Categorized | Featured, Reports & Articles

Reform in Saudi Arabia – At a Snail’s Pace

Posted on 31 January 2011 by hashimilion


Shortly after assuming the throne five years ago, King Abdullah declared that henceforth September 23rd, the anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s unifcation in 1932, would be an official holiday. The move proved wildly popular with ordinary Saudis, and not just because it gives them a rare excuse to do silly things in public, like sporting neon wigs and cruising about noisily in green-painted cars decked with the Saudi flag. Conservatives had long banned secular festivities such as birthdays, insisting that Islam forbids anything but religious holidays. The king’s defiance of this view seemed to augur a break from decades of deference by the ruling Al Saud dynasty to killjoy puritans.

Saudi Arabia has certainly grown less grim in the reign of King Abdullah, who is now 86. Reforms in state administration, education and law have loosened arcane strictures. Some arch-conservative clerics have been ousted from top posts and forbidden from proclaiming obscurantist fatwas. The notoriously intrusive religious
police have been told to curb their enthusiasm. Women have won slightly more freedom. The large Shia minority feels a little less shunned than it was under previous
kings. The press is a bit feistier.

Many of these changes are subtle, reflecting shifts in society as much as in policy. This Ramadan for instance, “Tash Ma Tash”, a top-rated Saudi television comedy,
took a dig at national hypocrisies towards sex and religion. One sketch showed a fictional wife behaving like a pampered Saudi man, deciding to dump one of her four
husbands because she wanted a sexier new one. Another portrayed two brothers meeting a long-lost Lebanese relative and being shocked to find that he was not only
a Christian priest, but actually a nice guy. Some conservatives attacked the show as insidious infidel propaganda, and threatened to prosecute its makers. But most
public reactions were enthusiastic, and the fact that the show received no official reprimand, as it had done in previous years, was also a sign of progress.

Yet the changes remain, in many ways, cosmetic. King Abdullah has championed international dialogue between religions, for instance. But when Saudi schools reopened
in September, parents were surprised to find that in the new, “reformed” religion curriculum, supposedly purged of bigotry as part of a post-September 11th initiative
to promote a more tolerant Islam, students are still taught that it is wrong to say hello to non-Muslims.

A recent report on political reform in Saudi Arabia by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby group, argues that although gradual changes are welcome, unless they are properly institutionalised the kingdom risks sliding backwards again, as it has done many times before. “Newly gained freedoms are, for the most part, neither
extensive nor firmly grounded,” the report concludes. “The limited reform that has taken place suggests the elite is still foating trial balloons, undecided about
the type of government and society it wants to steer towards.”

On some specific human-rights issues, the report praises the kingdom’s progress: reform of the justice system, women’s rights and freedom of expression. Yet it
notes with concern that, whereas legal reform is one of the areas where changes are under way, new courts have yet to materialise, and new, transparent procedures
have yet to be put into practice. Greater freedom of speech is not codified, and so remains subject to arbitrary intervention by the state. Earlier this year, a newspaper
editor made the mistake of printing a blunt critique of puritan religious beliefs, and was summarily fired. As for women’s rights, an official loosening of the ban against the mixing of the sexes in public places has not been widely implemented. The same goes for an ostensible liberalisation of rules that require women to have a male “guardian”. Women are still forbidden to drive.

As for other issues, the report discerns no real progress either in ending religious discrimination against the Shia minority or in improving the position of Saudi Arabia’s
estimated 8m immigrant labourers. Gestures of tolerance to the Shia by the king himself have not been matched by a relaxation of restrictions on Shia worship. Shia dissidents still face harsh, systematic repression. Most foreign workers lack basic rights and, unlike other Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia has taken no steps to abolish
the onerous kafala or sponsorship system, whereby Saudi employers take possession of expatriates’ passports, and can deny them the right to travel. And there remains one big subject that the report leaves aside. Saudis have heard barely a whisper of one day setting the pace of change themselves, by winning the right to vote in elections.

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