x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Saudi king to return after surgery to royal welcome

Many Saudis hope King Abdullah will implement reforms which can prevent the kind of political upheaval that is destabilising neighbouring states

A huge poster of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz that reads in Arabic, 'Thank God for your safety, king of hearts'.
A huge poster of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz that reads in Arabic, 'Thank God for your safety, king of hearts'.

RIYADH // A royal return has this city in a celebratory mood.

Thousands of Saudi flags are flapping in the breeze. Giant portraits of King Abdullah are affixed to scores of stolid office buildings. And the city's main boulevards are decked with banners hailing the monarch as "a great leader" and someone who is "in our hearts".

Today's anticipated return of King Abdullah from a three-month absence for back surgery in New York and convalescence in Morocco, is being marked in many other ways.

Newspapers are rolling off the presses with full-page welcome messages. The health ministry has extended visiting hours so children can "share this precious occasion" with relatives in hospital, a spokesman said. And Saudi TV will honour the king's arrival by launching a second sports channel.

His return takes place against the historic backdrop of revolutionary change throughout the Middle East. These upheavals, which have already ousted two Arab leaders, and threaten the complacency of many others, have dramatically altered Saudi Arabia's external environment.

The departures of Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak have robbed Riyadh of key allies. In Yemen and Bahrain, street protesters are demanding major political reforms. And even before the wave of uprisings began in mid-January, Saudi Arabia suffered a setback in Lebanon, where a premier backed by Hizbollah displaced the pro-Saudi prime minister Saad Hariri.

Meanwhile, Saudis have been wondering and debating among themselves how these momentous external events might affect their internal situation. And there are high expectations that their returning monarch, who has been fairly reticent on the region's turmoil so far, will give some indication of how his government intends to respond to these historic events.

"We are waiting for the king, we want to hear something from him," said Suliman Aljimaie, an attorney in Jeddah.

Mr Aljimaie added that he is apprehensive about the disorder he sees on his television screen. "This speed of change is not good," he said, noting how Tunisia and Egypt both lost long-time presidents within a month.

King Abdullah is probably the most counter-revolutionary force in the kingdom because he is such a popular figure among Saudis, who say they like his piety, straightforward manner and concern for his people. Many Saudis still look to him to bring about the changes they say must happen: halting corruption, creating employment and promoting opportunities for women.

But it is evident in a number of ways that Saudis are not unaffected by what has been happening in the region.

Recently. a group of 10 moderate Islamists, including lawyers and university professors, announced they had formed a political party, even though such groups are banned. The Islamic Umma Party's website asked for elections so ordinary citizens could participate in running the government.

Most of the 10 were taken in for questioning, and at least four are still being held, according to Mohammed al Qahtani, a Riyadh-based human rights activist.

A group of women has launched a campaign called Baladi (My Country" to promote women's participation in the next, as yet unscheduled, municipal elections.

Another group of Saudis used Facebook to list a dozen reforms they want to see, including elections, an independent judiciary, greater economic transparency, stronger anti-corruption campaigns, promotion of women's rights and a fairer distribution of the country's wealth.

The page has drawn more than 7,000 members. Meanwhile, around 40 media workers and rights activists have signed an open "A Letter to the King", which calls for "a chain of wise decisions" to promote "internal stability and national unity". The letter was inspired, the signers said, by recent actions taken by Arab youth, and is in line with the king's encouragement of national dialogue.

In another forum, Prince Talal Abdul Aziz, an outspoken liberal member of the royal family, warned in a BBC television interview last week that Saudi Arabia risked future revolution if his half-brother, the king, did not introduce political reforms. Although Prince Talal is regarded as a maverick without major support within the royal family, several Saudis said his interview has been a major topic of conversation in the kingdom.

But many Saudis are content with the political situation as it is and are leery of change. They defer to religious leaders such as Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheikh, who said in a recent sermon that Egypt's pro-democracy uprising had been fomented by "enemies of Islam" aiming to "tear apart" the Muslim nation.

Saudi Arabia's powerful interior minister reportedly agrees. In a meeting last week with newspaper editors, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, who also serves as second deputy prime minister, said there was a big difference between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and that the kingdom is immune to the winds of change blowing from Cairo, according to several participants.

The government has made an apparent effort to be more responsive to citizen complaints on two fronts in recently.

Anger over its ineffective handling of the Jeddah floods in late January prompted officials to promise a full investigation of those responsible for leaving the city without a proper drainage system. To send that message home, Saudi television broadcast a meeting between Prince Khalid bin Faisal, the governor of Mecca region, and several prominent journalists. The government also released three Shiite rights activists who had been held for months without charge, as well as Mohammed al Abdul Karim, an assistant professor of Sharia at Imam Muhammad bin Saud University, who was detained last December after writing an essay critical of how the royal family handles succession.