Is the KSA serious or not?Toying with democracy [Archives:2005/815/Opinion]

February 10 2005

By Mai Yamani
Democracy is supposedly on the march in the Middle East. But Arab dictators are afraid of true democracy, with its civil liberties and competitive elections, so they conjure up potions that protect the status quo by selecting bits of Western political models and adding some religious interpretation to ensure a patina of Islamic legitimacy.

Saudi Arabia fits this description to a tee. Its rulers – some of the most autocratic in the world – say that democracy is incompatible with Islam. So they prefer the term “participatory government.”

But a majority of Muslim scholars, including such eminent men as the Sheikh of Al Azhar in Cairo and the influential Qatar-based Sheikh Qaradawi, believe that Islam is compatible with democracy, at least as they define it: respect for the rule of law, equality between citizens, a fair distribution of wealth, justice, and freedom of expression and assembly. What remains debatable and contentious is the right of citizens to choose their leaders.

Yet pressure to democratize is mounting, in part due to the smaller Gulf States, which compete with each other in democratic reforms. Qatar and Oman have elected consultative councils and enfranchised women. Parliamentary elections occur in Kuwait and Bahrain, and at the end of last year, Sheikh Mohammad al Maktoom, Crown Prince of Dubai, in the U.A.E., suggested that Arab leaders must reform or sink. Iraq's elections have turned up the pressure even more.

So, threatened as the regional hegemon, Saudi Arabia has joined the reform race by announcing partial municipal elections to consultative bodies in which the royal family already appoints half the members. The first election will be held in the capital of Riyadh on February 10, followed by the oil rich Eastern region and the southern Asir region on March 2 and Mecca and Medina in the western Hijaz region and al Jouf, in the Northern Region, on April 21.

The government describes this as a “new political era.” But women remain excluded from the vote, despite attempts by several to participate in areas that the Wahhabi religious authorities deem acceptable to the “nature of women.” Moreover, in accordance with Saudi tradition, the ruling family appoints a Prince as chairman of the General Committee overseeing the elections – a sign not of wider political participation, but of business as usual.

Despite efforts led by Crown Prince Abdullah to urge participation, voter registration is low, which suits the government well, as high turnout could lead to the development of an electoral culture. Low turnout, by contrast, could convince western audiences that, despite the Saudi state's best efforts to jump-start democracy, its people are satisfied with the status quo.

Saudi intellectuals attribute the lack of voter interest to the absence of free expression and assembly, which frustrates genuine political participation. Moreover, leading reformers have been jailed since last March for signing a petition asking for a constitutional monarchy, which has reinforced the general lack of trust in the government's agenda.

The most crucial questions concern reform of the al Shura (consultative council). Can it become a real parliament? Would it be elected? Currently, the King appoints its members. They do not issue legislation and they rarely even propose any. The King proposes, they discuss. They cannot debate the budget or military deals, nor can they question financial allocations to the regime's countless princes.

In addition, there is the National Dialogue, started by Crown Prince Abdullah in 2004 as an acknowledgement of pluralism and diversity that brings together different religious sects – Salafis (Wahhabis), Sufis, Shi'a. But the religious authorities have not legitimize its discussions, so nothing has changed: the Shi'a, for example, still cannot practice their religious rituals, be witnesses in court, or even work as butchers.

Indeed, the “King Abdul-Aziz Center for National Dialogue” is utterly divorced from domestic realities and serves as a mere propaganda center whose participants believe that they form part of the state's message to the outside world. The last meeting was entitled “Encounter with Youth: Reality and Aspirations,” which amounted to a display of grand speeches by the authorities informing the country's youth that conditions are ideal.

Such gatherings are unprecedented to the extent that they bring together groups that never talked before. But political expression remains constrained. Demonstrations are illegal, and there are no venues for political expression outside the Internet, which has created a community of alienated and embittered Saudis. Hundreds of angry Web sites have cropped up, the most extreme preaching the ideology of al-Qaeda and its ilk. Spurred by unemployment, political uncertainty, and falling living standards, young Saudi men are easily recruited by extremist groups.

If Saudi Arabia's rulers were serious about “participatory government,” they would encourage liberals, moderates, and pragmatists. Instead, they repress, censor, silence and even imprison the moderates and appease the religious radicals. The authorities have killed some of the more violent jihadis in their “war against terrorism,” but they fear that a wider crackdown, however necessary, would alienate important tribes and clans.

Despite cynicism, apathy, frustration, despair, and violence, some Saudis still hope for the emergence of a prince on a white horse who will place the kingdom onto the path of reform. But there is no such prince; there are only the old ones, clinging to power without legitimacy and toying grotesquely with their people's aspirations.

Mai Yamani is an author and Research Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs.