Saudi king tiptoes toward more openness
Women line up for their first shot at elected post: chamber of commerce
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Abdullah also met with two groups of women, including female activists.Skip to next paragraph
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But despite the flurry of requests Abdullah has not announced any major political reforms since taking power. Saudi Arabia held partial municipal elections earlier this year but those councils have yet to meet. The government has not announced the appointed members, who will make up half of the councils, nor explained the delay.
"There is a fear that the municipal elections are part of isolated and arbitrary reforms instead of a democratic reform program with clear goals and a time frame," says Saudi political analyst Tawfiq al-Saif.
Mr. Saif and other liberal analysts say the king must seize the moment to institutionalize reforms, taking advantage of widespread public support and a flush treasury. High oil prices have increased revenues in the world's biggest oil producer to over $150 billion this year, up from $106 billion last year. The Saudi stock market has grown six-fold in the past three years, going from a capitalization of $82 billion in 2002 to over $517 billion this year, according to the Samba financial group, a leading Saudi bank.
"A very good economic situation makes this a unique opportunity to move reforms forward. More political participation by the people, institutionalized [civic] societies, parliamentary elections, are the best way for the long-term stability of the country and the ruling family," Saif says.
During a recent informal gathering of some 40 liberals at the home of former jailed reformist Mohammad Saeed Tayeb, many echoed Saif's views. The priority for the king should be to separate the religious, royal, and state powers, they said. And Saudis should be allowed to set up civic institutions such as independent labor unions and human rights groups.
"Laws must be set out to clearly separate the powers of the royal family, the government and the official religious establishment. And none of them should be above the law," said writer Ahmad Adnan. "Our laws should also clearly protect every citizen's human rights," he said.
But that will be difficult in a country where royalty hold all of the key government posts. The male offspring of Saudi Arabia's founder, Ibn Saud, are now believed to number around 7,000. All members of the royal family receive monthly government stipends and are not required to pay their utility bills or their tickets on the national airline.
Though Saudis are today much more free to criticize government employees, criticizing Al Saud or talking about their expenditures is still considered a red line. "As members of the country's leading advisory council, we were not privy to the national budget. There should be more transparency and the national budget should be publicly announced and discussed by the Shura council," says Fuad Abu-Mansour, a former member.
Adds lawyer Bassem Alem: "For serious political reforms to take place in Saudi Arabia, [the royal family] needs to be willing to give up some of their rights and privileges, and I don't believe they're willing to do that."