After some strides, change in Saudi Arabia stagnates

Ihsan Bu-Hulaiga, an economist based in Riyadh, says his country is carefully moving forward with social reforms.
Ihsan Bu-Hulaiga, an economist based in Riyadh, says his country is carefully moving forward with social reforms. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Ahmed al Omran was among the first to proudly cast his vote in 2005 when Saudi Arabia held its first national elections for local councils, a political milestone that was hailed as a centerpiece of King Abdullah's push for modernization.

So when the Saudi king shelved plans two months ago for a second vote, al Omran was quick to criticize his government for backing away from its slow-motion embrace of Western democratic ideals.

"Delaying the elections is kind of disturbing at this point," said the 25-year-old university student behind Saudi Jeans, one of the country's more popular English language blogs.

"When you take a step backwards like that, you are losing the gains that you made with the first election," al Omran said. "Second, you raise questions about your commitment to reform."

While President Barack Obama is counting on Saudi Arabia to help him with his thorny Middle East political agenda and keep a cap on oil prices, the conservative nation, the home of Islam's two most sacred sites, Mecca and Medina, is facing internal social fissures and a growing debate over how much to embrace Western reforms.

Though Abdullah, who turns 85 this weekend, has carefully pushed through modest changes, there are simmering frustrations with the slow pace and concerns that a more traditional successor could bring the tentative transition to a halt.

Since becoming king in 2005, Abdullah has appointed the first female deputy minister to his cabinet, sought to dilute the power of the feared religious police and established a widely hailed program to re-integrate former militants into Saudi society.

Abdullah wins praise, even from his critics, for his attempts to balance demands from many Saudis for a more open society with resistance from powerful relatives who fear that the changes are eroding the kingdom's deep-rooted conservative values.

"There is a difference between stability and dormancy," said Ihsan Bu-Hulaiga, an economist who just stepped down after serving 12 years on Saudi's mostly-male advisory Shura Council.

"To be dormant is negative," Bu-Hulaiga said. "To be stable is positive. There is reform — and there is also stability in a very turbulent region."

Some, however, view talk of stability as an excuse to stall changes in a country where women are barred from driving, alcohol is largely banned, and stores close for prayer up to five times a day.

The push for change is rooted in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., in which 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. That cast a harsh light on the oil-rich U.S. ally and prompted then-President George W. Bush to pressure Saudi Arabia to embrace Western democracy and values.

The U.S. pressure melded with demographic shifts in the kingdom, where more than half the 28 million residents are under 25.

Allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia has become something of a bellwether. Many activists don't consider it the most important change, but the fact that the kingdom continues to impose the ban is viewed as a sign that bigger reforms will be even more difficult.

Last year, Saudi activist Wajeha al Huwaider openly challenged the law by filming herself driving to commemorate International Women's Day.

Her protests have had little effect.

The stagnation helped fuel al Huwaider's latest protest this summer over Saudi laws that require women to obtain permission from a male guardian before doing basic things such as opening a bank account or leaving the country.

The issue came to a head for al Huwaider last month when she forgot to bring two copies of her approval when she was driving to Bahrain so she could fly to the U.S. for her son's college graduation.

After much wrangling and a fax from her ex-husband (who is still the male guardian she must ask to sign letters so she can leave Saudi Arabia), al Huwaider was allowed to travel.

The standoff, however, prompted al Huwaider to stage repeated protests at the Saudi border with Bahrain to challenge the country's strict controls over women's lives.

"I don't understand how any free country can accept dealing with such a government," she said. "This is slavery of the 21st century. How can you tell if a person is a slave? If they have no control over their lives. And we cannot live a normal life without a man."

Saudi activists are concerned that Obama will temper his criticism of the kingdom because he needs Saudi help on virtually every Middle East issue — from accepting Guantanamo prisoners and battling Islamic extremists in Afghanistan to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions and brokering Arab-Israeli peace.

"This is one thing that makes America's stand in the region very weak because they are willing to turn the blind eye to the undemocratic practices of regimes because they need their help in the war against terrorism, with oil," al Omran said. "This makes it really hard to believe Americans when they say they are serious about democracy and human rights in the region."

Saudi Arabia also is drawing new criticism for its internal crackdown on terrorism, a problem that threatens to destabilize the kingdom.

Following car bomb attacks on Riyadh compounds that killed 35 people in 2003, Saudi Arabia launched a prolonged campaign to curb militants in the country.

The country has won international respect for its ongoing program to re-educate militants and re-integrate them into society.

Amnesty International, however, issued a report this month that accuses the kingdom of using secret trials, torture and questionable killings to suppress human rights.

"These unjust anti-terrorism measures have made an already dire human rights situation worse," said Malcolm Smart, the director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program. "The Saudi Arabian government has used its powerful international clout to get away with it. And the international community has failed to hold the government to account for these gross violations."

Another looming concern for skeptics is who'll succeed Abdullah.

While change may not be coming fast enough for these activists, both agree that Abdullah has made slow progress.

That could come to a halt if the royal family chooses a more conservative successor.

At present, many analysts predict that the next Saudi leader could be Prince Nayef, the country's interior minister and a critic of Abdullah's democratic reforms.

"The government could be bolder in its reforms," said one Western diplomat based in Riyadh, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his criticism of the Saudi government. "Prince Nayef has moderated his positions so I don't think reforms will go backwards, but the speed will slow."


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