Commentary / World

Saudi Arabia hosts a theater of reform

by Mai Yamani

PRAGUE — Having raised expectations for real political reform in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has 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 old, will continue watching the same old princes on national TV, some who have been in office for 40 years, symbolizing the rot at the heart of Saudi politics. The paradox here is that as Saudi Arabia becomes far more active diplomatically in trying to sort out the problems and Iraq, it has become 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 crippling 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 Cabinet 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 compared to neighbors like Jordan and the Gulf states.

So why is Abdullah not exercising leadership? And why, despite international pressure and domestic desire, did he not appoint a successor to the ailing Crown Prince Sultan, 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?

Abdullah, simply put, is not master of his own house. While it is easy to hold hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or U.S. President George W. Bush, such reassuring images of cordial relationships are harder to come by at home. Abdullah faces the obstinacy of dozens of half brothers and the recalcitrance of thousands of male cousins and nephews, in addition to the dogmatic admonitions 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, paying people for silence and stifling any initiative for change. Moreover, the Saudi king’s role as custodian of Islam’s holy places is misused to stall reform, saying that any change must be carefully calibrated and engineered to meet the 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 Shoura, or consultative 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 Abdullah but not legitimized by the official Wahhabi establishment. Reform talks among representatives of Shiite, Wahhabi-Ismaili and other sects within the National Dialogue were recently televised, but this was pure theater, nothing more, and the Saudi population is no longer willing to suspend its disbelief.

Exposure to the outside world through travel, satellite TV, 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 news — officially banned in Saudi Arabia — as it reports about elections in Kuwait and democratic debates in other Persian 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 deceive themselves are consigned to a future of uncertainty and instability.

But self-deception is a choice. Many of the Saudi octogenarian princes, and 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.