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. The Saudi population, 50 percent of which is under 15 years of age, will continue watching the same princes on television, some who have been in office for 40 years. The paradox is that as Saudi Arabia becomes far moreactive diplomatically in trying to sort out regional problems and the situation in Iraq, it has become more 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 Shiite minister for the first time in the kingdom’s history, and action against corruption, represented by the removal of long-serving ministers.
Instead, a 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 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.
Why is reform not progressing like it should have? And why, despite international pressure and domestic desire, did the king not appoint a successor to the ailing crown prince, 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?
King Abdullah, simply put, faces powerful internal challenges. While he can meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or US President George W. Bush, such images of cordial relationships are harder to come by at home. The king must deal with the obstinacy of dozens of half-brothers and the recalcitrance of thousands of male cousins and nephews, in addition to the dogmatism of the entrenched Wahhabis.
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, stifling any initiative for change. Moreover, the Saudi king?s role as custodian of Islam’s two holiest places has been indirectly used to stall reform, with opponents saying that any change must be carefully calibrated and engineered to meetthe unique situation of a nation that carries this awesome responsibility.
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 Shura, orconsultative 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 King Abdullah but not legitimized by the official Wahhabi establishment. Talks among representatives of Shiite, Wahhabi-Ismaili, and other sects within the National Dialogue were recently televised, but this was a theater of reform, nothing more, and the Saudi population is no longer willing tosuspend its disbelief.
Exposure to the outside world through travel, satellite television, and the Internet has increased public demand for political rights, including the democratic representation that state paternalism has historically denied. 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 don’t face up to the need for change are consigned to a future of uncertainty.
But self-deception is a choice. Many of the Saudi princes, 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 is an author and broadcaster. Her most recent book is “Cradleof Islam. THE DAILY STAR publishes this in collaboration with ProjectSyndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).