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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 Arabia is Losing Its Fear

Posted on 09 March 2011 by hashimilion

In Riyadh the mood is tense; everyone is on edge wondering what will happen on Friday – the date the Saudi people have chosen for their revolution. The days building up to Friday so far have not been as reassuring as one would like.

On 4 March, there were protests in the eastern region and a smaller protest here in Riyadh. The protests in the eastern region were mainly to call for the release of Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, who had been detained after giving a sermon calling for a constitutional monarchy.

The protest in Riyadh was started by a young Sunni man, Mohammed al-Wadani, who had uploaded a YouTube video a few days before, explaining why the monarchy has to fall. After the protests, 26 people were detained in the eastern region and al-Wadani was taken in soon after he held up his sign near a major mosque in Riyadh.

It’s not just the people who are on edge; apparently the government is also taking this upcoming Friday seriously. Surprisingly, Sheikh Amer was released on Sunday, while usually political detentions take much longer.

All this week, government agencies have been issuing statements banning protests. First it was the interior ministry that promised to take all measures necessary to prevent protests. Then the highest religious establishment, the Council of Senior Clerics, deemed protests and petitions as un-Islamic. The Shura Council, our government-appointed pretend-parliament, also threw its weight behind the interior ministry’s ban and the religious decree of prohibition. But you can’t blame the clerics or the Shura for making these statements – the status quo is what’s keeping them in power and comfortable.

Saudis are now faced with a ban on any form of demonstration, and the blocking and censorship of petitions. Moreover, four newspaper writers who had signed one of the petitions are now suspended.

Saudis feel cornered, with little means of self-expression and at the same time exposed to news and opinions that only add salt to the wound. For example, Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, the king’s half-brother, went on BBC Arabic TV to state his support for a constitutional monarchy and warn that anything less will lead to “evils” (his word).

Meanwhile, a newspaper reported that an expatriate was sentenced to 14 months in prison and 80 lashes for stealing part of a chicken from a restaurant. In response to the news, Abdulrahman Allahim, an award-winning Saudi human rights lawyer, tweeted that in his experience he had never come across a case in Saudi courts where a defendant was given a verdict of not guilty.

In Jeddah, a committee that has spent more than a year investigating the disappearance of millions of public funds assigned to the municipality to build a sewerage system has yet to make one formal accusation against anyone.

Another article revealed that the unemployment benefits recently decreed by the king have been whittled down from 3,000 riyals (£490) a month to 1,000 riyals (£165) and will probably only be given to unemployed men but not women.

The official unemployment rate of men is 10%, although many estimate it to be higher. The unemployment rate for women is yet to be officially announced but a study in 2010 estimated it at more than 26%.

It’s also estimated that about 60% of the population is under 30. These young, unemployed people live with many constrictions on their freedom. In addition to extreme gender segregation, single men are banned from entering shopping malls, and women cannot process their own papers, get a job or even access transport without male accompaniment and approval.

There’s no denying that the country is fertile ground for a revolution. However, I am concerned that the revolution might be hijacked by Islamists. Sa’ad al-Faqih, a London-based anti-monarchy activist, is claiming the revolution for himself. His TV programme, which is accessible via satellite in Saudi, is organising protest locations and revving up viewers to participate. Another contender is the new Islamic Umma party, whose founding members are imprisoned until they renounce their political aspirations (they have so far refused). Although the founding members are not free, the party’s online activity grows day by day. Both groups make use of a rhetoric that is dear to many average Saudis – attacking US foreign policy and the royal family’s misuse of the nation’s wealth while threading both issues within an Islamic theme.

On the other hand, the king is popular. All the petitions call for a constitutional monarchy, rather than the fall of the monarchy. Those who signed the petitions are mostly loyal to the king, but want access to decision-making and an end to corruption.

Also, many of the signatories are thinkers, writers and academics – generally an elite group of Saudis. From what I’ve read, nothing indicates they will go out to protest. However, one political activist who has been imprisoned several times for writing petitions was noticeably absent from recent lists of signatories. When a close friend of mine asked him why, he said, “now is not the time to sign petitions, now is the time to act”.

It’s very difficult to predict what will happen on Friday. My guess is that there will be protests. The larger protests will be in the eastern region and mostly by Shia Muslims. I also expect smaller protests in Riyadh and Jeddah. What tactics the security forces use will greatly influence not only the demonstrators but also the people watching from their homes. If undue violence is used against the demonstrators, it could possibly ignite the same fuse that led to full-blown revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Whether or not it comes to that, we as a people have changed for ever. No longer do I see the frightened hushing of political discussion – everyone is saying what they believe and aspire for out in the open without fear. As Fouad Alfarhan, a prominent Saudi activist, tweeted:

“Probably not much will happen, however the biggest gain is the awareness raised in a large faction of our young people of their human and political rights in this post-Bouazizi world.”

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