Time to Test King Abdullah
Fahd has been practically dead for 10 years, but his actual death is an opportunity to demand wide-ranging internal reforms from the ruling tribe of Al-Saud. King Abdullah is not the reformer the Bush administration and many American pendants were making him to be while he was crown prince. Now that he is king, it is time to test the much touted “reformer” Abdullah on his past assertions.
Wide-ranging internal reforms must take priority for Abdullah and the Bush Administration. A new political framework that, leads real democratic reforms, emancipates women, fights terrorism and extremism, ends religious oppression, and allows the people to share real political power must be established.
Young leaders must replace the geriatric figures who have dominated political power in the past 50 years, have very little interest in change. Defense, interior, and foreign ministries have been held the same persons since 1975. This must change by introducing new and young figures.
Extremist figures like Interior Minister Naif, Education Minister Saleh Al-Obied, and the head of the judiciary Shaikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan among others, must be replaced with educated and pro-reform figures.
The new Saudi cabinet must reflects the population from east to west, and south to north. All ethnic, religious, and regional segments of the society must be fully represented.
Transfer of Power
A gradual transfer of power from the ruling al-Saud to the people of the country must be inaugurated. Fahd managed to strengthen his tribe monopoly on power, a practice that resulted in the al-Saud gaining the highest number of senior government posts since the foundation of the state. Their control extended to media, economy, religion and educational institutions. The increasing power and size of the Al-Saud has contributed to massive corruption and rise of extremism.
Corruption is wide spread in all government institutions. Although hundreds of billions of dollars have been lost, there have not been any real attempts to bring corrupt officials to account. The people of the country must share in the running of their country to reduce corruption.
Under Fahd Saudi Arabia became the world leading exporter of oil and suicide bombers. The fact that the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq and September 11 are Saudis has not yet been addressed by the Saudi government. A strategic solution for terrorism must address problems with terror financing, the education system and curriculums, and official religious institutions.
Among the first steps that Abdullah took is to order the release of some leading reformers including poet Ali Al-Domaini, professors Matrook Al-Faleh, and Abdullah Al-Hamed and two others. The release might be seen as a positive step, but this customary release is the most limited pardon taken by any Saudi king upon his ascension to the throne. The released reformers are still banned from traveling aboard, working at government jobs and engaging in political activities. Other political prisoners include hundreds of Wahhabi activists and hundreds of Shia prisoners in Najran and the Eastern Province. Releasing political prisoners must also be coupled with restoring the travel rights of thousands of citizens banned from traveling abroad over their political opinions.
Ending the generational marginalization of the Shia Arab minority, who make up the majority in the oil region, and are the subject to official and systematic oppression. The Shia Arabs are not less than the Sunni Arabs of Iraq who received American attention to ensure their representation. Shia Arabs must be allowed to attain senior positions in the government, and their religious understanding must be incorporated in the official institutions.
Including the people of the South from Aisr, Najran, Jizan, and AlBaha in the top echelon of the government is extremely vital. Since the foundation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, there has not been a single cabinet minister from the south. The South is home to most of the suicide hijackers of September 11. The continued alienation of that region means more terrorists.
Emancipation of Women
Emancipating the last women in the world who cannot vote and drive is an extraordinary opportunity for both Bush and Abdullah to score easy but major points on reforms. President Bush can make as part of his legacy the emancipation of Saudi women. Supporting Saudi women right will chip away extremist power, strengthen liberal voices, and speed up societal development. Saudi women suffer unlike any around the world, where law considers them as minors in need of male permission to register in college, or purchase mobile phones among other rights. It is not acceptable that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are total shutout from political power. Allowing women to vote and drive is in the hands of King Abdullah, and past experiences tell us it takes nothing more than a royal decree.
Less than Partial Elections
The Saudi elections earlier this year were for less than half of the seats for municipal councils that don’t have any political power. Over half of the seats will be appointed. Four months after the elections which banned women, there are no councils. These types of elections must not be accepted and characterized as positive steps, especially by the Bush administration. Elections must meet the highest of international standards. If Abdullah is serious about women rights can appoint women to the municipal councils.
This is the best time for the Bush administration to move Saudi Arabia away from terrorism and extremism to a positive force in the world. The window is closing fast, King Abdullah is 83 years old.