Tag Archive | "Parliament"

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Saudi King Needs To Step Up Reforms To Curb Dissent

Posted on 15 February 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi King Abdullah has enough oil money to avoid the kind of social upheaval seen among the poor in Egypt and Tunisia, but the ageing monarch must reform if he is to keep a lid on dissent, analysts and diplomats say.

Although the top oil exporter has more than $400 billion in petrodollars stashed away to address social grievances, Saudi Arabia must address issues such jobs and housing, and the desire of an internet-savvy generation to have its voices heard.

While his countrymen were glued to their television screens watching the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Abdullah has spent the last three months convalescing abroad, leaving reform plans stalled.

In a tightly controlled country with 19 million people and no tradition of political opposition, Saudis have slowly begun griping on Twitter about corruption. Last week Islamists launched an opposition political party, a taboo in the kingdom.

In the second-largest city Jeddah, anger built up after floods killed at least 10 people, triggering rare protests and dozens of newspaper editorials questioning why authorities were not better prepared and the state of infrastructure.

“I think people expect (the leadership) now to deal seriously with their problems,” said political analyst Khaled al-Dakhil, citing unemployment, housing, dependency on foreign labour and corruption as issues that need to be addressed.

ABSENT KING, ELECTIONS ON HOLD

Since taking power in 2005, Abdullah has done almost nothing to alter a political system of absolute monarchy, and little to change a social code that imposes some of the world’s most severe restrictions on personal behaviour.

Even narrowly-focused reforms, such as opening technical universities and launching training programmes for teachers and judges, have met with doubt from some parts of a powerful conservative clerical establishment.

The health-related absences of the king, who is around 87, and his brother and designated successor Crown Prince Sultan — out of the country for most of the past two years for unspecified treatment — have left reforms in limbo.

“Progress on policymaking of all kinds seems to be very slow at the moment,” said the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Jane Kinninmont. “In a system where decision-making is usually very top-down, the absence of these leaders really slows down policy activity.”

Saudi Arabia held municipal elections in 2005 before Abdullah took office, then seen as a step on the road to overhauling its political structure. But a fresh round of elections in which women hoped to participate was shelved in 2009 due to conservative opposition, according to diplomats.

Elections for a parliament have yet to be announced.

Riyadh has been trying to reassure allies the government is working normally while Abdullah is recuperating in Morocco after undergoing surgery over a slipped spinal disk in New York.

“Several government projects have been held up. Reforms which require the authority of the king seem to be put on hold,” said a Saudi-based analyst who declined to be named. “I think Abdullah should come back as soon as possible.”

Analysts had expected Abdullah to reshuffle his cabinet to inject fresh blood, but the cabinet’s term expired more than a week ago and no new cabinet was announced, suggesting ministers — some in office for 30 years or longer — will stay for now.

Many Saudis are waiting for King Abdullah to approve a much-delayed mortgage bill to provide affordable housing. The bill requires the king’s authority as the housing shortage touches the sensitive issue that most land is owned by royals.

“A mortgage law is one area that would give hope to one million households who need assistance to get their own homes,” said Daniel Broby, Chief Investment Officer at British fund manager Silk Invest which is invested in the Saudi bourse.

Education is one of the areas where some reform has begun, but the system still struggles to produce the scientists, engineers, economists and lawyers the country needs.

Overshadowing any long-term reform plans is the unanswered question of succession in a country that has been ruled for nearly 60 years by a single generation of kings, all sons of the founder of the state, King Abdul-Aziz.

When Abdullah went abroad, Sultan who is only slightly younger returned to run the country in his absence. If both are incapacitated, another brother, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, is expected to take the throne. Nayef is viewed as a conservative and suspicious of reforms.

Eventually the throne must pass to a younger generation. The king has set up a family council to regulate succession but has not made clear how and when it will begin work. Meanwhile, younger Saudis are growing impatient for change.

“Nobody will call for (regime) change but there will be people calling for political reforms,” said prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“People have demands, people have frustrations.”

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Egypt Inspired Protesters Battle Security Forces in Bahrain and Yemen

Posted on 15 February 2011 by hashimilion

Demonstrators clashed with security forces in Bahrain and Yemen, emboldened to challenge ruling regimes by the success of Egypt’s populist uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.

Bahraini riot police fired tear gas to break up protests across the island nation, and one man reportedly was shot dead by police, as demonstrators demanded more political freedom and jobs. Yemeni protesters announced plans for a fifth day of demonstrations after thousands gathered yesterday at Yemen’s Sanaa University to demand President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down, clashing with police and pro-government demonstrators who hurled stones and wielded clubs.

“Each country has its own unique circumstances,” said Alireza Nader, an international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation’s Washington office and a former Middle East specialist at the U.S. Treasury Department. “But whether it’s Persian Iran or Arab Yemen or Bahrain, all those countries are vulnerable to social unrest.”

Oil Region

The anti-regime turmoil is entering a new stage as it moves from the Arab world’s most populous nation to the Persian Gulf region, an area of vital importance to the U.S. and other industrialized nations because it holds more than 50 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

The regional uncertainties were reflected in the cost of insuring debt sold by the government of Bahrain, which rose 11 basis points yesterday to 248, the highest since Feb. 4, according to CMA prices for credit-default swaps. Still, oil tumbled in New York to the lowest level since November amid an abundance of fuel in the U.S. and as tensions eased in Egypt. Crude oil for March delivery fell 77 cents to settle at $84.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the lowest level since Nov. 30.

Shock Waves

The Arab world has been shaken over the past two months by anti-government demonstrations over economic hardship and corruption that drove Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from office on Jan. 14 and forced Mubarak to resign and cede his presidential powers to Egypt’s armed forces on Feb. 11.

In Algeria, where opposition leaders are planning further protests after violent clashes Feb. 12 in Algiers, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mourad Medelci told Europe 1 the government may lift a 19-year-old state of emergency in the next few days. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said on Feb. 3 that demonstrations, banned under the state of emergency since 1992, would be permitted, except in the capital, according to the state-run Algeria Presse Service.

Facebook Protests

A group called “the Revolution of 14th February in Bahrain” used Facebook to promote the protests yesterday and has more than 13,400 followers on the social-networking website. The date marks the anniversary of the establishment in 2002 of a second constitution, which provided an elected parliament in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and made the kingdom a constitutional monarchy.

“Bahrain, of any Gulf state, is the most susceptible because of the deep grievances of the majority Shiite population” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “The Shiite population is excluded from many types of government employment and municipal services in Shiite villages are below standards in other Sunni neighborhoods.”

Protesters and police battled into the night in the alleys of Diraz, on the northwest coast. Shiite Muslim protesters threw rocks and built barricades of wood and cement blocks, while police fired tear gas and sound grenades.

Tear Gas

“We were starting our peaceful protests when riot police attacked us with tear gas,” Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said in an interview after the protest in Bani Jamrah was dispersed. “We will continue our protests until the government hears our demand.”

A man was shot dead by police during the protests, said Matar Ebrahim Ali Matar, an al-Wefaq party member on the Council of Representatives. Earlier yesterday, residents of the Shiite Muslim village of Nuweidrat said clashes broke out between activists and police after morning prayers.

Bahraini Shiites, who represent between 60 and 70 percent of the population, say they face job and housing discrimination by the government. Bahrain’s royal family has close ties with Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy. Many among Bahrain’s populace retain cultural and family links with Shiite- dominated Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival.

Deep Pockets

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who is Sunni, ordered an increase in food subsidies and social welfare payments as the government sought to ease the burden of rising food prices, the Bahrain News Agency said Feb. 3. He also ordered the payment of 1,000 dinars ($2,653) to each Bahraini family.

In Yemen, an impoverished nation at the southern tip the Arabian Peninsula, protesters yesterday continued to press their demand that Saleh, 68, who has ruled for 32 years, step down. His recent promise not to run for re-election when his term is up in 2013 has not slowed the opposition.

They chanted “Down, down with Ali, long live Yemen” as police formed a human shield to keep crowds from spreading. At least 17 people were injured and 165 detained in Sanaa, Xinhua news agency reported, citing witnesses. Ghazi al-Samee, 31, one of the protesters in the southwestern city of Taiz, said eight people were injured yesterday and that more than 30 people were arrested.

Unlike Bahrain, the Yemen government can’t afford to try to buy calm by offering economic benefits. Yemen faces serious water shortages, declining oil output and a society where more than half the population of 23 million is under 20 years old. About 40 percent of Yemen’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

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