Hope of Reform on Saudi’s Horizon

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Reformers know that there isn’t a prince from the House of Saud or the people around them who is not guilty of corruption. (Illustration: Nidal el-Khairy)

By: Jomana Farhat

Published Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The new Saudi Crown Prince is pragmatic and far less opposed to reform than his late predecessor. However, change is still hostage to stability within the royal family.

When the former Saudi crown prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz died, many people with reformist visions viewed the appointment of Nayef bin Abdulaziz as crown prince with trepidation. They all prayed that king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz would live for a long time in the hope that some of his reformist ideas and the services and development projects he had launched would come to fruition. They were afraid that Abdullah’s death and Nayef’s ascension to the throne would only drag the country backwards.

Reformers know that there isn’t a prince from the House of Saud or the people around them who is not guilty of corruption. They also realize that no prince is willing to introduce radical changes to the governing structure of the kingdom that will ultimately lead to undermining the ruling family’s hold on the country and its resources. For reformers, it has always been a choice between the lesser of two evils and not between good and bad.

Prince Nayef, in their view, was the worst of the worse. He never hesitated to express his hardline, anti-reformist positions. Many reformist personalities have, for 37 years, known first-hand the wrath that falls upon anyone who dared to disagree with the Interior Minister.

Concerns grew as news spread that King Abdullah’s health was declining and Nayef was taking his place in managing most matters - in effect becoming a shadow king.

With Nayef’s death, however, sights are set on the new crown prince, Salman bin Abdulaziz, the former governor of Riyadh. Those who know him say that he is a pragmatic thinker and that he makes decisions with interests and benefits in mind and not on appearances.

Wikileaks documents reveal that Salman has a long-term, rational vision which made him limit criticism of his Sudairi brothers, defend the king’s decisions at times and refuse to go against them.

Nevertheless, Salman’s appointment as crown prince will not necessarily represent a chance to relaunch reforms in the kingdom, which many believe are inevitable if the House of Saud is to prevent the kingdom’s imminent implosion.

The concern stems primarily from the fact that conditions inside the ruling family, even after Nayef’s death, are not ripe for reform. The strong-man’s death is disconcerting for the Saud family as he held all the strings of the state and was the only one able to “keep things in check,” including foreign policy. The royal family feel lost after his death especially because Prince Salman will not be able to step into his shoes despite the acceptance he enjoys inside the family.

Consequently, the ruling family will currently avoid raising any sensitive issues like political reforms which have always been a divisive matter among the princes, especially since they entail major concessions that need to be made to the people.

And it appears that the appointment of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz as Interior Minister and his relationship with Nayef’s son, Muhammad, who is thought to have been the shadow minister for years, will surely reflect on any reform measures.

Nevertheless, the list of demands that is called for by reformers is still the same and the point for them is in its implementation. The priority lies in introducing reforms and promoting democratic practices in the kingdom. Even though there are many questions about the effectiveness of municipal elections, they represent a starting point that should not be squandered.

Another important issue is allowing the freedom to form associations and political parties and turning the Consultative Assembly, or Shura Council, into an elected body as opposed to an appointed body. It is expected that Saudis will exercise their right to elect half the members of the Shura Council for the first time in the hope that the council in the future will be endowed with a political and an overseeing role and not just an advisory role as is the case today.

Another issue that reformists stress is releasing political prisoners who have been imprisoned without trials or were given nominal trials.

While political demands are divisive in Saudi Arabia as there is no uniform position regarding the reform agenda, there is a consensus among all sectors of society around economic and social concerns.

The protests that erupted in some Saudi universities a while back are a sign that the Saudi environment is susceptible to larger protests whenever the conditions are ripe.

The importance of what happened months ago lies in the fact that the protest did not start with a specific sectarian group, specifically the Shia minority which under Nayef was always dogged with questions about its loyalty and accusations of acting as a tool of foreign agency.

Rather, an essential segment of society decided to break its silence and express discontent at the decline in the services at the universities as in many other government facilities. That is why this issue is likely to develop at a faster pace in the coming period than the question of political reforms because this young segment proved that it is able to distance itself from sectarian tendencies and unite around a social demand.

Another issue that some are optimistic about is the lifting of the ban on female drivers. The death of the man who said “women will not drive cars as long as I live” makes granting women this right less complicated in light of the king’s flexibility on the issue and the lack of major opposition by the new crown prince.


What about Bahrain, Yemen and Iran?

Despite the dearth of information available about the current crown prince’s way of dealing with the Bahrain issue, there are signs that there might be an easing off of the situation. What supports this possibility is the fact that the late crown prince was the mastermind behind the Saudi policy of strangling the Bahraini revolution by sending Saudi troops to the island under the guise of the Peninsula Shield.

But the newcomer’s handling of the Bahrain issue is still not clear. After all, this is a highly sensitive matter linked to the conflict that has exhausted the entire region between Saudi Arabia and the US on one hand and Iran on the other. The new Saudi policy towards Bahrain might move in a more lenient direction under Salman with more likelihood of a dialogue ensuing between the Bahraini opposition and ruling family.

The Yemen issue has always received the highest degree of attention from the Saudi royal family, which believes that the situation in Yemen should remain under its control.

The appointment of Prince Salman as crown prince while he simultaneously presides over the Defense Ministry will surely have an effect on the situation in Yemen, specifically in terms of the Yemeni players benefiting from the financial allocations they receive from the “special committee.” Those who receive monthly salaries from the kingdom are concerned that the new crown prince might take decisions that would introduce changes to the “special committee.”

It is likely that the new crown prince will not pay much attention to the Yemeni issue for a while while he takes control of matters inside Saudi Arabia and sets things in order. There will not be a reassessment of the Yemeni question any time soon. Rather it looks like it will stay in the hands of the parties that have handled it since the death of Prince Sultan. Dealing with Yemen will be a function of the needs and developments of the situation inside the country. And the situation at this point does not seem to inspire much satisfaction.

On the Iranian issue, the crown prince has not made any important announcements. It appears that the kingdom’s policy vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic determines its leaders’ positions and not the other way around. It is clear that the policy of the new crown prince will not swing far from the kingdom’s established policies towards Iran especially considering they correspond to a large extent with US dictates and a shared concern over an Iranian military nuclear program and Shia influence in Arab countries under the rubric of exporting the revolution.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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