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Resistance from the Closet: Saudi Arabia’s Legitimacy ‘Checkmate’

Many Saudis continue to perceive homosexuality as an indulgence instead of an indication of “lifelong patterns of sexual orientation” – as is commonly understood in the West. This thinking alludes to Michael Foucault’s earlier theoretical conception of sexuality in The History of Sexuality that had likewise sought to separate sexual behavior from sexual identity. Through instruments of Sharia (Islamic law) and the mutaween (religious police), however, the Saudi state ostensibly continues to repress homosexual behavior – in line with the preservation of the state-engendered Wahhabi ideology, and by extension, the image of an ideal Islamic state.

Analyses of resistance movements within the Saudi gay community would however seem to suggest an alternative narrative – that strategies employed by the Saudi regime in controlling sexuality within the Kingdom pander less towards Islamic fervor and obligation as commonly believed to be, but instead serve to maintain the monarchy’s own legitimacy campaign.

In “Al-Saud and Islam in Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Revival,” William Ochsenwald details the resilience of the Al-Saud regime, premising both the kingdom’s raison d’etre and survivability of the regime upon a historically-engendered political union between the Al-Saud monarchy and Wahhabi revivalists. This union is represented most clearly by the provision of theology by revivalists in parallel to the monarchy’s preservation of these religious values and practices through its civil leadership. What this implies for the ruling elite then is that legitimacy of the Saudi government is premised upon religiosity – an actuality that has been symbolized through the regime’s adoption of the Qur’an as the state constitution.

Rhetoric and Resistance

Unsurprising to many, the Saudi state continues to maintain a highly draconian stance against homosexual behavior – with married individuals facing death via stoning while those unmarried continue to face flogging and even banishment. The regime has in addition espoused heavy-handed rhetoric targeted against homosexuality as exemplified in March 2014 when the head of the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, presented a sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca that alluded to homosexuality as a malady that “seeks to strip man of his humanity…(and) violates the sanctity of Allah.”

Analyses of resistance by Saudi individuals who engage in homosexual behavior may however suggest an alternative narrative of Al-Saud’s rule. Given that homosexuality manifests not as an identity in Saudi Arabia, it is problematic to assume resistance as immediate demands for acknowledgements and rights as often mirrored by marches in the Western world. Instead, resistance here must be conceived as deviance from Saudi law, specifically, the engagement in homosexual behavior within ‘closeted’ domains that is reached neither by sharia nor the mutaween.

Nadya Labi’s “The Kingdom in the Closet” has conspicuously highlighted such uninhibited expressions of homosexual behavior in the Saudi state, revealing that communities of men who engage in homosexual behavior can easily be found in cities like Jeddah and Riyadh. In addition, “as long as gays and lesbians maintain a public front of obeisance to Wahhabi norms…the kingdom leaves considerable space for homosexual behaviour” – with one man going as far as calling Riyadh, the Saudi capital, a “gay heaven.”

The prevalence of deviance, however, cannot be ascribed to mere inadequacies of law enforcement. This is especially the case where evidence would seem to suggest a deliberate nonchalance by Saudi authorities in policing homosexual behavior. Despite what the law contends, there have been no executions for homosexuality for years in Saudi Arabia, with the last execution dating back fifteen years to January 2002. This remains the case despite a Saudi diplomat in Washington having had confirmed that “sodomy” remains prevalent amongst consenting males “on a daily basis” in Saudi Arabia, admitting that even the head of the religious police had long acknowledged the presence of a Saudi gay population.

These inconsistencies, between rhetoric and policing, must however be analysed within Saudi understandings of homosexuality – framed as behavioural occurrences, instead of constituting a static attribute of individual identity. Thus, the state holds little to no qualms in reconciling such behaviour with the greater Islamic identity of the Saudi state. Homosexual behaviour is understood therefore as a non-political deviation that – when conducted within private domains – remains innocuous to the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia’s exaggerated rhetoric against homosexuality, as well as the seeming invisibility of sexual minorities in the kingdom, continue to merely uphold and perpetuate the illusion of a united and legitimate Islamic state, instead of actual compliance to religious tenets.

Rationalising Emasculation

Homosexual behaviour however presents a separate type of threat to the Al-Saud regime – one that has less to do with Islam than with Saudi state identity. As Eleanor Doumato has posited in “Gender, Monarchy and National Identity in Saudi Arabia,” state identity in the Saudi kingdom, rooted deeply within its patriarchal history, remains premised upon the conception of a ‘masculine’ state where the nation exists as a myth within the Saudi dominion as one vast exclusive tribal family patronised by the masculine Al-Saud regime at the top – a strategy aimed at unifying tribal differences and other rifts within Saudi society. This ‘masculine’ image has been preserved primarily through controls over women that have maintained the integrity of the patriarchal family unit.

Strategies aimed at controlling women however presuppose the establishment of clear demarcations between Saudi men and women, as exemplified with controls over dressing, gender segregation in public domains and the like that continue to reproduce distinct conceptions of masculinity and femininity within Saudi society. What this means to say is that the durability of the ‘masculine’ national identity rests upon the signification of the masculine and the feminine.

The issue that arises therefore, given the Saudi conception of homosexuality, lies not within sexual (mis)behaviour, but instead the emasculation of the masculine self which threatens the Saudi national identity that has been established by patriarchal norms. Interestingly however, even without much intervention from the state, Saudi individuals have learnt to accommodate perceptions of emasculating homosexual behaviour with the masculine national identity – an indication that patriarchal norms have become deeply inculcated within the social fabric of Saudi society.

This is exemplified by the re-production of patriarchal values within the Saudi aversion for feminine positions that exist within the dominant-submissive dichotomy of gay sexual behavior. Indeed, many Saudis – including those who engage in homosexual behaviour – continue to perceive the bottom role as shameful and paralleling the role of women. Saudi men who conversely do engage in this submissive position are expected to leave this inferior role as they turn older. Homosexuality behaviour, entailing signs of effeminacy, has therefore been demarcated within only the bottom – a label that in itself is understood as neither stagnant nor a constituent of an individual’s identity. This socially-constructed binary between the masculine top (the penetrator) and the effeminate bottom has therefore served to create an imagined sense of masculinity that accommodates to the collective masculine national identity of the Saudi state.

New Resistance, New Challenges

With the growing sphere of the online space, Western conceptions of homosexuality that marries sexuality with identity have begun to gain traction within gay discourse in Saudi Arabia. In addition, the adoption of the dominating ‘top’ and the submissive ‘bottom’ labels as part of one’s homosexual identity among many gay men in Western communities, albeit being much less inflexible than ‘being homosexual’ itself, may eventually also become mirrored in the kingdom – a current that will inexorably threaten the ‘masculinity’ of Al-Saud state.

This has been prevalent especially among a newer generation of Saudis who have begun to adopt the notion of ‘being homosexual’ as evident by the birth of new forms of resistance by members of the LGBTQ community within Saudi society – one that shifts from the resistance of deviance to one that demands rights, all still within a new ‘closet,’ the secure confines of the online space. On Twitter alone, several activists cloaked within online anonymity such as @ArabiaLGBT has garnered a large following in advocating for recognition and equality for the LGBTQ community – advocating in April 2016 for the change in the colloquial term referring to gay individuals from shuthuth (anomaly) to mithliyyeen (homosexual). The hashtag #سنحترم_حقوق_المثليين (Respect Gay Rights) also went viral, with reports suggesting that a large portion of the tweets coming from Saudi Arabia. Responses by religious conservatives and the state have ironically also echoed this new understanding of homosexuality, or rather homosexuals – where demands have been made for harsher laws, including executions for ‘coming out’ online – punitive measures that center clearly on sexual identity.

At this stage, the Saudi regime remains evidently in a legitimacy ‘checkmate.’ On one hand, a public acknowledgement of the LGBTQ community would shatter the illusion of an Islamic state and hence invite fierce opposition from Wahhabi groups. On the other however, disregard for newer conceptions of homosexuality in Saudi society would lend inevitably to clashes between the personal identities of gay individuals with that of the state’s collective patriarchal Islamic one. Al-Saud must learn, quickly, therefore to cope with evolving narratives of gay discourse in Saudi Arabia, lest it loses its hegemonic position to the currents of modernity.