International Book Fair in Riyadh: Treading the Line between Censorship and Cautious Change

Analysis, posted 04.06.2012, from Saudi Arabia, in:
International Book Fair in Riyadh: Treading the Line between Censorship and Cautious Change (Photo: Qantara.de)

An Iraqi Shiite author, dressed as a British gentleman, strolls between the book stands. The previous evening, he presented a new book. His works criticise religious fanaticism and refer to the rational roots of Islam. He is stopped by fans at every turn. They ask him questions or praise his work.

The only unusual aspect of this scene is that it occurs in the Saudi capital Riyadh, a place were Shiites are generally regarded as a potential threat, and the official doctrine is strictly Sunni.

The Riyadh International Book Fair takes place every year in March – a cultural highlight on an otherwise rather dreary Saudi cultural calendar. The Saudi domestic political scene has been similarly monotone over the past year: While other Arabs tried their hand at rebellion with a variety of outcomes, Internet activists were unable to initiate a protest movement in Saudi Arabia.

The government reacted by banning demonstrations as "un-Islamic", and deploying troops in a show of force. Apart from isolated incidents and small Shiite demonstrations in the Eastern Province, the country remained calm. The King announced in parallel far-reaching social and residential construction programmes as well as the establishment of a new anti-corruption authority. These were measures aimed at placating the young in particular.

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By Ulrike Freitag; Translated by Nina Coon

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