The removal of the much-feared head of the religious police known for its excesses. The dismissal of the most senior cleric on the Supreme Justice Council, a man who approved of the killing of TV executives who broadcast “decadent programming” and opposed essential judicial reforms. And the appointment of the first woman as deputy minister.
One can stop at the symbolism of these recent governmental decisions in Saudi Arabia and praise King Abdullah’s boldness in confronting the Kingdom’s conservative factions, as do many Saudi commentators and foreign observers. One can deride these decisions as mere window-dressing on the part of a fundamentally rigid, uncompromising system. And one can dispute the Islamic merits of such moves, as have done various fundamentalist factions.
All this would be missing the point. It is fashionable to criticise the pace of change in Saudi Arabia. And by the admission of its rulers as well as the assessment of international organisations, the Kingdom has a long way to go. The country still fares poorly in terms of human rights, education, women’s participation, judicial standards and other important measures of development. Despite efforts by the current King, the Shia minority continues to suffer from institutionalised discrimination. The differences between the rough and austere inland Najdi traditions and the cosmopolitanism of the Hejaz region have survived 90 years of Najdi domination.
But then again, the nature of change in Saudi Arabia is unprecedented. Apart from Yemen, certainly a historical and political oddity in the region, this is after all the largest, most populous, and arguably least pliable of all the young states of the Arabian Peninsula. And the challenges it faces are therefore exponentially greater than those of the smaller, more flexible UAE and Kuwait for instance. No other country has seen such transformation.
At the heart of the harshest criticism of the House of Saud is the notion that family dynamics and the influence of the conservative religious establishment combined are fundamental obstacles to any meaningful reform. The record of the 1980s and 1990s shows that there is truth to this charge. Back then, an insecure Saudi Arabia reversed much of the progress it had made in previous decades. Saudi citizens gladly volunteer their bitterness and frustration at this time of wasted opportunities.
These days, though, family dynamics are well managed by King Abdullah. There are certainly differences 0of opinion among the senior princes, which is often the case in the consultative systems of the region, but there is no obvious paralysis in the decision-making process and no flagrant obstruction of the King’s decisions. Rather the gradual opening guided from the King’s diwan is gathering momentum and support, not only among elites but also average citizens.
And the religious establishment is being tamed. The interfaith initiative of King Abdullah is certainly aimed at reassuring the world that Islam and other faiths can coexist peacefully, but it is as much a message to his own people that they have everything to gain from opening up to other cultures.
These messages are increasingly resonant among a population long sceptical but now increasingly convinced of the boldness of its ruler. A disillusioned Saudi friend living in Los Angeles told me that the governmental shuffle may well prompt her to return home after a ten year absence.
And if she does, she will find a changing country. The space for debate in Saudi Arabia is expanding. The opinion pages of the reformist Al Watan are as lively as any other newspaper in the region. Senior princesses publicly call for a revision of the stringent constraints on women’s lives. Shia discontent finds resonance among other sectors of society. Criticism of government performance and religious influence abounds.
But there is also an appreciation that the process of modernisation needs legitimacy and commitment.
If there were any doubts about the legitimacy and the capacity of the Saudi system to manage change, then one needs to look a few years back. When al Qa’eda attacks rocked Riyadh in May 2003 and in Khobar in May 2004, there was a sense that the Saudi leadership was on shaky ground. More seasoned observers feared something else: that the attacks would pressure the Kingdom to again veer toward a more stringent Islamic direction to placate its domestic critics, just as it had in 1979 when Islamic zealots took over the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
Rather, not only did the Saudi system survive and articulate sophisticated responses to its home-grown extremism, it pushed ahead with its reform. A regime once accused of burying its head in the sand countered by launching ambitious reforms in its educational and judicial systems.
Success in Saudi Arabia is not yet guaranteed. The global economic downturn is hitting at the worst moment, just as Saudi Arabia is becoming an industrial power ready to flood the world with petrochemical products. More importantly, the reformist agenda is so linked to the king’s influence and persona that there are doubts that it can survive him. But one cannot divorce Saturday’s personnel changes from the desire of the King to create a lasting legacy of modernisation.
Such continuity will largely depend on the very sensitive question of succession and the potential rivalries that may then emerge. The King has installed a new succession mechanism known as the Allegiance Council and rumours are plentiful about who is up or down, but as any close watcher of Saudi Arabia would admit: “Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.”
Still, there is one thing we do know about Saudi Arabia: its success is essential to the region. And after these reforms, its chances for success are far greater.
Emile El-Hokayem is a Non-Resident Fellow in the Southwest Asia/Gulf Program at the Stimson Center and the Politics Editor of the UAE-based The National newspaper. This article first appeared in the National on February 18, 2009.