SAUDI ARABIA: Royal reform?


Rohan Pearce

On February 10, municipal elections were held in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh and its surrounds. The vote, the first since limited municipal elections in 1964, is to be followed by similar ballots in the south-western and eastern areas of the country on March 3 and in the country's north on April 21.

Participation in the election was limited to men over 21 years' old. In Riyadh, home to 4 million people, only 149,000 registered to take part in the ballot. The three elections will decide just half of the membership of the local councils; the other half will be appointed by the royal family.

Women were banned from voting on the grounds of "logistics", including the problem of providing separate polling booths for them. According to a November 17 briefing by Amnesty International, the head of Saudi Arabia's election committee, Prince Mut'ab bin Abdul Aziz, explained that he expects "women to participate in elections in future stages", but that it would be "after conducting studies to assess whether it is useful or not".

The municipal elections represent the latest attempt by the increasingly resented royal family to maintain the kingdom's fragile stability. While the monarchy has tried to present the image of reform, it remains mostly a facade.

For example, the day after the municipal elections were announced, in October 2003, a peaceful march calling for democratic reforms was broken up by Saudi riot police using live ammunition. As Tony Jones noted in a November 13, 2003, article for the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), "The authorities detained hundreds, administered beatings and affirmed that, in spite of suggestions to the contrary, it is business as usual in the desert kingdom".

Throughout the 1990s, the monarchy has been under mounting pressure from sections of the Islamic clergy and Saudi capitalists outside the royal family. An increasingly youthful population (38.3% of the population is 14 years' old or younger), is likely to have boosted the ranks of oppositionist movements. As an October 2001 MERIP briefing by Gwenn Okruhlik noted: "These young adults will register their demands for education, jobs and housing at the same time. But the Kingdom's once fabulous infrastructure, constructed during the [oil] boom, is now crumbling, particularly schools and hospitals. Unemployment among recent male college graduates is around 30%, likely higher."

So far, Islamic fundamentalist movements that employ terrorist tactics, including sympathisers of Osama bin Ladin's al Qaeda network, have been the beneficiaries of the rising dissatisfaction. Riyadh's support for Washington's violent foreign policy in the region, even if sometimes covert, has further fed resentment.

The crisis of the Saudi regime has been manifested in a series of spectacular violent terrorist attacks, particularly on targets associated with the West's propping up of the monarchy, such as the May 2003 attacks on Vinnell Corporation employees, who train the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

Islamic dissident activist Mohsen al Awaji told the November 6, 2003, edition of Lebanon's Daily Star that the groups carrying out the attacks are doing so "as a consequence of long-term oppression", and that they have turned to violence due to "an indirect reason and that is the lack of democracy".

While Washington has concerns about the monarchy's ability to keep control of the country, Saudi Arabia remains the key Arab ally of the US. While it remains protective of US interests in the region, it is not a candidate for Iraq-style "regime change", despite its appalling lack of democracy.

In his February 3 "state of the union" address, US President George Bush declared the US "will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world". But while Syria was threatened with economic and diplomatic sanctions in the speech and Iran was condemned for "pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve", Saudi Arabia's despots warranted: "The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future".

Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2003-2004, released by the US State Department on May 17, reported that the Saudi government's "human rights record remained poor; although there were improvements in a few areas, serious problems remained. Security forces continued to torture and abuse detainees and prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and detain them incommunicado. Mutawwa'in, religious police, continued to intimidate, abuse and detain citizens and foreigners with impunity. Most trials were closed, and defendants usually had no legal counsel."

The report noted infringements on the right to privacy and restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion and movement. Additionally, "Violence against women and children, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities and strict limitations on worker rights continued".

But instead of the sabre-rattling, economic sanctions and invasion that the US inflicts on other countries it accuses of such abuses, the report explains the US government is making occasional "expressions of concern", "urging" the Saudi government "to increase political participation, transparency and accountability in government"; developing programs to take a handful of Saudi journalists to the US for educational programs; and instituting a US$25,000 program to train the Saudi military in the "international norms of human rights".

Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2002, the Pentagon's arms export program delivered over $39.6 billion worth of weapons and military equipment to the kingdom, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
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