Poetry, fiction, philosophy and literary critism – areas of expression usually regarded as too other-worldly to concern governments – have been falling into the arms of the Saudi bureau with its traditional combination of financial largesse and censorship.
Under directives approved by the Ministry of Culture and Information last Friday, the country’s literary clubs must now have a license to operate. They must have the stated goal of promoting Arabic literary and cultural activities. The new rules impose a host of other requirement governing membership, voting for leaders, residency and professional requirements. They set a uniform annual membership fee of 300 riyals ($80).
But, if the muse isn’t free in Saudi Arabia, it is paid for. Already heavily financed by the government, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in February allocated an additional 160 million riyals ($43 million) for the clubs as part of a package of handouts he announced after returning from extended hospitalization in the U.S.
Human rights advocates say that the money and the rules are two sides of the same coin -- a policy of ensuring that no dissent arises in the kingdom and that no group is ever far from the government’s watchful eye or deep pockets. While Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms have largely avoided the wave of democratic protests gripping the Middle East, they have ensured quiet with generous subsidies and job creation programs while imposing new restrictions.
In late April, Saudi Arabia introduced new amendments to its media law. The amendments criminalize publishing materials that harm the Grand Mufti, members of the religious establishment and government officials. The fine for offenders was raised 10-fold from 50,000 riyals to 500,000.
The Ministry of Culture has a special department for literary clubs, and its director-general, Abdullah Al-Afandi, told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily that his ministry believed in the "role of the intellectual in spreading awareness in society." In fact, the new rules for literary clubs don’t entail any direct censorship, but critics say their aim is to clamp down on organizations that risk acting too independently and might serve as a springboard to overtly political activity. Government subsidies further limit independent activity.
“Why do you need the government to tell you how to run a society?” asked an anonymous talkback in the English-language Arab News. “Ah, of course, they are afraid you might get the idea that you can do things yourself.”
Cristoph Wilcke, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who specializes in Saudi Arabia, called the Culture Ministry the “main censor" of the government. "When literary clubs host controversial writers, for instance, the police clamps down on them."
"Saudi Arabia has no form of civil society, everything is government controlled," Wilcke told The Media Line. "There’s no law that governs NGOs [non-government organizations], and each entity functions under a law created uniquely for it."
The literary clubs, which exist in almost every Saudi city, are tiny outposts of free expression and women’s rights.
Many Saudi writers aren’t allowed to publish their work in the kingdom because they are censored by the Ministry of Culture. They often end up sending their manuscripts for publication in Beirut; back at home their work is disseminated by readings at the clubs.
Fawzia Al-Bakr, an education professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, said the risk of political opposition spreading was small since the clubs are attended mostly by small crowds of intellectual elites and the government closely monitors their activities.
"These meetings are usually allowed to go ahead because authorities are
given the program in advance and know exactly what is going to be said,"
she told The Media Line. "Everything here is dependent on the
government. It's the government which finances the activities, so we
need to obey the rules."
Al-Bakr said clubs weren’t limited to literature, but discussed such diverse topics as philosophy and poetry.
In a country that practices strict segregation of the sexes, women were
officially allowed to join the literary clubs last June, and on Monday
Culture Minister Abdul Aziz Khoja told Okaz daily that he didn’t object
to women heading the clubs. Wilcke said that in the past Saudi religious
police harassed clubs that opened their doors to women in cities, such
Fawzia Al-Bakr, who was herself was offered membership in a club last
year but declined it, said the literary clubs are some of the only
venues in the kingdom where men and women could congregate together.