Tag Archive | "Reform"

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Fading Mirage: Illusory Reform in Saudi Arabia

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

In the eyes of many Westerners, the idea of reform in Saudi Arabia is a contradiction. The Al Saud dynasty has long held a monopoly of political, religious, and social power over its citizens. The government currently bans all opposition political parties and tightly controls domestic media outlets. Saudi Arabia has also gained notoriety around the world for its strict interpretation of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. Despite the apparent lack of freedom, Saudi Arabia has in fact experienced some movements toward reform and modernization over the past few years. Unfortunately, they do not represent a trend toward liberalization and political reform. Rather, they have only appeared in response to events such as lowered oil earnings and threats of terrorism. Given Saudi Arabia’s recent economic successes, it seems unlikely that the kingdom will move toward substantial reform in the near future.

The years of 2001 and 2003 were marked by significant drives for political reform in Saudi Arabia. Concerns over declining oil revenues and rising unemployment formed the basis for domestic dissatisfaction. The participation of 15 Saudis in the September 11, 2001, attacks left the government with a new combination of US pressure and internal calls for reform. In January 2003, 104 Saudi liberal reformers created a “Strategic Vision for the Present and the Future,” which consisted of detailed proposals for democratic changes such as separation of power and elected legislative bodies at the national and provincial levels. This document used religious and legal arguments to justify citizens’ supervision of government actions.

Pressures for reform reached a peak when 12 suicide bombers attacked the capital of Riyadh in May 2003, killing 30 people and wounding 200. Saudis refer to the attacks as their own September 11, and the bombings seemed to initially push the Saudigovernment to reform its authoritarian practices. The Riyadh attacks were followed by unprecedented criticism of religious extremism in the media. The Crown Prince himself made speeches acknowledging the problem of Islamic extremism–acknowledgments that would have been unthinkable just a few years prior. In 2005, Saudis also witnessed their first municipal elections in almost a half-century. That same year, women were even allowed to participate in elections for the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. The start of the 21st century, thus, seemed a positive one for Saudi reform.

The impact of these reforms, however, should not be overstated. In many cases, they have been overshadowed by continued authoritarian behavior. Despite the optimism of the 2003 petitions, signatories to more recent appeals for reform have faced stiff government resistance. In March 2004, 13 pro-reform activists in favor of a constitutional monarchy were arrested, some of whom are forbidden to travel abroad even today. Perhaps most tellingly, the lauded 2005 municipal elections excluded women, and only half of the seats were contested. Political parties are still banned, and the government retains power over the municipal councils’ budgets. Sadly, even this encouraging glimmer of democracy has proved to be strikingly limited.

Economic growth in the country also suggests that substantive political reform may not arrive any time soon. As the oft-cited maxim goes, the higher the oil prices, the lower the prospect of democracy in the Middle East. The histories of Europe and the United States show that heavy taxation often leads to agitation for reform and greater demands for government accountability. However, the Saudi government’s high oil revenues allow it to forgo all income or corporate taxes. Indeed, owning a quarter of the world’s oil reserves permits the Saudi government essentially to buy off domestic demands for reform. Since revenues flow to the Saudi government directly, it has the option of exercising patronage to benefit political or social actors who demand change. Ways of placating interests include giving land gifts or supplying public services such as education and health care. Furthermore, the high concentration of wealth in the monarchy makes it harder for political groups outside of the government to find financial support. Additionally, since oil production does not necessitate mass labor mobilization, the potential power of unions dissolves. Even if demands for change were to remain strong within certain groups, the middle class’ demonstrated preference for economic stability over political freedom dampens the probability of widespread demands for change.

Current economic indicators may portend a negative political climate for Saudi citizens. In the years leading up to 2003, rising unemployment led to widespread dissatisfaction among the population. The Saudi Arabia of today faces no such problem. In 2006, the country saw a US$100 billion current account surplus and a GDP of US$350 billion. With plans to increase its oil production to 12.5 million barrels per day by 2009, there is little sign that the Saudi government will lose economic control, and thereby political control, over its citizens.

It is certainly possible that a downturn in the Saudi economy will once again spark the possibility for reform. Such reforms, however, would reflect the monarchy’s pragmatism rather than its conviction. Without firm government commitments to political change, it is unlikely that the Saudi government will make permanent, substantial improvements to its citizens’ rights. Reform in the Saudikingdom may not be the hopeless cause it once was, but the prospects for lasting, substantive changes remain illusory.

By Julia  Choe

 

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Saudi is Spreading Poison Throughout the World. Can Reform Save it?

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

At the end of last month, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, son of the founder of Saudi Arabia and half-brother to its present king, made an astonishing call for reform. “We cannot use the same tools we have been using to rule the country [from] a century ago,” he told the Financial Times. “This region is roiling with turmoil and radicalism and the aspirations of a young population, and I’m afraid we are not prepared for that.”

The prince has long been a dissonant voice in a family that frowns on public dissidence, and has no decision-making power. But his words speak to a fundamental battle taking place behind the guarded walls of the kingdom’s palaces. Will King Abdullah’s tentative steps towards reform, attempting to take back control of the judiciary, education and the religious police (the notorious mutawa) from reactionary clerics, continue? Or will the king’s recent appointment of Prince Nayef, the arch-conservative interior minister, as deputy prime minister and third in line to the throne, bring them to a halt?

For the problem facing this absolutist monarchy, which has managed to function both as the custodian of the birthplace of Islam and as a US ally sitting on a quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves, is not its immediate overthrow. (It has already seen off a proto-insurgency by al-Qaeda followers.) It is that the very basis of the House of Saud’s legitimacy, the fusion of temporal and religious power which forms the bedrock of the Saudi state, rests on its alliance with the House of Ibn Abdul Wahhab. And Wahhabism, the puritan faith formulated by this 18th-century religious reformer, is, in its essentials, the totalitarian creed espoused by Osama Bin Laden to justify his murderous jihad.

For many years the Saudi ruling family, which is also dependent for survival on its 64-year-old alliance with the US, managed to keep any difficulties caused by its reliance on these two radically opposed sources of support concealed behind a brittle facade of modernity. All this began to change, however, after 11 September 2001.

At first the al-Saud were in denial that 15 of the 19 hijackers were their countrymen, and that the attackers had been inspired by Bin Laden, a member of one of the kingdom’s leading merchant families. A year later, Prince Nayef was still insisting to a Kuwaiti newspaper that the attacks were a Zionist plot. When five western oil executives were killed at Yanbu, the Red Sea port, on 1 May 2004, then Crown Prince Abdullah said he was “95 per cent certain” that Zionists were behind it. Such attacks turned international opinion against Muslims: so, what other explanation could there be?

Once the jihadis turned their gunsights on the heart of the kingdom, however, the al-Saud began to accept the possibility of there being other culprits. The turning point came with the 29 May 2004 attack at al-Khobar in the Eastern Province. This is the region that contains the largest oil deposits in the world and is, in addition, the homeland of Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shia minority. Islamist gunmen attacked two foreign oil company office blocks and an expatriate enclave, killing three Saudi and 19 foreign civilians as well as nine Saudi policemen. They sought out Christian, Hindu and Buddhist “infidels” to murder, while setting Muslim hostages free. As in Yanbu that same month, they were able to mount the spectacle of dragging the body of a westerner for more than a mile, spitting slogans as they went. Even though the attack turned into a siege, with Saudi security forces ringing the compound and commandos landing on the roof of a building where the gunmen were holding more than 40 hostages, three of the attackers were able to, or allowed to, escape.

The authorities finally had to acknowledge that al-Qaeda, incubated in good part by the fanatical Wahhabism the al-Saud imposed as the kingdom’s sole creed, was their problem, too. As the slaughter at al-Khobar was continuing, the then crown prince, now King Abdullah, vowed to crush “this corrupt and deviant group” in Saudi society. “Those who keep silent about the terrorists will be regarded as belonging to them,” he warned. The implication was that nothing less than a seismic reformation of the House of Saud’s relationship with the Wahhabi clerical establishment was required–a reforging of the historic agreement that is the foundation stone of the Saudi state.

This is, in fact, the third time the House of Saud has set up a state in peninsular Arabia. The epic begins in the mid-18th century, when an emir from the Nejd in central Arabia, Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Saud, took in an itinerant preacher by the name of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. In 1744, the compact between the two houses was sealed by the marriage of al-Saud’s son and Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s daughter. This combination of Islam and the al-Saud has formed the basis of the Saudi kingdom ever since. Its essential promise is to banish chaos and darkness–an echo of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya, or epoch of ignorance, that God sought to end through his revelation to the Prophet Muhammad–and substitute order, both human and divine.

By this time, the al-Saud had become oasis settlers. Increasingly populous and “detribalised”, they were obliged to find an alternative formula to build up their political and military strength, both to resist the predatory tribes and to press their ambitions. The alliance with Ibn Abdul Wahhab gave them just that: the magic ingredients of religious reform and jihad -a holy war to reclaim the peninsula of the Prophet Muhammad and the birthplace of Islam for true believers.

Abdul Wahhab espoused probably the most literalist, rigorous, antique and exclusivist interpretation of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy ever attempted as a form of governance. The Wahhab-Saud forces came to be known as Wahhabis, but often refer to themselves as the Ahl al-Tawhid, people of the oneness (of God). They regard any apparent deviation from monotheism–particularly evident to them in the practices of the Christians and the “idolatrous” and “rejection-ist” (Rafadah) Shia Muslims, for whom they reserved the lowest circle of hell–as infidel or apostate. This (in the strict sense of the word) totalitarian creed anathematised all other beliefs as illicit. It defined everyone else as “the Other”, drawing up as broad a definition of “non-believers” as has ever been devised. Wahhabism thus provides limitless sanction for jihad (making it hard for jihadis or their victims to understand how al-Qaeda, as the al-Saud insist, is in any way “deviant” from this orthodoxy).

The Wahhabi claim is to have found Arabia in a tribal stew of idolatry and chaos, war and pillage, ignorance and vice. In effect, the Wahhab-Saud forces claim to have ended the second Arabian jahiliyya or age of ignorance. If true, that would put them on a par with the Prophet himself- a heady boast indeed. In fact, Saudi-Wahhabi propaganda is a mirror image of the orientalist discourse about the Hobbesian fate from which the west saved the east. It is a self-serving myth to justify the hegemony of the al-Saud and the Nejd over a regionally and religiously diverse nation, which was unified by force only after King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud fought 52 battles across a 30-year war of conquest, ending in 1932. Tawhid came to mean not just the “oneness” of God but the oneness of Arabia under Saudi hegemony.

In return for this religious cover, the Wahhabi clerical establishment was given decisive social control, not only over religion and public comportment, but also over education and justice. Above all, it derived power from conferring legitimacy on the Saudi rulers, who had now named the land of the Prophet after themselves. The politico-religious symbiosis of the House of Ibn Saud and the House of al-Sheikh, as it is now known, built the world’s first modern Muslim fundamentalist state.

The state created by Ibn Saud has remained essentially static, while its subjects have been dragged into a modernity that rests on the shakiest foundations, imported like the air-conditioners that cool the gleaming malls and gated residential compounds. Within loudspeaker distance of a fire-and-brimstone mosque in Riyadh, close to the hotels where I have stayed many times, a shimmering mall houses a Harvey Nichols emporium with an outlet for La Senza, the lingerie chain. It is identical, in all respects except the gaudier range, to a similar shop anywhere else. But there is one fundamental difference. Because women may not mix with men outside their family and are kept in a mixture of seclusion and segregation, it follows that they cannot work in a lingerie boutique–which is therefore staffed entirely by men.

Saudi businesswomen, who operate with signal success but in a more or less separate environment from men, have increasingly been calling for a boycott of these kinds of arrangements, which are beyond satire.

A similar absurdity arises from the ban on women driving, which in practice has required the importation of more than a million foreigners to serve as drivers. In other words, a prohibition supposedly intended to keep women from temptation by denying them any independence leads to them being thrown into. daily contact with male strangers. Only a society that has living memory of the social conventions of slavery could be capable of countenancing such a paradox.

But it is probably in the field of education that this schizophrenia is most vividly and wrenchingly lived out. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia has an educated middle class, almost one million of whom have studied abroad. The kingdom has schooled its girls for nearly two generations. Saudis often have an intellectual depth to them that is less readily encountered in many Arab countries, where political and commercial pressures have debased and ground down the currency of ideas to convenient and remunerative cliche and myth. “There is something curiously uncalloused about the Saudis,” says a veteran diplomat to the kingdom.

But then turn to school textbooks, drawn up under the authority of the Wahhabi establishment. These drill into impressionable young Saudi minds the religious duty to hate all Christians and Jews as infidels, and to combat all Shias as heretics. A theology text for 14-year-olds, for instance, states that “it is the duty of a Muslim to be loyal to the believers and be the enemy of the infidels. One of the duties of proclaiming the oneness of God is to have nothing to do with his idolatrous and polytheist enemies.” The history textbooks typically emphasise the al-Saud hegemonic myth, burying any attempt to weave regional specificity or religious breadth into national identity under a suffocating narrative of Nejdi supremacy and Saudi redemption.

“It is really not very difficult to understand how we got to where we are,” says one reformist intellectual, asking rhetorically if there was any difference between the sectarian bigotry of Osama Bin Laden and the intolerant outpourings of the Wahhabi establishment. Saudi Arabia is a laboratory for jihad–that is its strategic dilemma.

While mosques and classrooms continue to spew out this fanaticism, Saudi Arabia has also been exporting these ideas for decades. Just during the reign of the late King Fahd, Riyadh claimed to have established 1,359 mosques abroad, along with 202 colleges, 210 Islamic centres and more than 2,000 schools. In addition, it episodically supported pan-Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and sponsored jihad abroad from Afghanistan to Bosnia. Jihadis were able to establish a base in Iraq partly because Wahhabi proselytisers had established bridgeheads in cities such as Mosul in the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

As king, Abdullah has introduced some incremental change. He has started rewriting textbooks, changing teaching methods and vetting teachers. He demanded the active co-operation of the clerical establishment in curtailing the flow of Saudi volunteers to Iraq. He has instituted de-radicalisation programmes for groups of jihadi prisoners who are willing to reintegrate into Saudi society. The king has also built tentative bridges to the Shias, and tried to foster a more pluralist conception of Islam.

In 2003, he launched a “national dialogue”, which held out the prospect of more open government, tighter financial controls on the royal family’s share of national wealth, greater rights for women, even the gradual introduction of elections. The king at least appeared to recognise the need for a more open society. But his brothers (the succession has always passed along the line of King Abdul Aziz’s elderly sons) did not share this view at all. No sooner was the national dialogue under way than Prince Nayef summoned dissidents to his office where, according to one reformer present, they were told: “What we won by the sword, we will keep by the sword.” Crown Prince Sultan said publicly, in March 2004, that the kingdom was not ready for an elected parliament, because voters might choose “illiterates”. Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, then minister of Islamic affairs, rejected even the term “reform” as being pregnant with liberalism and licentiousness.

It is inescapable, however, that the al-Saud need to curb the corrosive power of the religious establishment and lead the kingdom towards a form of modernity that its religious heritage can sustain. And the most feasible way forward is to enlist Islamist progressives.

This loosely connected group of Islahiyyun or “reformers” has rediscovered the thinking of Islamic revivalists and reformers of more than a century ago, and turned it into a devastating critique of Ibn Abdul Wahhab.

Encouraged by Abdullah, the newspaper al-Watan (the nation, or homeland) became a forum for this debate, as did internet discussion groups, such as Muntada al-Wasatiyya, set up by the dissident Islamist Mohsen al-Awajy.

This still embryonic force has already achieved three major changes. First, the groups have presented their demands collectively, instead of petitioning individually at the majlis or court of the prince. The turning point was a 2003 petition signed by leading Islamist reformers and liberals. Second, the document proposed allowing diversity in matters of faith and politics–in a country where uniformity on both has long been imposed. And third, it broke the taboo about speaking against Wahhabism, and implied that it was this distorted form of Islam that was preventing Saudi Arabia from becoming a successful modern state all its citizens could easily support.

It is important to realise that the petition, titled “A vision for the present and future of the homeland”, draws on sources of renewal that are and will remain Islamic and, in important ways, Islamist. However alien this fusion of religion and politics may seem to secular westerners, it is key to any possibility of change, because it provides reformers with an authenticity and a legitimacy that deflects charges of foreign influence and intrusion. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Qassim, a former Saudi judge and reformer, is an authority on this. “Al-Qaeda and the clergy are essentially doing the same thing in different ways–putting pressure on the House of Saud for being less devout than it should be. This paralyses reform,” he tells me. “The only way out is to dilute the link with Wahhabi fanaticism.

“The only way forward is to win the legitimacy of society itself- through political reform that does not depend on the approval of the clergy. If you make society part of reform you can overcome the clergy. It is the only way.”

The demands of the Islamist reformers include free elections, freedom of expression and association, an independent judiciary, a fairer distribution of wealth, and a clearer foreign policy arrived at through open debate–in short, a constitutional monarchy, if nowhere near a bicycling monarchy. “We are limiting our demands to very specific issues, and reiterating the al-Saud’s right to stay at the top of the tree,” says Mohsen al-Awajy. “They think it’s for tactical reasons, but the fact is there is no real alternative.”

Just how fundamental it is that liberals and Islamists take on Wahhabism cannot be overstated. But the liberals are an infinitesimal minority, tainted in the eyes of the masses with corruption and decadence. As one senior prince puts it, with a certain melancholy: “We liberals sit around a bottle of scotch and complain to each other, and then, the next morning, do nothing. Yet if we don’t get real progress, economically, socially and politically, we are going to be in a terrible mess in five to ten years.”

He, at least, shows an awareness alien to much of a bloated royal family that affects not to understand where a privy purse ends and a public budget begins, and continues to squander fabulous public wealth. Military spending, for example, is about three times the average for a developing country and is used as a mechanism for distributing power and wealth within the top ranks of the House of Saud–which is more than 5,000 princes strong.

No wonder that it is the Islamist reformers, numerically and ideologically, who are the real force for change. They can credibly argue that they intend no separation between mosque and state, but a redefinition of the relationship between the al-Saud and the al-Sheikh.

“Saudi Arabia has to be an Islamic state; it is the birthplace of Islam. The question is which Islam?” says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of al-Watan and adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington and London. “The alliance should be between the state and Islam, not between the House of Saud and the House of al-Sheikh.”

Awajy, whose candour lost him his job as a university professor, argues: “The contract between the two houses is no longer in the interests of the Saudi people; if we tolerated it in the past it does not mean we will in the future. Real reform cannot take place within the Wahhabi doctrine.”

The Wahhabi establishment has pumped the poison of bigotry into the Saudi mainstream throughout the existence of the kingdom. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, it became impossible to ignore that its ideas and al-Qaeda’s were pretty much the same. It is hard to imagine how the House of Saud will survive unless it breaks decisively with these ideas. Or, as one Saudi reformer put it: “If this clerical establishment is incapable of imagining the solutions we need to modern problems, then the answer is clear-we have to find another establishment.”

By David Gardner

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Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy

Posted on 26 April 2011 by hashimilion

Summary

Protests that erupted in Bahrain following the uprising that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, demonstrate that Shiite grievances over the distribution of power and economic opportunities were not satisfied by previous efforts to include the Shiite majority in governance. Possibly because of concerns that a rise to power of the Shiite opposition could jeopardize the extensive U.S. military cooperation with Bahrain, the Obama Administration criticized the early use of violence by the government but subsequently praised the Al Khalifa regime for its offer of a dialogue with the demonstrators. It did not call for the King to step down, and Administration contacts with his government are widely credited for the decision of the regime to cease using force against the protesters as of February 19, 2011. However, as protests escalated in March 2011, Bahrain’s government, contrary to the advice of the Obama Administration, invited security assistance from other neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council countries and subsequently moved to end the large gatherings. Some believe the crackdown has largely ended prospects for a negotiated political solution in Bahrain, and could widen the conflict to the broader Gulf region.

The 2011 unrest, in which some opposition factions have escalated their demands in response to the initial use of force by the government, comes four months after the October 23, 2010, parliamentary election. That election, no matter the outcome, would not have unseated the ruling Al Khalifa family from power, but the Shiite population was hoping that winning a majority in the elected lower house could give it greater authority. In advance of the elections, the government launched a wave of arrests intended to try to discredit some of the hard-line Shiite leadership as tools of Iran. On the other hand, Bahrain’s Shiite oppositionists, and many outside experts, accuse the government of inflating the intensity of contacts between Iran and the opposition in order to justify the use of force against Bahraini Shiites.

Unrest in Bahrain directly affects U.S. national security interests. Bahrain, in exchange for a tacit U.S. security guarantee, has provided key support for U.S. interests by hosting U.S. naval headquarters for the Gulf for over 60 years and by providing facilities and small numbers of personnel for U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bahraini facilities have been pivotal to U.S. strategy to deter any Iranian aggression as well as to interdict the movement of terrorists and weapons-related technology on Gulf waterways. The United States has designated Bahrain as a “major non-NATO ally,” and it provides small amounts of security assistance to Bahrain. On other regional issues such as the Arab-Israeli dispute, Bahrain has tended to defer to Saudi Arabia or other powers to take the lead in formulating proposals or representing the position of the Persian Gulf states, collectively.

Fuelling Shiite unrest is the fact that Bahrain is generally poorer than most of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, in large part because Bahrain has largely run out of crude oil reserves. It has tried to compensate through diversification, particularly in the banking sector and some manufacturing. In September 2004, the United States and Bahrain signed a free trade agreement (FTA); legislation implementing it was signed January 11, 2006 (P.L. 109-169).

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Saudi Influence Could Be Key To Outcome In Bahrain

Posted on 28 February 2011 by hashimilion

Even as mainly Shiite Muslim protesters camp out in Pearl Square demanding major reforms, the deciding factor in the outcome for Bahrain could be neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Behind the scenes and away from the streets, Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and top oil supplier, is seeking to return to the status quo in Bahrain – or at least to slow down calls for change. That Bahrain’s Shiite majority could gain more rights and powers from the ruling Sunni Muslims, Saudis think, could lead to unrest among their own Shiites, who live in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. In that case, reforms and economic incentives might not be enough to stop a movement from spreading there.

Bahrain is the first Persian Gulf country to be hit by the unrest that’s sweeping the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is one of the last U.S. allies in the region since the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia fell. Although Bahrain is a tiny island of less than a million, what happens here could unleash calls for change in the much larger and powerful Saudi Arabia. It’s a case of Goliath fearing David’s wrath.

At stake are oil prices, which are now at their highest since October 2008, and even relations with the United States, which is walking a fine line between promoting the will of the people and supporting a longstanding ally.

In Saudi Arabia, officials already have quashed several small attempts to launch protests against some government decisions. Three days after the revolt began in Egypt, for example, roughly 50 residents protested the government response to deadly floods in Jeddah. They were promptly arrested.

Protesters in Manama are calling for Bahrain to become a constitutional monarchy, rather than an absolute one. Such a shift probably would give the Shiite majority more power. As the Saudis see it, that represents instability for them; Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority could then rise up and ask for more freedoms its own.

Protesters in Manama threatened Wednesday to lash out at the Saudi regime if it thwarted their efforts, though they refused to give their names.

“If they stop us, we will go there,” one protester yelled.

For Saudi Arabia, the best outcome in Bahrain is enough change to pacify protesters but not so much that it risks government structure, said James Denselow, a Middle East writer and former researcher for Chatham House, a policy research center in London.

“Instability could not get more on Saudi’s doorstep than Bahrain,” Denselow said. “The outcome that Saudi Arabia wants is … for everybody to leave the streets and that small changes be managed by the elite. They want a slow process.”

As with much of what happens in Bahrain, Saudi influence occurs under a veil of secrecy. But there have been some telling signs of the scale of Saudi impact. Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa left the country Wednesday for the first time since the unrest began to meet his Saudi counterpart, King Abdullah, who had just returned home hours earlier after three months of medical treatment in the U.S. and recovery in Morocco. Observers said they think that the Bahraini king consulted with the Saudis over what to do next.

Earlier in the week, the Saudi Council of Ministers said in a statement: “The kingdom will stand by the sisterly state of Bahrain with all its capabilities,” which some Shiites in Bahrain interpreted as a threat to send military aid.

Many think that Saudi influence – coupled with a sizable minority here that has benefited from a Bahrain guided by Saudi Arabia – will thwart efforts for major reform, even as crowds remain camped out at Pearl Square, the main demonstration site. Bahrain’s crown prince has called for national dialogue, but neither the government nor the Shiite opposition groups have codified their positions, and discussions have yet to get under way.

Instead, the Bahraini monarchy said it had released 308 political prisoners since Tuesday; opponents said 12-year-olds were among them, and many of them joined protesters at Pearl Square.

On Wednesday, before King Abdullah landed back in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis announced that they will spend billions of dollars on economic aid to help their more impoverished citizens buy homes and start businesses in an attempt to keep protests from rising in the kingdom. Two weeks ago, the Saudis gave nearly $3,000 to every family in the country.

The Bahraini economy, which generates roughly $25 billion of gross domestic product annually, depends equally on tourism, the government, industry and financial services. Three of those four sectors account for around three-fourths of the GDP, and they’re directly or indirectly tied to Saudi Arabia. Saudis invest in Bahraini banks to conduct finances outside the watchful eye of the regime; Saudi Arabian oil revenues fund the Bahraini government; and three-day jaunts of escapism are key to Bahraini tourism.

“Saudi Arabia is not just a big neighbor to the west; it is safe to say that they have had a major influence on the economic development of Bahrain. The operating budget of the government is mostly oil related, 75 percent of which is of Saudi origin,” said a Western official here, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in order to be more candid. “That buys them a certain amount of influence.”

There are important social impacts as well. Many call Bahrain Saudi Arabia’s Las Vegas.

As soon as some Saudi women, who are banned from driving in their home country, enter Bahrain on the King Fahd Causeway, they jump into the driver’s seat. They take themselves to places such as the Arabic disco on the top floor of the Riviera hotel and pay hundreds of dollars to sit freely in Islamic garb and enjoy cold beers. Scantily clad women greet Saudi men at another bar downstairs.

Three days later, the Saudis whisk themselves over the bridge again and back into one of the most conservative societies in the world.

But Bahrain, the Saudis’ much-needed release valve, now has closed off. Traffic along the causeway between the countries has dropped dramatically, Bahraini officials who work on the border said, and businesses that cater to Saudis said their dealings had come virtually to a standstill. Indeed, supporters of the regime said the economic impact was a big reason to stop the protests.

Riviera hotel manager Mohammed al Shihab said that usually 50 percent of his patrons were Saudis. But only a handful of his 65 rooms are occupied these days. There are no reservations at the Arabic disco, just four fully stocked refrigerators of beer and refreshments. At the Sweetheart bar downstairs, four women in strapless dresses smoked hookahs and waited for the men who never arrived.

These days, Shihab said, he’s closed the Arabic disco altogether: “I can’t keep a disco open for four people.”

He said he wished the protests would stop; Bahrain can’t afford it.

“Now there is no life here,” he said. “Everybody is losing.”

By NANCY A. YOUSSEF

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Saudi Prince Calls for Reform Amid Regional Unrest

Posted on 18 February 2011 by hashimilion

The protests and unrest in Arab countries may be dangerous for Saudi Arabia if King Abdullah does not step up the pace of reform, a Saudi prince said Thursday.

Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz, a half brother of the king, said it was not too late for the Saudi government to take steps to avoid protests – and that the king is the only person who can bring about major changes.

“The only person who could really maintain things and do major things and change is King Abdullah,” the prince told BBC Arabic in an interview. “Because he is not merely liked, but he is loved by the people. But if he doesn’t do it, it would be very dangerous in our country.”

Talal is an outspoken prince who has called for reform before. He holds no government posts and is considered something of an outsider within the royal family.

He was forced briefly into exile in the 1960s amid reports at the time that he planned a revolt.

Political activity in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which follows strict Islamic rule, is severely restricted and all power rests in the hands of the ruling Saudi family.

The kingdom’s first political party was formed recently by moderate scholars calling for reform, following the turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia.

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Saudi Arabia: A Disappointment In Education

Posted on 10 February 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi teenager Abdulrahman Saeed lives in one of the richest countries in the world, but his prospects are poor, he blames his education, and it’s not a situation that looks like changing soon.

“There is not enough in our curriculum,” says Saeed, 16, who goes to an all-male state school in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. “It is just theoretical teaching, and there is no practice or guidance to prepare us for the job market.”

Saeed wants to study physics but worries that his state high school is failing him. He says the curriculum is outdated, and teachers simply repeat what is written in text books without adding anything of practical value or discussions. Even if the teachers did do more than the basics, Saeed’s class, at 32 students, is too big for him to get adequate attention. While children in Europe and Asia often start learning a language at five or six, Saudi students start learning English at 12. Much time is spent studying religion and completing exercises heavy with moral instruction. One task for eighth grade students: “Discuss the problem of staying up late, its causes, effects and cure.”

In the face of rising unemployment, Saeed has taken parts of his education into his own hands. He learned how to use the internet on his own and sets himself research projects in his own time to try to make up for his school’s shortcomings. “The subjects available are not enough to carry us to the career or specialisation that is needed for the job,” he complains.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sits on more than a fifth of the globe’s oil reserves and thanks to high oil prices it has almost tripled its foreign assets to more than $400 billion (248 billion pounds) since 2005. The region’s thinkers had a profound influence on the evolving western science of the Middle Ages. But from kindergarten to university, its state education system has barely entered the modern age. Focussed on religious and Arabic studies, it has long struggled to produce the scientists, engineers, economists and lawyers that Saudi needs.

High school literature, history and even science text books regularly quote Koranic verses. Employers complain that universities churn out graduates who are barely computer-literate and struggle with English. So frustrated are some students, they have taken to the streets in protest.

“Education in our country cannot be compared to education abroad,” says Dina Faisal, mother of a 15-year old student in Jeddah. “We have a lack of sciences, physics, and biology. That is what is needed to push the country forward. There has been some change but it is far from being complete.”

Six years ago, alarmed by how many young Saudis were out of work, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz launched an overhaul of state schools and universities. The effort is part of a raft of reforms designed to ease the influence of religious clerics, build a modern state and diversify the economy away from oil to create more jobs. The reforms are controversial, though, and nowhere more so than in education. Adding more science classes means scaling back on religion — a direct challenge to the Wahhabi clerics who helped found the kingdom in 1932 and dominate vast parts of society.

“The Saudi education system is particularly difficult to reform because it is traditionally one of the main areas where the clerics have influence,” says Jane Kinninmont at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Asserting technocratic control over education may require a power struggle with the conservative clerics.”

Many reform-minded Saudis were optimistic when Abdullah first announced the changes. Since then, though, the pace of reform has been slow. In the past few months the chance that Saudi’s rulers will really take on the clerics has faded. King Abdullah, who is around 87, is recuperating in Morocco after two months of medical treatment in the United States. The slightly younger Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz has spent most of the past two years in Morocco and the United States because of an unspecified illness. Many Saudi observers believe Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the veteran interior minister who has close ties to clerics and appears lukewarm on reform, has a good chance of taking over after his promotion to second deputy prime minister in 2009.

“Reform?” asks Simon Henderson, a Washington-based author of several studies on Saudi succession. “It has been moribund… since Nayef became second deputy prime minister. Abdullah has also lost energy for it.”

THE SPARK FOR CHANGE

Abdullah launched his $2.4 billion “Tatweer” initiative — Tatweer is Arabic for development — in 2005, promising to overhaul teaching methods, emphasise science and train 500,000 teachers. The king has repeatedly said that giving young people a better education is at the heart of his plan to build a modern state and fight religious extremism. “Humanity has been the target of vicious attacks from extremists, who speak the language of hatred, fear dialogue, and pursue destruction,” King Abdullah said in 2009 at the inauguration of the country’s first mixed-gender university, a high-tech campus near Jeddah with an estimated budget of $10 billion. “We cannot fight them unless we learn to coexist without conflict… Undoubtedly, scientific centres that embrace all peoples are the first line of defence against extremists.”

Since then, the number of state and private universities catering to the 300,000 or so high school students who graduate every year has grown to 32 from eight before 2005, the ministry of higher education says. A large female-only university is under construction near Riyadh airport. Until the new universities take root, the government has given scholarships to 109,000 students to study in top universities mainly in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

Schools too are changing. Within two years, all primary and high schools will get new mathematics and science textbooks that follow U.S. standards, the government says. Thousands of teachers are undergoing extra training. Primary schools will still focus largely on teaching Arabic and religion, but high schools will have more science and mathematics classes.

“We don’t say we have no problems but it is getting better. It’s changing,” says Nayef al-Roomi, deputy minister in charge of developing education, as he shows charts of curriculum changes in his office and tries to ignore the constant ring of his mobile and desk phones.

“Education is not a factory. We will see at least three years to get results.”

SLOW AND UNCERTAIN

So far, though, progress has been barely visible. A 2007 study by the respected Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) put Saudi students third-last in eighth grade mathematics. In the science category, the kingdom was fifth-last. Saudi Arabia also ranked 93rd of 129 in UNESCO’s 2008 index assessing quality of education. Analysts say there has been no noticeable improvement in the kingdom’s education standards in the past four years.

“I think 10 years is a realistic option to see a real change if all plans are implemented,” says a consultant who has worked for the education ministry and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the risks of challenging the official view.

A 2008 study by Booz & Company said progress had been made in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries, agreeing that noticeable results can be obtained in a decade, even though “realisation of the full economic impact may require a generational period.”

Even then, the changes will only go some way to overhauling the system. Take school textbooks. The government has started to cut comments that urged Saudis to kill “infidel” Christians and Jews. But the books still say Saudis should avoid non-Muslims. A reference in a new religious textbook seen by Reuters says that “Prophet (Mohammed) has cursed Jews and Christians because they have built places of worship around their prophets’ tombs.”

“In the past the textbooks used to refer to the infidels saying that they must be killed. Now it still refers to the infidels but says that we must not use violence in dealing with them,” says Dina.

Changing that will require “a mentality change,” says the consultant. “It’s not just introducing new textbooks.”

But clerics and conservatives dominate the education ministry, diplomats and education experts say. Conservative officials in mid-level positions sometimes delay or ignore directives from above. Textbooks and teaching methods appear not to change much.

“We cannot really say that any comprehensive education reform programme is underway,” says the EIU’s Kinninmont.

A QUESTION OF JOBS

The push to fix education is rooted in a fear that millions of young, unemployed Saudis — 70 percent of the country’s almost 19 million population is under the age of 30 — is a recipe for radicalism. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 were Saudis, while an al Qaeda bombing campaign inside the kingdom between 2003 and 2006 ended only after a massive government operation. Last year, 172 Saudis with al Qaeda links were arrested, proving Islamist groups are still actively recruiting in the kingdom.

The economy is ticking over nicely, and the U.S. ally has just unveiled its third consecutive record fiscal budget. The problem is, companies much prefer to hire expatriates instead of locals, in large part because of shoddy education. The number of expats working in Saudi Arabia has risen by 37 percent to 8.4 million in the past six years. Expats now fill nine out of 10 jobs in the private sector, according to John Sfakianakis, chief economist of Banque Saudi Fransi.

Labour Minister Adil Fakieh said on January 25 the government hopes to create five million jobs for Saudis by 2030 but economists think that’s unlikely. Unemployment among Saudis has risen. Officially, the rate was 10 percent in 2010; the rate of female unemployment is probably triple that.

The state has introduced quotas on the percentage of local workers private firms must hire. But companies have become expert at circumventing the laws, by hiring lots of locals for low-level jobs, or breaking up firms into smaller entities “just to have smaller quotas,” says a banker in Riyadh.

In the past, many Saudis found work with the government. But the kingdom has one of the region’s highest population growth rates so citizens no longer automatically get such jobs. In stark contrast to a generation ago, you can find Saudis working as taxi drivers, supermarket cashiers or private security guards, jobs which net as little as 1,500 riyals ($400) a month. “I was surprised to see Saudis work in supermarkets. That would have been impossible 10 years ago,” says a Western diplomat on his second posting to Saudi Arabia.

Nael Fayez, head of Injaz, a non-governmental organisation that helps prepare students for the job market, believes education is the main problem. “There is a rising gap between the requirements of the private sector and what state school produces,” says. “We need to fill the gap.”

OPTION B

That gap is at least partially filled by a scheme to educate Saudi Arabia’s brightest at foreign universities overseas. Officials who back the king hope the students will return with new ideas and a desire to shake things up. The problem: many prefer life abroad.

“There are more things to do day-to-day: going to parks, cinemas, theatre shows or restaurants with your friends or girlfriend,” says Osama Zeid, a 23-year old Saudi studying in Boston. In Saudi, a teenager’s spare time is filled watching television or going to a mall, where the religious police make sure no unrelated men and women meet at restaurants or cafes.

“People are friendlier and everyone is socially accepted and more open-minded. In Saudi there is no entertainment. You need entertainment,” says another Saudi attending the same university after graduating from high school in the U.S. city.

There is no data on how many Saudi students plan to stay overseas, but bankers in Riyadh say some of the best talent studying in the United States regularly ends up on Wall Street rather than heading home. “Expectation-management is a big issue. Young people growing up with the internet won’t be happy to sit at home even if the state guarantees a basic income,” says a diplomat in Riyadh. “They want to do something.”

Saudi officials are also pinning their hopes on private schools and colleges at home which have sprung up in major cities in the past five years. A new technical college in a residential area of eastern Riyadh is one example. From the outside, the school looks like a typical state university — high walls shielding white brick buildings clustered around a large mosque. Inside, the differences are radical. Germany’s state aid agency GTZ, which gets paid for the project by the Saudi government, has installed laptops, Power Point presentation facilities, and electronic workstations. The aim of the 45 teachers who run the school is to turn out Saudi vocational teachers who can then transform how things work at more than 100 technical colleges around the country.

The students have already graduated from state technical high schools but feel they have entered a new world. “It’s totally different and better compared to the previous institute, the methods to try out things, the materials,” says Mohammed al-Mansour, who came from Najran near the Yemeni border to study here.

Applications are piling up. Of some 2,000 requests the college has admitted 450 students so far but plans to expand to 2,000 by 2012.

“It’s just excellent, much better than had I expected,” said 24-year old Ahmad Hamdashi from Riyadh, talking while his friends work on measuring power current on work stations at their desks.

The students’ biggest surprise, perhaps, is to find that a teacher doesn’t just have to read from a book. “Let’s do it again,” says teacher Bernhard Homann, insisting everyone in the class tests the currents properly.

“We want them to work out things on their own,” says Raimund Sobetzko, vice dean at the school.

TOO MANY WRONG GRADUATES

Nayef al-Tamimi wishes he could have gone to such a college. Like thousands of other Saudis, al-Tamimi graduated from university as an Arabic language teacher but has struggled for years to get a job that pays a decent wage. At private schools, he makes about 2,000 riyals a month — much less than the 8,000 he would get as a government teacher. “At private schools I compete with foreigners. Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians. It’s tough,” he says.

This year he joined some 250 fellow graduates to organise a series of protests in front of the ministry of education in Riyadh, a bold move in a country that does not tolerate public dissent. Even though police quickly show up whenever the group gathers, Tamimi said the protests will continue until they all get the state jobs they so desperately seek. The government may eventually decide to hire the protesters just to end the demonstrations that have started to make global headlines.

But critics of the reforms, including political opponents, say the problems will remain until the ruling al Saud family allows more freedom and independent thinking — the sort of progress that will depend on the future king.

Saudi Arabia has no elected parliament, but King Abdullah has forced Saudi society to open up ever so slightly. Saudi newspapers now debate reforms, women enjoy slightly more access to education and the job market. Would a more conservative king reverse those?

“How can you reform education without democracy?” asks Mohammed al-Qahtani, a veteran dissident based in Riyadh. “I tell you that in five years there will be no improvement to education.”

Special Report from Reuters

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