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Liberal reform activism ends in Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON: The period of liberal reform activism in Saudi Arabia, which had dominated the political scene since the beginning of 2003, has come to an end due to a combination of higher oil prices, a relatively successful security strategy against militants, the continuing importance to the regime of Islamist political currents and the unsettled regional environment that has put an end to this brief spell of political ferment.

According to Oxford Analytica, a British news intelligence and analysis service, while the elections will provide some clues as to political sentiments in the country, they will not have an immediate impact on national-level politics. Given the new constraints on liberal political activism, Islamist political currents will probably dominate the polls. The issues raised by the reformers - greater political participation, the role of women, and constitutional limits on the power of the al-Saud - are not going away, but at least for now, the house of al-Saud thinks that it does not have to address them.

The case of three defendants who refused to participate in their court proceedings in early October because they objected to the fact that the presiding judge had ordered the trial to be closed to the public, after earlier sessions had been open, is seen as representing “in miniature the dashed hopes of Saudi liberal and moderate Islamist reformers over the past year.” The three defendants were part of a group of 12 activists arrested in March for organising a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy and for trying to establish an independent human-rights monitoring group. That trial began in August, but was quickly recessed after hundreds of supporters of the men tried to attend the hearings. When the proceedings were resumed earlier this month, the judge declared them closed.

In Oxford Analytica’s view, in the last six months, efforts at liberal reform in the country have suffered a number of other setbacks, including a “national dialogue” meeting permitted by the government in June this year which was turned into a rallying point against social reform.

In early October, Saudi officials dashed hopes among more liberal sectors of society that women would be allowed to vote in the 2005 municipal elections. In mid-September, in a clear signal that political activism has its limits, the cabinet issued a stern reminder that state employees were prohibited from opposing state policy, even to sign petitions that called for such changes. “Given that the vast majority of Saudis in the labour force work directly for the state, or indirectly through state companies, this warning had the effect declaring political activity out of bounds for most Saudis,” according to the analysis.

Oxford Analytica argues that the withering of the “Riyadh Spring” can be attributed to a number of factors, but the two most important are the security situation and the economic situation. In both cases, a combination of short-term successes alleviating immediate pressures and long-term issues that will be more difficult to deal with have created the circumstances under which rolling back the tentative liberalisation was a plausible strategy for the rulers. It points out that the Saudis continue to face a violent underground opposition. There are frequent shoot-outs between security forces and the opposition. In recent months, a number of Westerners have been killed, including a particularly grisly beheading of an American. The security challenge, combined with unrest in Iraq that provides a safe haven and training ground for a number of Saudi jihadis, strengthens those in the ruling elite who argue that any sign of weakness or compromise works against the ultimate goal of crushing the opposition.

The report says, “The Saudis are enjoying their most lucrative year of oil exports ever. With prices now over $50 per barrel, what had been projected to be a budget deficit this year has been turned into a nearly $35 billion surplus. In September the government announced new development projects totalling almost $11 billion. There have been a steady stream of announcements regarding new labour regulations aimed at discouraging employment of foreign workers, opening up job opportunities for nationals and increasing the participation of Saudi women in the workforce. While the long-term prospects of substantial change in the Saudi labour market are uncertain, this new influx of money has given the government confidence that it can deal with the short-term consequences of citizen unemployment in the country, while also greasing the patronage wheels that make the Saudi political system work.

As to the outlook for the future, Oxford Analytica maintains that external pressures for reform have dissipated somewhat, with the failure of the US project of democratic change in Iraq and with greater Saudi cooperation on “war on terrorism” issues. Economic pressures have dissipated with the oil price increases. The religious establishment and pro-regime religious currents have reminded the leadership of their usefulness, and of their mistrust of the reformers. The al-Saud, who were split over how to deal with the reform agenda, have now coalesced around a more cautious strategy. What remains of the high tide of reform activism in Saudi Arabia are the municipal elections for half of the seats on 178 municipal councils to be held regionally in February, March and April 2005. The other half of the seats will be appointed by the government.

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