volunteer sector within Saudi Arabia, though since 9/11, charitable financial conduits funnelling money to al-Qa'ida and other extremist groups have become well known.

The overall Western lack of knowledge about Saudi society and the importance of the voluntary sector in Saudi Arabia skews Western understanding of the country and denies the Kingdom any respect for the development of its traditional charitable institutions and their modern counterparts. Although this lack of knowledge is regrettable, Saudi academics only recently have begun writing about their civil society, and little research has been undertaken by Western academics. The dearth of attention contrasts unfavorably with the wealth of data on, for example, Yemen or Egypt, and reinforces Western views that a comparable civil society does not exist in Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the NGOs, charitable sector, and associations have been major agents for socio-political dialogue and social reform, and provide an essential arena for discussion and dissent between the governing Al Sa'ud family and the people. This role is of course in addition to their traditional social and charitable activities. The NGO sector rarely can make progress on needed political change, but it remains a key player in social reform. Furthermore, the NGOs and the Al Sa'ud are locked together in this process; neither can do without the other. This article looks at the voluntary sector's relations with the Al Sa'ud and at their interdependence. It argues that, contrary to popular perceptions, Saudi society and its exchanges are complex, deep, diverse, and in many cases contradictory. If the voluntary sector is traditionally seen as a key part of civil society, then Saudi Arabia has a thriving civil society, and as a major national force, the voluntary sector is an important driver for social reform and modernization.

CIVIL SOCIETY

The discussion of civil society in Saudi Arabia was eased when in the 1990s the definitions of civil society were broadened, allowing for a wider range of institutions and concepts to become recognized players. Until then Western scholars ignored Arab civil society that occupied the informal and traditional arenas. Western civil society theory describes a relationship between the state and society that in Western terms includes formal voluntary organizations, the rule of law, and - critically - an enabling political or state structure. Augustus Norton in his magnum opus on Middle East civil society defines it: "If democracy - as it is known in the West - has a home, it is in civil society, where a mélange of associations, clubs, guilds, syndicates, federations, unions, parties and groups come together to provide a buffer between state and citizen. …

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