x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Change in Saudi Arabia could come from conservative view

The death of the Saudi crown prince highlights that the kingdom is at a crossroads.

The death of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz Al Saud on Saturday morning after a long battle against cancer highlights the crossroads where Saudi Arabia now stands.

Prince Sultan, estimated to have been about 82 when he died, had been ill for many years, and rumours circulated that he had been in a coma for weeks. His passing leaves the path open for the second deputy premier and Interior Minister, Prince Naif ibn Abdulaziz, a half-brother of King Abdullah and a staunch conservative, to be appointed by the Allegiance Council as the new crown prince.

Prince Naif has long been a powerful authority figure in Saudi Arabia for his iron fist in dealing with Al Qaeda in the country and for his imprisonment of reformers. He has spoken out several times against various reforms in the kingdom, especially those dealing with women.

In 2004, when the government announced that municipal elections would be held again for the first time since 1963, Prince Naif said he did not see why women should be allowed to vote. He has also been seemingly at odds with the decree this September that Saudi women be allowed to vote and contest the 2015 municipal elections and serve in the consultative Shura council.

Saudi Arabia has had to move fast to counter the spillover of the Arab Spring, including growing protests by minority Shia in the Eastern Province, and by women demanding the right to drive. In February, shortly after returning from recuperation abroad, King Abdullah announced a financial aid package worth $35 billion (Dh129 billion) that included higher salaries for government workers, construction of more subsidised housing for poorer Saudis and support for the unemployed.

But challenges remain. Continuing clashes between young Shiite protesters and security forces in Shia-majority areas underscore how this could easily become a major problem if not handled well. There have been suggestions of easing tensions by appointing a Shia notable to a cabinet position and stopping mosques from demonising Shia Saudis as being heretics, but analysts do not see this happening soon.

More pressing concerns for the country are the millions of unemployed Saudi youth, both male and female, and the increasingly louder demands of women who want the right to drive and an end to the male sponsorship system, which blocks Saudi women from travelling abroad, opening a bank account or even undergoing an operation without the written consent of a male guardian.

Alongside the boom in oil revenues over the last several years, the government faces a growing population, estimated in 2010 at just over 20 million people, which is hungry for jobs, better housing and a bigger say in how the country is run. This is not to say that a better educated youth, and one more connected to the worldwide web, is demanding full democracy, but they are demanding better results from those who govern them. The public outcry over corruption following the 2009 floods in Jeddah, which left more than 122 dead and 350 missing, were certainly a shock to a nation not used to such articulate and emotional responses by outraged residents, who posted videos on YouTube showing the devastation.

In a bid to tackle the unemployment problem - officially about 10 per cent of the working-age male population, but that statistic is estimated to reach at least 40 per cent among Saudi men aged 18 to 24, and an even higher percentage of women - the Saudi labour ministry launched an aggressive Saudisation programme this year that aimed to give more jobs to Saudis at the expense of more than five million foreigners currently living in the kingdom. It is too soon to know if a new system of awarding points to companies based on the number of Saudis they employ and train will yield positive results, but it does mark a new determination to get Saudis into jobs.

Leaders also face a growing trend of Saudis seeking a greater say in the country's affairs. Many have found that the municipal councils, of which only half the seats are elected (the other half are appointed by the government), have no real power since all of their budgets are strictly controlled by the central government in Riyadh.

Meanwhile the best-organised political forces in the country are Islamists, who have been able to organise in mosques. The liberals have traditionally been good at complaining, but have so far not been able to show themselves as a viable political force.

But is important to note that King Abdullah was also considered a conservative before he became king, and later pursued reformist policies. Prince Naif may likewise move to the centre and continue to push the reforms started by King Abdullah. Indeed, some analysts of Saudi affairs have said that a monarch with conservative credentials would have the standing to advance substantial reforms.

The trick will be in balancing the often-conflicting demands of the ultra-conservative religious establishment, and a younger population that wants the ability to lead independent lives without being harassed at every corner by the religious police and the government.

 

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh is a Saudi journalist and analyst. He blogs at www.rasheedsworld.com