General Observations on Political Reforms
In Saudi Arabia

Good morning ladies and gentlemen
Political reforms in Saudi Arabia is a big issue; due to the limited time, my short talk will be on General Observations on Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia.

The first observation is about the impediments of the political reforms in the state. Why the neighboring countries such as Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar experienced a significant political transformation, while Saudi did not?
The answer lies in the following four impediments:

Firstly the royal family: I precisely mean the old generation of royals who are at the age group of 80. This conservative generation holds the vital positions in the government and at the same time rejects the changes.

Secondly the religious establishment: which is naturally in opposition to change whatsoever. Political reforms would firstly decrease its autonomous authority and share in the state; secondly political reforms will inevitably change the nature of the state’s religious characteristics. Political reforms also will eliminate the hegemonic and monotheistic orientation of Wahhabism and will lead to pluralism.

The third impediment is the weakness of the political culture among the Saudi citizens; until the late 1989, they were not politically involved as the rentier state was dominant and constraining force.

The forth impediment is the external factor, (mainly the US factor). Until recently the US government supported the Saudi dictatorship and saw the democratic Saudi Arabia as a threat; presumably, reforms will produce a patriotic government, which will change the pattern of relationship, it might reduce, although stabilize, the American interests. Democracy also might empower the Islamist.      The second observation is concerned with answering the questions: why Saudi Arabia must reform its self sooner rather than later? What are the major factors, which contribute to rapid and effective changes in the state? And to what extent is the Saudi society ready for political reforms? There are internal and external factors:

The internal factors are as follows:

1. The economic hardship and the decline of the era of the rentier state. The hardship could be derived from the fact that unemployment level has risen to over 30%; the internal debt is approximately 180 billion dollars; one economic analyst says that the state needs over 50 years to overcome this debt. In addition 70% of the population are under 21 years of age, which implies that the majority of the population do not belong to the Saudi welfare state. The economic crisis has a hug impact on political loyalty to both state and royal family. Therefore political reforms can reduce the tension in the society and provide the means to control corruption and mismanagement.

2. The expansion of middle class as a product of long-term process of modernization. In terms of size, it is the biggest in the Arab world. The government finds difficulties to co-opt this class and neutralize its tendency for change.

3. The political culture in the state has witnessed significant change since 1991, this change has been bolstered by satellite TV channels (such as Al Jazeera) and the internet. The monopoly of the state on information and thoughts has been greatly weakened. In fact the official institutions have lost their hold on the public attitude to foreign competitors.

4. The increasing popular consciousness has been accelerated by the deterioration of economic conditions, which is leading to resentment, and the rise of violence and crime rate.  The increasing violence based on socio-political motives generally is likely to lead to political reforms in order to ease the political tension and ensure political stability.

5. In the absence of civil society organizations, religion could be regarded as a political gate to reforms. A large number of people have been recruited and politicized through traditional channels. Today religion is a blunderer of legitimacy of the Saudi rule rather than a provider. This has been the result of the process of politicization of the official religious institutions.

Saudi Arabia Fajr time in Riyadh

The external factors:

This is the first time in decades the external factor ‘namely the American factor’ plays a positive role in political reforms in Saudi Arabia. Many Saudis are observing with a great deal of attention the recently announced initiative by the secretary of state Collin Powell.

From the American point of view, the 11th of September has been a turning point in the relationship with the Saudi Monarchy; the political reforms, or even democratization of Saudi Arabia has been seen as inevitable consequence of the 11th of September. Whereas the Saudi Royals are trying to resist the outside pressure, the American allies are threatening them by partitioning the kingdom or even overthrowing the Al Saud.

Two extremely challenging choices are confronting the Royal Family: either to resist internal and external pressure, which is likely to result in the partition of the state, or to accept a gradual change to preserve its position in the state. Seemingly they will choose the second option, although some strong Royals (such as Naif the minister of interior and Salman the governor of Riyadh) insist in defying and try to resist the pressure by strengthening the coalition with the fanatical Wahhabism. However, to spar Saudi Arabia from being a base for extremism, the western government should adhere to their democratic values in their relationship with our government and support the demands for political reforms without delay.

The third observation focuses on the progress of political reforms. After a decade of announcing the three orders launched in March 1992 (i.e. the order of regions, the order of consultative council and the basic order, which is the constitution), the people’s expectations and inspirations have not been satisfied yet. Nothing has been changed in government conduct nor in public demands. The main demands that the majority of the Saudis have agreed upon are:

1. Elections in both regional and national levels2. Radical judicial reforms 3. Women social and political emancipation

4. Freedom of expression, press, assembly and of belief

Up to now there are no indications that the Saudi Royal family have decided the direction of action that they will take. We only have many contradicting hints brought by rivalry wings within the family; the power struggle within the family is crippling the state’s apparatus and hindering the decisions that favor reforms.
The indications that we are waiting to hear are:

1. Sort of Liberalization which is the first step towards reforms, this implies eliminating the state’s control over media, press, social clubs, cultural clubs and so forth. Also we are waiting to hear an announcement regarding freeing all political prisoners.

2. Changing the form of political system, from absolute monarchy to representative and participatory government. This should start with essential change in the basic order (constitution) and stretch to the functions of consultative and regional councils.

3. The reforms should take into consideration the following facts and features. Firstly Saudi Arabia is a diverse society, whose regional, ethnic and religious differences are not yet recognized by the state. Pluralism must be reflected, embedded and manifested in state’s institutions. Secondly political representation of all regional and religious groups; the Saudi political system is primitive, closed and unaccommodating. A minority region and a specific minority sect also have dominated it. What we are asking for is ending the hegemonic relationship between the different social segments of the state; the political system should encourage political partnership rather than political hegemony and exclusion.
Thirdly decentralization is of huge importance; shifting some of the power from the central government to the regional authorities is essentially a vital step in the concentration of power, corruption, and political decay.

Saudi political system

The final observation concerns the failure of the state to reform itself. What will happen then? Considering the absence of tangible solutions for economic crisis, as well as there is no possible change in the government behavior, then there are two possible alternatives:

1. The increase of political violence, leading to the endangering internal and regional stability, as well as endangering constant oil supplies2. The rise of radical alternative such as separatist tendencies, mainly amongst the Shi’a in the Eastern Province and the Hejazis in the Western Province. This radical alternative could end the third phase of the Saudi State