Change in Saudi Arabia- Short and Long Term

As we have all read by now, Saudi Arabia has made some changes in its government and brought in more moderates. Some changes were expected, some were nominal while others are profound.

A lot of people focused on the first woman appointee as it heralds something new, however bringing in women is an inevitable change. No matter how much certain segments of society fight this change, it will happen – and within a generation. The reasons are obvious in a country where women will be majority business owners within a decade: demographics, telecommunications and education. By the way, a week or so before these changes, the first female Saudi cultural attache was announced for Canada.

Some are talking about the change of the Justice minister which is in line with the judicial reform that started a few weeks/months ago. Plans to overhaul the system were put into action several months ago.

Others are talking about the changes in education. This is aligned with the changes in curriculum that have already been started, as well as some of the “experimental” programs that have been tried out.

Changes in SAMA, Health and Info/Culture (along with all the other changes) were necessary for stability. The word is that several people maintained their positions/ranks however they have been reformed by internal pressure- better to reform yourself than be replaced!

The next big area is of course the change in the Hayy’a head (Commission for Promotion of Virtue and  Prevention of Vice). This is where it starts to get really interesting, not because of the change in person but because of the change in status quo in the ongoing tussle between the reform agenda of the administration and the religious right. There is a constant thrust-and-parry dance between society and the Hayy’a; the King has come down on the side of society.

The most profound and long term changes are the ones in the Shoura Council. Changing the head is of  course newsworthy. However this is the first time that all four Sunni schools of thought are being represented in the Shoura Council, not just the Hanbali school. Avoiding a history lesson, Wahabbism/Salafism is an off-shoot of the Hanbali school.

Including the other schools of thought on the Shoura Council dilutes the impact of Hanbalism/Wahabbism/Salafism. This is a long term change that has the potential to change the country in unprecedented ways; it effectively weakens the alliance between the House of Saud and the idealogues of  Ibn Abdul Wahab. There are different extreme end points that can come out of this (over the next few decades):

  • the door can be opened to move from a direct monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy
  • the religious right can feel threatened and destabilize the legitimacy of the monarchy
  • the country moves in the direction of becoming the next Dubai

Reality will probably lie somewhere between these extremes. The reign of King Abdullah has initiated the internal reform process. Crown Prince Sultan will have the choice of continuing on this path or reversing its course.

Several news story that cover the recent government changes are given below:

stuck in a rut

Considering the wealth and resources that KSA possesses, one often wonders why the country is not light years ahead of where it is currently. A few of the larger issues that seem to be holding the country back are:

  • lack of systems- they’re either broken, archaic, or not enforced
  • complacency- people live life in a daze, ok with the status quo, with limited ambitions and zest for achievement
  • arrogance- the ethnic hierarchies, racism, gender inequality and sheer arrogance is astounding
  • education- not only are their insufficient resources for studies, there is a lack of emphasis on the value of education
  • tussle between religion and politics

On the other hand, there are plenty of things that can be capitalized on for improvement:

  • political stability- this might be surprising to many but monarchies (constitutional monarchies at least) are more stable in this region than any of the so claimed democracies. I’ll post some of my earlier research on this topic sometime
  • resource availability- given the short to medium term dependence on oil within the global markets, there is no danger of lack of finances. On the human side there is a huge untapped supply of potential employees (women!)
  • control and constituents- the population here revers the monarchy and are wiling to follow the royal decrees. This is akin to China and the control it held over its population some 10-15years ago and provides an almost “prefect” environment for implementing gradual change.

Each of these points will be elaborated in future blog posts!