King Abdullah assumed power immediately after the death of his brother King Fahd who had been ill for a long time. This smooth transition and transfer of power may provide an opportunity for political and economic reforms in Saudi Arabia. Many observers think that the Kingdom’s political system is not in tune with the modernization process it went through in the last three decades and is not equal to the challenges it is facing now.
One important factor is the new king himself who has played a central role in handling local politics as he has been running the day-to-day affairs of the state for more than seven years. In the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks and the occurrence of similar incidents inside Saudi Arabia itself, the legitimacy of the Saudi regime was under question since violent groups were sponsored and ideologically supported by famous religious figures who are part of the traditional and state-supervised wider religious establishment.
As a result of these internal challenges and outside reactions, the Saudis found themselves forced to thoroughly study their social and political structure and were able to conclude that the roots of violence came from the ideological and political system itself.
As crown prince, Abdullah has taken many initiatives to check political stagnation and possible social unrest. We all know how he openly received many reformist groups and discussed with them such challenges and their views on different national issues. In January 2003, he invited over 40 persons for a discussion. They were among the 104 signatories to a petition called “Vision on the Present and Future of our Nation.” The signatories included academics, lawyers, religious leaders and political activists from different regions and backgrounds. The “Vision” contained detailed analysis of the internal and external challenges facing the state and recommendations for reforms at political, economic and social levels. The attendees found the meeting very productive and constructive and Abdullah to be supportive of their demands and ideas. He confirmed to them that he shared their views but some time was needed to implement them.
On June 2003, Abdullah also met with 18 Shiite leaders from different regions of Saudi Arabia and received their petition titled “Partners in One Nation” which is considered to be the first Saudi Shiite initiative of its kind. Signed by 450 individuals from both sexes including businesspersons and intellectuals, the petition analyzed the Shiites’ long-lasting problems with the state focusing on their religious freedom and civil rights. At the meeting, Abdullah expressed sympathy with their demands and problems, and criticized fanatical voices that sought to marginalize some sections of the Saudi population. At the same meeting, where Shiite leaders presented their problems and demanded immediate action, the crown prince promised that a national dialogue would be held soon and it would include the representatives of all religious sects in the country.
Three months later, Abdullah invited 35 personalities from different religious backgrounds to meet in Riyadh for the first time and discussed the issue of fundamentalism and its effects. At a later stage, he sponsored the newly established “King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue” which called for three other conferences on reforms, women and youth issues which were held in different cities attended by many intellectuals. At the end of each meeting, Abdullah invited all the attendees and heard from them their recommendations. This has provided an opportunity for open discussion on what is used to be considered crucial and sensitive issues, such as national identity, pluralism, social and political reform, and women’s rights. Local media utilized this opportunity in bringing up issues that used to be banned. Although the government has not yet adopted any of the recommendations drafted by the conferences, these gatherings have set the stage for better social understanding and paved the way for direct contacts between religious leaders of different sects.
Besides these initiatives, the new king has called the officials many times with a view to increasing their productivity and improving the services to the citizens. He also took action to fight financial corruption and misuse of power, especially within the highly influential circles of officials, such as limiting the free government lands given to them in prime locations. He also pushed for the creation of a welfare and poor people’s fund to support families lacking proper housing and sufficient income. With all this background and progressive initiatives, and considering the current developments, King Abdullah is the right person at the right time to push for reforms and to encourage them. Sure, there are some difficulties arising mainly from the power-sharing process. However, the internal and external challenges are so great and deep that immediate actions need to be taken.
On the domestic front, controlling the unemployment and implementing the already-in-place programs for helping low-income sections of society deserve priority. At a second stage, the king may push for fighting corruption and encouraging transparency in the state’s financial activities. On the social level, it is expected that the king will further sponsor and encourage the national dialogue, and expand its functions in order to marginalize the influence of fundamentalists and radical groups. The agenda for political reform may be revised by allowing more freedom of speech and press, and establishing more independent civil and nongovernmental organizations.
The speech delivered by the king on Aug. 4 after assuming power emphasized his keenness to directly hear from the citizens and communicate with them and also to establish just policies that will not discriminate between citizens. These are two fundamental steps for possible future reform.
— Jafar M. Alshayeb is an elected member of the Qatif Municipal Council. He attended the fourth National Dialogue