Saudi Arabia: All Puffed Up And Stalling On Reform


Just now, the law seems to be holding true. Only a few years ago, shrunken oil earnings had roused fears of mass unemployment at home and of less Saudi influence abroad. The Al Sauds hated American policy on Iraq, Israel, Palestine and the promotion of democracy, but stayed sullenly silent. A combination of American badgering and mounting dissent inside Saudi Arabia prompted talk of an urgent need for change. Women and minorities gained slightly wider freedoms; sweeping reform of the Wahhabist-run education and judicial systems were mooted. Elections in 2005 for half the seats on town councils were the ultra-conservative kingdom’s first public polls in 42 years.


But four consecutive years of plenty have nearly doubled the Saudi GDP to $350 billion. Last year’s $100 billion current-account surplus helped boost the government’s foreign-asset hoard to a record $250 billion. That cushion seems to have boosted the Al Saud family’s confidence, too. Their renewed clout is beginning to be felt in the region, with the staunchly Sunni kingdom belatedly moving to counter the growing influence of its greatest rival for Muslim leadership, Iran. Alarmed by the spectre of facing a nuclear power across the Gulf, spooked by the rise of Shia militancy in Iraq, and annoyed by Iran’s sponsorship of Islamist causes in Palestine (via Hamas) and Lebanon (via Hizbullah), the Saudis have ramped up their diplomacy. In response, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was due this week to make his first official visit to Saudi Arabia.


Assuming effective leadership of what the American administration likes to call “moderate” Muslim states, the kingdom has acted as a quiet good cop to counterpoint the bad-cop belligerence of its oldest ally, America. While shying from any endorsement of a future American strike on Iran, the Saudis have signalled in myriad ways that they are prepared to confront their rival, whether by hinting they will back Sunni insurgents in Iraq, by letting Saudi clerics issue anti-Shia fatwas or by pointedly leaving Iran out of inter-Muslim consultations, such as a meeting of foreign ministers recently held in Pakistan. In Lebanon, Saudi support has bolstered the ruling Sunni-led government against a Hizbullah-led coalition’s effort to topple it. And by summoning clashing Palestinian factions to Mecca for make-or-break talks to form a unity government last month, the Saudis wielded their Muslim prestige and financial clout to reassert


The fact that not all this manoeuvring meets America’s approval is another sign of Saudi confidence. The deal between Hamas and the secular Fatah party of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, failed to force the Islamist party into conceding points that America, the European Union and Russia had demanded as a precursor to renewing peace talks. But in Saudi eyes it was perhaps wiser to wrench the Palestine file out of Iranian hands and to forestall Palestinian infighting than to be perceived as America’s enforcer.


Many Arabs and Sunni Muslims have been relieved to see Saudi Arabia take on the long-abandoned mantle of Arab leadership, a role likely to be consecrated at the annual Arab summit meeting to be held later this month in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. But the increase in the Al Sauds’ prestige, coinciding with the Bush administration’s apparent abandonment of its democracy project for the region, has also dampened the hopes of Saudi Arabia’s own would-be reformers.


They have reason to be concerned. After the fanfare of the elections, the kingdom’s town councils have proved even more toothless than cynics foretold. According to a law enacted in 2005, state employees, who make up two-thirds of the native Saudi workforce, are banned from saying anything in public that conflicts with official policy. Several dozen signatories to a 2004 petition calling for a transition to constitutional monarchy remain forbidden to travel. Three authors of a more recent reform petition are under arrest, charged, almost certainly spuriously, with funding terrorism.


Meanwhile, many of the kingdom’s real problems, including jihadist terrorism, remain unresolved. This week gunmen killed four French people weekending in the desert. Even Saudis who shrug off such incidents as the work of madmen or criminals admit to shock at the continuing excesses of the formal religious establishment. An appeals judge recently confirmed the forced divorce of a happily married couple on the grounds of tribal incompatibility. Another sentenced four Sri Lankan bank robbers to beheading, invoking a Muslim statute used against bandits. Women are still deprived of simple rights, such as the right to drive or to travel without a male guardian’s permission.


The kingdom may be envied and respected. But it is hardly a model that many others want to follow.

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