Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Waiting for Reform in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)

Originally published today in The Wall Street Journal, a wide-ranging and balanced article by Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke poses the question: "Is one man's will strong enough to deliver change in Saudi Arabia?" (talking about King Abdullah, of course!)
As King Abdullah al-Saud recovers from his recent surgery in the U.S., his subjects in Saudi Arabia may be wondering what their future holds. The 86-year-old monarch has long branded himself an advocate for reform in the conservative kingdom, saying he supports women's empowerment, increased tolerance for criticism and religious dialogue, and overhauling the justice system. So how far has he managed to take Saudi Arabia.

Last year, the country had reason to hope for dramatic changes. In February 2009 King Abdullah shuffled his cabinet and other government bodies, ousting hard-liners and even appointing the first woman to the position of deputy minister for education. The king began promoting his Interfaith Dialogue Initiative abroad to bring together leaders of various religions. And in November last year, when flash floods in Jeddah killed more than 120 people, he called for the prosecution of city officials whose shoddy planning had allegedly made the floods so deadly.

That's hardly a democratic revolution, but in Saudi Arabia, where entrenched political and religious elites militate against any reform, these were bold steps. Over the past few months though, even these gains have been squandered, and Saudi Arabia has seen setbacks in all these areas of human rights. ...

Saudis are now wondering whether anything at all will come of King Abdullah's reformist talk, and indeed whether he is the symbolic figurehead they need to change their country. Even if Saudis broadly share King Abdullah's vision of a more modern country, their institutions remain rooted in the old ways. This means that lasting reforms will continue to hinge on one individual's will. So far, it has not been strong enough.
 Read the whole thing—I've only given you a taster, with the start and very end of the article... You may ask: Why should be so bothered with the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia? Well, if nothing else, Saudi Arabia's domain includes the Islamic holy cities of Makkah and Medina... The way things are done in the kingdom has the potential to send a very loud message to Muslims worldwide, either for good or for ill.

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