Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Saudi Palace "Open Door" Tradition

A Saudi journalist, Athwan Al-Ahmari, an admitted recipient of the Saudi monarchy’s “open door” handouts wrote an article ( in which he profusely praised King Abdullah for meeting with him and a few Saudi government students in Washington and treating them like his own children. Based on this meeting and two other occasions, this journalist, like many other domestic and foreign Saudi regime drumbeaters, presents a distorted image of the Saudi monarchy’s “open door” tradition. The Saudi “open door” custom is a pre-modern nomadic tradition where tribal chiefs mediate conflicts within their tribes in order to keep them under control. The Saudi ruling family has continued and expanded on this system of control.

The Saudi kings and some members of their family designate certain times and dates when the most marginalized of their disenfranchised subjects can come to the royals’ gargantuan Majjalis and Ghoruf Ta’am (waiting and dining rooms) to eat, air their grievances, and beg for help and handouts. When the royals make their grand entrance, the mostly poverty-stricken, handicapped, elderly, aggrieved, and exclusively male-audience gets up, forms long lines, approaches their host, and kisses his head, shoulder, hand, and occasionally knees. After this servile ritual is concluded, the distressed men hand him a piece of paper with their grievances. The host king or prince is normally surrounded with body guards, advisors and other onlookers, who take custody of the grievances, study the audience, and expedite the process. Most grievances relate to disputed properties, complaints of wrong judgments by the arbitrary judicial system, and unpaid small loans. However, in most cases, these poor attendants are only begging for handouts.

Historically, chiefs, selected through tribal consensus, opened their tents to fellow tribal members to come for coffee, poetry contests, or to settle disputes over land, water wells, and stolen goats. The chiefs received gifts like sheep, horses, camels, milk, butter, dates, and other farm products for their services which included reconciling differences and solving small and large scale problems. The chiefs normally shared their gifts with the givers in a very clever manner. For example, the chiefs would kill a few sheep or a camel and invite the whole community to eat. The hungry guests saw this gesture as a generous offer by the chiefs even though the sheep and camels were previously given to the chiefs by some of the invitees. This voluntary and un-institutionalized tribal process worked well until the establishment of the Saudi State.

After the formation of the Saudi State, the king became the chief (Sultan) of all tribal chiefs and by extension their followers. The chiefs’ loyalties and responsibilities shifted from an informal local, social, and problem-solving arrangement to a policing system where the chiefs of the tribes became representatives of the central authority of the king and defenders of his interests and the security of his territorial sovereignty, the Saudi state. As time passed, the fabric that held the tribal communities together as a supportive and nurturing unit began to physically disintegrate at the local levels. The chiefs and their followers started to identify with the Saudi monarchs and their offspring and depend upon them for food, security, and problem solving. This process reduced the once proud and ferocious chiefs of Arabian tribes and their followers to helpless, child-like, and dependent subjects and the property of the Al-Saud family. The people of Arabia are the only people who are named after the family that tyrannically rules them. They are called “Saudis.”

The monarchs and their sons continued the tradition of “open door rituals” with an entirely different meaning and duplicitous agenda. They eventually opened their palatial and intimidating palaces to all the subjects of their kingdom some of whom would travel for days to seek the monarchs’ wisdom and handouts. The Saudi kings and many of their sons established the system of hand, shoulder, head, and knee kissing by their subdued subjects to ensure their total submission to him and his family. The king continued to moderate conflicts and maintained the power to enforce the royals’ supremacy and decisions regardless of whether the conflicting parties were satisfied with the result or not.

In summary, the highly praised and advertised "open door" tradition under the Saudi royals' system is designed to ensure their subjects' submission to the ruling monarchs and to make sure that the public never forgets who the masters and the servants are. Furthermore, the royals seek to demonstrate through this practice that they are the only ones who can provide justice even though their institutions are responsible for most of their subjects' complaints and long-lasting denigration.

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