Thursday, 30 September 2010

Economist - Reform in Saudi Arabia: At a snail's pace

Saudis have gained a bit more freedom but still await fundamental change

A recent report on political reform in Saudi Arabia by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby group, argues that although gradual changes are welcome, unless they are properly institutionalised the kingdom risks sliding backwards again, as it has done many times before. “Newly gained freedoms are, for the most part, neither extensive nor firmly grounded,” the report concludes. “The limited reform that has taken place suggests the elite is still floating trial balloons, undecided about the type of government and society it wants to steer towards.”

On some specific human-rights issues, the report praises the kingdom’s progress: reform of the justice system, women’s rights and freedom of expression. Yet it notes with concern that, whereas legal reform is one of the areas where changes are under way, new courts have yet to materialise, and new, transparent procedures have yet to be put into practice. Greater freedom of speech is not codified, and so remains subject to arbitrary intervention by the state. Earlier this year, a newspaper editor made the mistake of printing a blunt critique of puritan religious beliefs, and was summarily fired. As for women’s rights, an official loosening of the ban against the mixing of the sexes in public places has not been widely implemented. The same goes for an ostensible liberalisation of rules that require women to have a male “guardian”. Women are still forbidden to drive.

As for other issues, the report discerns no real progress either in ending religious discrimination against the Shia minority or in improving the position of Saudi Arabia’s estimated 8m immigrant labourers. Gestures of tolerance to the Shia by the king himself have not been matched by a relaxation of restrictions on Shia worship. Shia dissidents still face harsh, systematic repression. Most foreign workers lack basic rights and, unlike other Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia has taken no steps to abolish the onerous kafala or sponsorship system, whereby Saudi employers take possession of expatriates’ passports, and can deny them the right to travel.

And there remains one big subject that the report leaves aside. Saudis have heard barely a whisper of one day setting the pace of change themselves, by winning the right to vote in elections.

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