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In Saudi Arabia, reformers intensify calls for change

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is due to return tomorrow after three months away to a country where reformers inspired by Egypt are calling for greater transparency and equality.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / February 22, 2011

Cars travel along King Fahad main road in Riyadh on Feb. 21, as banners are hung to welcome Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Abdullah went to New York in late November for back surgery and then to Morocco to recuperate. He is due back on Feb. 23.

Fahad Shadeed/Reuters

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

When his royal jet lands here in the Saudi capital on Wednesday, ending a three-month absence, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz will find a nation seemingly moored in the eye of the epic storm howling around it.

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But it is also clear that the octogenarian king, who went to New York in late November for back surgery and then to Morocco to convalesce, is returning to a realm touched in significant ways by the youth rebellions roiling the Middle East.

More than ever before, Saudis are openly calling for change, including political reforms. The most vociferous are tech-savvy youths who have obsessively followed their peers’ historic movements, especially in Egypt, on Twitter and Facebook.

True, King Abdullah – whose oil-rich coffers provide the country with generous benefits and material development – is genuinely liked by most of his subjects. And the government is shielded by a religious culture in which rebellion is deemed illicit and public street protest considered gauche.

But those agitating for change have made the Internet their virtual Tahrir Square, with locations like #EgyEffectSA on Twitter acting as a public forum for how they see Egypt affecting Saudi Arabia.

Demands include women's vote, younger leaders

In a move timed to the king’s return Wednesday, a group of 40 young Saudis, mostly journalists and rights activists, have signed an open “Letter to the King.”

The signers say they were inspired by Arab youth elsewhere, and by the king’s encouragement of national dialogue. They asked for elections for the advisory Shura Council, the right of women to vote and run as candidates, strong anticorruption measures, and greater fiscal transparency and accountability.

In addition, they want the Cabinet reshuffled so that ministers’ average age, now 65, is reduced to 40.

In another effort – albeit one that did not get very far – 10 moderate Islamists, including university professors and lawyers, defied the ban on political parties and announced they were forming the Islamic Umma Party.

“We think the royal family is not the only one who has the right to be leader of the country,” Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al Wohaibi, one of the party’s founders, said in an interview. “We should treat the royal family like any other group.... No special treatment.”

Asked if the group had been launched because of events in Egypt, Al Wohaibi replied that they “had created an environment for a movement like this.”

And last week, the king’s half-brother Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz said in a BBC TV interview that unless the king made further reforms the kingdom risked future revolution. Although Talal is a maverick with little support within the royal family, his remarks are being widely discussed by Saudis.

Significantly, these calls for change do not include an end to the monarchy, which most Saudis believe would spell disaster.

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