By Ohoud al-Lami
What is the problem with gradual reform promised by the government?
Part of the response to reform demands in Saudi Arabia is that the state is seeking reform and giving promises in that regard. But the problem of government-sponsored reform is that it is often the result of outside pressure, which means it is usually slow and nominal. This is not new and we have many examples to make that case. Slight political reform that came after 9/11 was forced thanks to US intervention. Reform of the judiciary was a prerequisite for joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). Even the regulations to protect intellectual property in publishing and computer software only came after Saudi Arabia scored dismal results in that area and the government needed to polish its image in order to join WTO. This also includes improvements in women status that came as a result of the pressure to join the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) which requires women membership in parliament.
People who defend the government approach to reform are unable to recognize the government failure to deliver on its promises. That’s why they wave the banner of “gradual reform” based on statements by officials. They cite, for example, the words of King Abdullah after he was presented with the petition reform of 2003 that called for a constitutional monarchy: “With God help, the state continues its march to considered gradual reform, and will not allow anyone to block the path of reform, neither under the pretext of stagnation nor leading the country to jump into the unknown and engage in crazy adventures,” the king said.
Gradualism here is a moot point, because it leads to uncertainty. The timeframe can be until God is willing. The state does not set a clear timetable, and there is no one to monitor the progress of reform. It is up to the whims of officials and their personal desires and the absence of conflicts with the interests of some elites, and it is also affected by changes and conditions inside and outside the country.
This state policy of giving promises to absorb popular anger without a timetable explains the harsh response to the activists who signed the petition of 2003 because they have set a timetable for the state to achieve their demands. Authorities do not usually accept deadlines or timetables.
The repeated gradual reform mantra may give the impression that these demands are new and that those activists who demand reform are a reckless bunch. However, followers of Saudi history would see a pattern. When Prince Faisal became prime minister in 1962 he announced a program of 10 points that included a basic law of governance, the formation of Shoura Council and a law for local government. Some of the ten points were implemented decades later, and some of them are yet to be implemented. Prince Faisal has only managed to implement one point which is ending slavery.
Many give credit to Faisal for that achievement, but the truth is Saudi Arabia was under constant pressure and criticism from the international community. That’s why, and inline with an international campaign launched by the United Nations after the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery was amended by a Protocol that entered into force in 1955, Saudi Arabia finally moved to end slavery. President John F. Kennedy sent a congratulations latter to Prince Faisal thanking him for taking that step and declaring a new era in Saudi-US relations. As a consequence to the decision to end slavery, the state gave a compensation worth $700 for each slave to be paid to owners. It is said that the state allocated SR15 million as compensations, and most of it was paid to princes who most probably abolished the ownership of their slaves in name only.
After reviewing Faisal’s promises as an example of government reform, let’s now return to the popular demands of reform to show that they did not appear out of the blue nor they are the result of rashness hoping to take advantage of the regional conditions. For example, Ahmed Adnan observed in the book “Al-Sajeen 32” some demands from the early 1960s that read like they have been written in a newspaper published today because the demands of the 1960s are the same demands of today. Aziz Diya wrote in al-Nadwa newspaper in 1962 demanding a conversation about the governance and judicial systems. Mohammed Saeed Tayeb wrote in 1963 to demand taking significant reform steps like holding elections. In the same year Hisham Ali Hafiz criticized appointing a member of the royal family as emir of Mecca, demanding the right of the people of Mecca to elect their emir.
Moving from newspaper articles to reform petitions, we would find that the first civil statement demanding reform was the “Civil Petition” of 1990, led by Sheikh Ahmed Salah Jamjoom, asking for regulating fatwa and the judiciary and reinstating municipal councils, protecting freedom of the press and women empowerment. After that in 1991 the demands continued with the “Petition of Demands” followed by the “Memorandum of Advice.” Despite differences between signatories of these petitions, there was a consensus on specific demands like independence of the judiciary and preserving public money.
Then came the petitions after 9/11, the most significant of them a petition titled “A Vision for the Nation’s Present and Future” that was written by Tawfiq al-Saif after consultation and coordination with Abdullah al-Hamed, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Ali al-Demaini, Najeeb al-Khunaizi and others. The petition has generated wide attention due to raising the bar of demands and also because the petition represented many different currents and personalities from across the kingdom.
Listing some of the popular demands for change above might not be new, but the goal here is to review the time that has passed on these demands to highlight the injustice and falsehoods committed by those who silence the voices of reformists under the pretext of gradual reform.
The answer to our initial question: what is the problem with gradual reform promised by the government? we can say that the main complaint is the open-ended timeframe which —as we have seen in this quick review— could take decades without achieving any true transition to reform. Gradualism can only be understood as procrastination as long as there are no clear action plan that leads to real reform. The repetition of reform demands for decades is a clear sign that undermines the defenders of open-ended gradualism.
Ohoud al-Lami is a Saudi writer. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in digital media at King Saud University in Riyadh. You can follow her on Twitter: @ohoudff. This article has been translated and published with permission from the author. The original Arabic text can be found on al-Mqaal website. Photo courtesy of Alexander Cheek via Flickr