x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Younger royals find their voices

Two Saudi princes have broken with tradition to speak their mind on matters of national interest - even questioning the actions of family members.

An elderly man outside his shanty home. A Saudi prince last month publicly commented on the country's uneven distribution of its wealth.
An elderly man outside his shanty home. A Saudi prince last month publicly commented on the country's uneven distribution of its wealth.

JEDDAH // The criticism by a young Saudi prince of the kingdom's development plans - the first time a member of the royal family has publicly questioned the country's policies - has been interpreted as a positive sign by reformists. In an opinion piece in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat on June 26, Prince Fahad bin Saad Al Saud, a little-known member of the royal family, commenting on an interview with Saleh Al Omair, a former deputy minister of finance, touched on such issues as the uneven distribution of the country's wealth and the government's failure to meet the objectives of several five-year plans that had been laid out by Mr Al Omair between 1975 and 1996. Prince Fahad said he admired Mr Al Omair for saying in his interview with al Eqtisadiah newspaper that many regions in Saudi Arabia were lagging far behind others in economic development. The prince suggested that some regions received larger funds because influential figures from there had been appointed to the government. It is the second time in less than a month that a Saudi prince has publicly aired an opinion. Prince Khalid bin Talal, in an interview with the hardline Islamist website Lojainiat last month, openly criticised the practices of his brother, Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, one of the world's richest men, as un-Islamic, and even called for the freezing of his brother's assets to bring him back to the "righteous path". Prince Khaled accused his brother of disseminating vice through his media empire and said Prince Al Waleed's plans to open a cinema in Saudi Arabia was the final straw. Prince Khalid then made an apology to the government, his family, Saudi Arabia and Muslims for his brother's "misguided" practices. It has long been known that there is a split between liberals and conservatives in the royal family, but they have always been hidden from the public. Mohammed al Qahtani, a Saudi reformist and an assistant professor of economics at the Riyadh-based Institute of Diplomatic Studies, said members of the royal family making such criticisms was a groundbreaking development. "Criticising the development strategy of the kingdom is no longer a taboo and young princes are trying to get involved in the country's development," Prof al Qahtani said. It is becoming more acceptable in Saudi Arabia for young princes to speak with the media, as a younger generation of western-educated members of the royal family are taking higher posts in the government. "There is a big change in the mindset of the young generation of Saudi princes. They are more critical than the previous generation and they are more open for criticism," Prof al Qahtani said. "Young princes like Abdul Aziz bin Salman, the deputy minister of oil, are open to criticism and they have no reservations to discuss shortcomings publicly." Still, Prof al Qahtani said there were limitations to such political openness and not all kinds of criticism were accepted by the young members of the royal family. "They [young princes] only accept constructive criticism that is pointed towards the public policies," he said. Some commentators, however, disagree with the apparent outspokenness of Saudi's young royals. Ali Al Mosa, an English literature professor at King Khalid University, wrote in Alwatan daily last month that he disapproved of young princes appearing in the media. Prof Al Mosa said their engagement in public debate in the media could diminish the image of the royal family as a container of different currents in the Kingdom as its members shouldn't align themselves with any current publicly. "The [royal family] should remain an umbrella [impartial] above all," Prof Al Mosa wrote. Still, other developments this year seem to indicate a growing awareness within Saudi officialdom of the need for transparency. In April, the General Auditing Bureau, the Kingdom's top governmental anti-corruption agency, sought the king's intervention in recovering public funds from other state agencies after the head of the bureau, Osama Faqeeh, publicly denounced state agencies for not co-operating with the body. Before King Abdullah came to power in 2005, it was uncommon for a Saudi official or a leading figure to openly criticise government strategies or announce information related to the use and allocation of public money. There have been calls recently from the Saudi parliament, the Shoura Council, to improve official accountability and transparency. Many members have called for the Shoura Council and the General Auditing Bureau to be allowed to supervise government spending. In his interview with al Eqtisadiah, Mr Al Omair, the former deputy minister of finance, said the Shoura Council should be charged with supervising the country's budget. Prof al Qahtani agreed. "The Shoura Council doesn't have the authority to hold ministers accountable for their misuse of public money, and without such an authority things will not improve substantially," he said. wmahdi@thenational.ae