Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Reforming the kingdom?

Supporters of the Saudi regime say the country cannot remain immune from the changes taking place across the region, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif

Al-Ahram Weekly

“What is going on in the kingdom,” asked Jamil Al-Zayabi, a columnist in the Saudi daily Al-Hayat recently. Why, he continued, in a supposedly rich country are “people poor, youth unemployed, and the state apparently incapable of addressing chronic problems of housing, poverty and unemployment?”

Al-Zayabi, a staunch defender of the Saudi monarchy, has not been the first to seek answers to these questions. Instead, he is simply echoing those making the rounds among Saudi activists and ordinary citizens.

However, his words carry weight since they reflect growing concerns among supporters of the Saudi monarchy, and most likely circles within the royal family itself, about whether recent developments in the kingdom could represent a threat to the Al-Saud family’s grip on power.

His comments come against a background of increasing manifestations of popular discontent triggered by state policies, including the kingdom’s oppressive police, people detained without due legal process, the arrest of women protesters in the city of Buraidah, and sit-ins by young unemployed people in front of the ministries of health and education.

In the past, when reform was raised a whole army of pro-monarchy media pundits would raise the banner of “the particularity of Saudi culture” in an attempt to silence any critics. This “particularity”, it has been claimed, means that the kingdom can only allow slow and gradual reform and no major changes.

However, Al-Zayabi and other Saudi commentators are now taking note of changes in Saudi society that transcend the notion of Saudi particularity to connect with the manifestations of people power seen in Cairo, Tunisia, Bahrain and Sanaa during the revolutions of the Arab Spring.

“The kingdom is witnessing a wave of popular activism, and it would be a mistake to think that we are immune to the changes across the region simply because we are a rich nation,” Al-Zayabi wrote.

Others have stretched such arguments further to warn that attempts by the royal elite to downplay or turn a deaf ear to the social changes underway and the simmering popular resentment could force what is now a peaceful movement for change to turn to violence.

In an open letter addressed to the Saudi monarchy, notable Saudi scholar Salman Al-Ouda touched upon sensitive issues of politics and society dominating public debate. “When revolutions are oppressed, they turn into armed action, and when they are ignored they expand,” Al-Ouda wrote.

He also complained of corruption, oppressive practices by the police and popular patience running thin in the kingdom. “Among the reasons for the tension and discontent are financial and administrative corruption, high rates of unemployment, housing problems, poverty, poor education and health services, and the absence of any prospect of political reform,” Al-Ouda wrote.

The letter has triggered heated debate among Saudi reform advocates, provoking calls to address the issue of reform in the kingdom in the light of the social and political upheavals taking place across the region. Even some of the regime’s most loyal supporters have been forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of popular demands and to warn that the kingdom “cannot remain immune from the changes taking place across the region just by virtue of having oil”.

The question now is to what extent such calls can translate into real pressure exercised on decision-makers to address such social and political reform. Some argue that one positive indication has been that the Saudi press has not been shy about reporting cases of corruption in the public administration or publishing comments critical of policies concerning housing or combating poverty in the kingdom.

However, such comments have remained more within the realm of scapegoating than serious attempts to establish checks and balances on Saudi rulers, at least for the time being.

Saudi Arabia, commentators argue, has all the characteristics of societies that have experienced political and social upheavals in the region, among them an educated youthful population, and a high rate of unemployment, poverty and social and political oppression.

In 2008, the unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia was around 12 per cent, and it has since grown by 2.3 per cent annually. The proportion of younger people in society has been increasing, and 45 per cent of the population is now less than 14 years old, with 73 per cent being under the age of 29 in 2007.

Such demographic facts, argues Saudi researcher Bassem Abdallah Al-Bassem in a paper on reform in the kingdom, create major challenges for the government “in creating new jobs and meeting the needs of the new generation, which include demands for increased participation in the policy process and in running the government.”

As for corruption, the kingdom’s worst malaise, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) issued by the international NGO Transparency International, in 2008 Saudi Arabia scored 3.5 out of five, where five is highly corrupted and one is less corrupted.

The score indicates a serious corruption problem, according to observers. “The 1992-2010 decade of reform did not fix the corruption problem. This means that the reforms did not attain their goal,” Al-Bassem said.

For over three decades, the reform question has been a key characteristic of Saudi politics, but activists and academics writing on Saudi affairs argue that little, save for cosmetic reforms carried out under external pressures, has been achieved to advance citizenship rights and participatory politics. 

The Saudi monarchy, according to observers, has acknowledged the shortcomings of the existing political order and realised that things cannot continue as they are indefinitely. “The reforms introduced first by late king Fahd and then by King Abdullah clearly suggest that such a realisation exists within the ranks of the royal family,” Al-Bassem said.

However, others differ, with scholar Madawi Al-Rashid noting that the new system resulting from the reforms “has given the ruler as much power as the old one.”

Some experts on Saudi affairs argue that popular discontent will remain limited to certain areas of the kingdom and that factors such as the fragmented opposition, the co-opted elite, the financial handouts given to people, as well as the external factor of maintaining the relationship with the US, will likely keep Al-Saud rule cemented.

However, this view still holds that underlying factors for instability remain present, and that these could explode through a catalysing event. Some have suggested that the issue of detainees could be one such event.

“The people have aspirations, demands and rights, and they will not stay silent about the total or partial confiscation of their rights. When you lose hope, you are ready to do anything,” Al-Ouda said in his open letter.

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