Commentary by Mai Yamani

Saudi Arabia's Theater of Reform

Having raised expectations for real political reform in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has instead announced that the time for change has not yet arrived. After reshuffling the cabinet, everything remains the same. A commentary by Mai Yamani

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz talks during the opening session of the Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2007 (photo: AP)
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah was hailed as a moderate reformer - but the talk of reform cannot mask the realities of stagnation, says Mai Yamani

​​The Saudi population, 50% of which is under 15 years old, will continue watching the same old princes on national TV, some who have been in office for forty years, symbolizing the rot at the heart of Saudi politics. The paradox here is that as Saudi Arabia becomes far more active diplomatically in trying to sort out the problems and Iraq, it has become paralyzed domestically.

This was not what ordinary Saudis expected. For the past year and a half, they were anticipating a cabinet reshuffle intended to enhance the king's reputation as a keen advocate of reform.

The symbolic significance of a new cabinet was expected to reflect its redefinition of the Saudi nation and its future. There was hope of inclusion of marginalized groups, such as a Shia minister for the first time in the Kingdom's history, and action against corruption, represented by the removal of long-serving ministers.

Masking the realities of stagnation

Instead, a crippling malaise has engulfed the Kingdom, as Saudi Arabia's peculiar inertia has produced idle talk of reform that cannot mask the realities of stagnation. The inertia goes beyond the cabinet reshuffle: the judiciary – with 700 judges – also remains unchanged.

The irony is that while King Abdullah has energetically taken on a leading role in the region's turbulent affairs, he seems unable to respond to Saudi Arabia's acute lag in democratic reform in comparison to neighbors like Jordan and the Gulf states.

So why is Abdullah not exercising leadership? And why, despite international pressure and domestic desire, did he not appoint a successor to the ailing Crown Prince Sultan, for the tradition of the Saudi kings is to have not only the direct but the second in line to the throne known? Why are the Wahhabi clerics, the main opponents of reform and progress, continually indulged as the Kingdom's de facto co-rulers?

An almost insurmountable roadblock

Abdullah, simply put, is not master of his own house. While it is easy to hold hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or US President George W. Bush, such reassuring images of cordial relationships are harder to come by at home. Abdullah faces the obstinacy of dozens of half-brothers and the recalcitrance of thousands of male cousins and nephews, in addition to the dogmatic admonitions of the entrenched Wahhabis.

photo: AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in Riyadh on his first official visit to Saudi Arabia, a trip that many in the region hope will help calm sectarian tensions threatening the Middle East

​​These opposing forces within the Kingdom have created an almost insurmountable roadblock. With consensus seemingly impossible, formulation of any coherent policy to meet the nation's needs is beyond reach. Instead the al-Saud princes and their Wahhabi partners live in wary co-existence, dominating different spheres of influence.

Inertia in Saudi Arabia is deeply rooted in its two sources of legitimacy, oil and Islam.

Since Abdullah became king in August 2005, high oil prices have sustained the old system of patronage, paying people for silence and stifling any initiative for change. Moreover, the Saudi king's role as custodian of Islam's holy places is misused to stall reform, saying that any change must be carefully calibrated and engineered to meet the unique situation of a nation that carries this awesome responsibility.

Saudi Arabia's pseudo-democracy

Reform in Saudi Arabia is in every sense a bizarre compromise between the opposing forces of the al-Saud's prominent wings and the forces of the official Wahhabi religious establishment. One result has been pseudo-democracy. Municipal elections have taken place, but they were partial, heavily managed, and of no consequence. The Shoura, or consultative council, is toothless: appointed by the king, it is unable to legislate and will remain un-elected for the foreseeable future.

The same is true of the "National Dialogue" set up by Abdullah but not legitimized by the official Wahhabi establishment. Talks among representatives of Shia, Wahhabi-Ismaili, and other sects within the National Dialogue were recently televised, but this was pure theater of reform, nothing more, and the Saudi population is no longer willing to suspend its disbelief.

Exposure to the outside world through travel, satellite TV, and the Internet has increased public demand for political rights, including the democratic representation that state paternalism has historically denied.

Saudi Arabia is not an island

The borders of the kingdom cannot be sealed to ideas and from the desire for change, with people avidly watching Al Jazeera – officially banned in Saudi Arabia – as it reports about elections in Kuwait and democratic debates in other Gulf countries.

Denial is not a policy; it is a suicide pact. Oil and Islamic custodianship can allow the rulers to fund a false sense of security, but only for so long. Oil prices go down as well as up. Like people, nations that deceive themselves are consigned to a future of uncertainty and instability.

But self-deception is a choice. Many of the Saudi octogenarian princes, and especially King Abdullah, know what needs to be done. The people also know what needs to be done. If the monarchy consults them and begins to manage expectations properly, reconciliation and stability remain possible.

Mai Yamani

© Project Syndicate 2007

Mai Yamani is an author and broadcaster. Her most recent book is Cradle of Islam.

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