Daily Times - 2/5/2006
There is a “real conflict” between members of the Saudi ruling family who want to handle discontent through reform and those who advocate doing so through security measures, which explains the limits of the current “political opening” in the kingdom, said a new study.
The study authored for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist and currently a senior associate at one of America’s leading think tanks, is not sure how the power balance between the two royal factions or schools would unfold. Some assert that the reformist faction lead by Prince Abdullah has gained momentum, while others hold that Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef and Prince Salman, the three traditionalists, have managed to marginalise the former and other moderates.
Fortified by the alliance with a powerful section of the royal family, the religious establishment has evolved into a vast network of institutions, universities, schools and specialised centres, the most important being the 20-member Council of Senior Ulema, set up in 1971 by royal decree and the kingdom’s highest religious authority. Since the 1970s, the study maintains, the religious establishment has grown more assertive and developed an aggressive fundamentalist dogma: official Wahabism. The ruling house’s legitimacy has been traded with the clerics authority to regulate society. This arrangement has given both sides the ability to contain the influence of other political actors, including liberals and reformers. The conservative establishment is critical of the reform measures advocated by the moderate faction. They have denounced educational reforms and women’s rights. Saudi observes, says the report hold that if the royal family really wishes to implement a measure, the clerics will fall in line in the end. This has happened on several occasions.
In recent years, notes the study, violent jihadi groups operating within and outside Saudi Arabia have attracted many former followers of the Islamic Awakening Movement to emerge and preach a radical ideology and become a serious security threat. Attacks carried out by them have enabled conservatives to push for more stringent security measures and slow down reform. At the same time, such violence has strengthened the liberals and moderates into demanding that the only viable strategy to secure the root causes of terrorism is to challenge radical ideologies.
Between 2002 and 2005, the study notes, the reform process has lead to significant, incremental measures including the strengthening of the Shura Council, the holding of municipal elections, educational reform and the launching of national dialogues. American pressure has played an important role in this change and would be needed to sustain the process. Reforms implemented by the Saudi government in recent years have revitalised consultative councils and introduced the mechanism of local elections. Although these changes represent a significant opening in Saudi politics, they have not altered the authoritarian nature of the political system fundamentally.
The royal family and the Wahabi establishment have sustained their domineering positions in society. The Shura Council has not acquired the legislative or oversight power to hold the government - let alone the royal family - accountable. Government promises to ensure an independent judiciary or limit cleric control have not gone beyond minimal administrative reform measures with no significant impact. Human rights continue to be violated despite the establishment of two human rights bodies. Given the concentration of power in the hands of the royal family and the religious establishment, the reform process can only be sustained if at least a portion of the Shura Council members are elected by the people. As for municipal councils, the number of non-elected members should be reduced from the present figure of 50 percent. The legalisation of NGOs remains restrictive and has to be approved by various officials. This needs to change.
The report considers education the most sensitive area of future reform. There has been no significant change in the educational system because of the resistance of the religious establishment, which had blocked many changes. There are also differences between liberal reformists and moderate Islamists, which have prevented them from forming a joint front. The former feel that the current curricula are generally superficial and detached from present-day issues. Moderate Islamists would like to keep the overall religious orientation of the curricula unchange and focus primarily on omitting extremist ideas regarding the Shia’s, Christians and Jews from textbooks. Small-scale reform steps have nevertheless been taken and remain plausible. Discriminatory references to other sects and other religions have not been entirely eliminated. Infusing tolerance and respect for the plurality of Islamic schools of thought has lagged in recent years. Teacher training programmes, including exchange of teachers, which have begun should be expanded. Gender equality, an emotional issue, is under discussion in the kingdom - women’s civil rights being at the core of the debate.
The study maintains that the Saudis are divided on the women’s issue and because of that, contradictory trends are emerging. Women are excluded as voters and candidates from municipal elections initially, but were later allowed to take part in professional syndicate elections. The religious establishment still wants women banned from the public sphere, but reformists have become more outspoken, often with the support of like-minded royals. There are few women in high-ranking government positions. The problem of domestic violence has been debated in recent years as well. However, the recognition of women in Saudi Arabia remains, at best, “a long way off.”
According to the study the current political opening in Saudi Arabia presents the US with a set of difficult challenges. Promoting reform in a society like the Saudi one is “inherently difficult” and domestic dynamics generate very few possibilities for a “significant” American role. US pressure for reform since 9/11 has been “inconsistent” and has had limited effect. The invasion of Iraq and the resulting turmoil has pushed the pendulum of US-Saudi relations back in the opposite direction. In the last two years, the Bush administration has softened its stance and lowered its profile on Saudi domestic issues. The royal family has resorted to what the study calls “scare tactics,” arguing that rapid, uncontrolled reforms would undermine its authority, leading to extremist takeover. Consequently, the US had abated its pressure for reform. However, the rift that 9/11 created between Riyadh and Washington has been largely repaired.
The study stresses that while the changes witnessed so far are significant, they do not mark the beginning of a Saudi democratisation process. “This is not a country that can be expected to legalise political parties or organise truly competitive elections in the near future. By the same token, the emergence of a powerful legislative authority or an independent judiciary is unlikely. Reforming the authoritarian polity in Saudi Arabia is bound to follow a slow path – an uneven process that entails the gradual expansion of political representation and the creation of new spaces where citizens enjoy unlimited freedoms. The US to hasten the process of change, should support the Saudi dissenting groups advocating reform and at the non-governmental level, it should offer to intensify its contacts with civil society actors. The Saudis should be persuaded to permit direct contacts between international organisations and domestic NGOs. On other issues, such as educational reform and gender equality, the US should keep a low profile, as they are highly sensitive and divisive.