The king’s has been back for a week and the celebrations are over. A financial package was announced and then thousands of government employees were granted job security. A reshuffle of key positions within the government is expected to be announced shortly. Is it enough though and will Saudi people revolt? Those are the two questions on every one’s minds both within Saudi and abroad. Nobody knows the answers for sure, even the people planning revolts.
My view is that we are still on the train heading to revolution town. People are not happy with the concessions so far and the future is still very murky. Nothing that was proposed or granted has any real long-term substantial benefits. A third of the population is made up of expatriates, the overwhelming majority of which are able to work longer hours and for much less than a national. Meanwhile the unemployment rate is going through the roof. A lot of young people are disenchanted with the religious establishment and are unhappy with the constrictions on their personal freedoms. Older generations are fed up with the corruption, nepotism and the disappearance of the middle class.
However Saudis are very big on privacy, and putting up a good front so street protests are being put down as the last resort. Another concern making Saudis hesitate to protest is the fear that if they go out they’ll be tricked into being a part of a movement they don’t belong to. There’s a lot of mistrust concerning who the organizers really are and what they represent. One of the biggest concerns is that by going out, they’ll be accused of being supporters of Sa’ad Al Faqih, an extreme anti-royal who has dedicated his life to hating the Saudi monarchy. He has his own satellite channel where the only program is him sitting behind a laptop and lecturing about the evils of the Al Saud family and taking in calls from Saudis who pledge allegiance to him and to his hate. Last time I checked his channel he was saying that if you miss a prayer or commit a sin you can redeem yourself to God by spreading Al Faqih’s message! The only thing going for Al Faqih, is his playing on Saudi anger and resentment about THIS, which is well-known to the young and old long before Wikileaks was a mere twinkle in Assange’s eye.
As a pre-requisite to street protests, Saudis have chosen to first clarify what it is they want for the country. This past week has seen a cropping up of petitions galore. They are mainly similar to the one I translated in this post. The number on that Facebook page has now gone up to 8400. There’s another promising petition going to be published in the next couple of days that specifically addresses the concerns of young people.
Petitions are a grey area in Saudi law. They are vaguely legal but activists have been imprisoned for writing them and/or signing them. It’s unprecedented in Saudi history that we have people sign on their names and in such huge numbers demanding what has always seemed impossible. So far thousands have signed these petitions, people from all factions; well-off people with established careers to the unemployed who have little hope. Unhappiness with the current situation is something that has brought sworn enemies together. It’s becoming more and more difficult to tell apart the demands of conservatives from those of liberals and the demands of the majority from those of minorities. You have to actually go through the petition to pick up on the single point that they diverge on, otherwise there’s a large area of overlap across all the petitions. Across the board, there’s a demand for a constitutional monarchy and accountability and the end of corruption in handling the nation’s wealth.
Based on this unity, and the unprecedented public proclamation of unhappiness with the current situation by thousands, it becomes reasonable to say that things will escalate if demands aren’t met or at least major compromises are made.
The government’s response so far has been denial and acting on the pretense that these calls are only being made by a few that can be silenced through website blocking and political imprisonment. How long can the government keep it up, and is it in their interest to do so, are two questions that anybody can answer.
A letter from Saudi intellectuals to the political leadership
Declaration of a national reform
It is no secret that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have raised tensions and political movements in many neighboring Arab nations – and our own country is in the heart of this turbulence. This has created conditions imposed on all of us to review our situation, and to make every effort towards reforms before the matter escalates and we find ourselves in front of unpredictable developments that cannot be stopped.
In January 2003, a group of Saudi intellectuals presented the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a list of specific proposals within the document “A Vision for the present and future.” This document was welcomed by the King and he promised to look into them. It was also announced by a number of senior officials at a later time that the government is determined to adopt widespread reform policies across all sectors of the government, and reform its relationship with the Saudi society.
Now, a decade after those promises, the promised reforms had not occurred except an insignificant few, and we believe that the problems referred to in the Vision document and the subsequent letters of demands, have worsened because of the delayed political reforms. The current situation is full of caveats and reasons for concern. And we and Saudi people in general are witnessing the receding of the powerful role our country plays in the region, the growing failures of our governmental body, the deterioration of efficient management, the prevalence of corruption and nepotism, the exacerbation of factionalism, and the widening gap between state and society, particularly the new generations of youth. This leads us to fear catastrophic consequences for the country and people. This undoubtedly is what we want to avoid for our country and our children. How the government has been addressing the situation requires serious review. The government must immediately announce the adoption of a large-scale reform program for the state and the community to work together towards. It must focus on addressing the fundamental flaws in our political system, and lead the country towards establishing a constitutional monarchy. The consent of the people is the basis for the legitimacy of authority. Consent is the only guarantee for the unity, stability and effectiveness of public administration, and safeguarding of the country from foreign intervention. This requires a reformulation of the relationship between society and state, so that people can be a source of authority, and a full partner in policy-making through their elected representatives in the Shura Council. The purpose of the State is to serve the community and maintain the interests of its people by enhancing the standard of living, ensuring the dignity of citizens and the future of their children. That is why we anticipate a royal announcement that clearly demonstrates the commitment of the State to becoming a “constitutional monarchy”, and a schedule that determines the commencement date of the desired reforms and the date of completion. The announcement must also confirm that the objectives of the major reform namely are: the rule of law, absolute equality between people, the legal guarantee of individual freedoms and civil rights, people participation in decision making, balanced development, poverty eradication, and the optimal use of public resources. In this connection, we call for the reform program to include the following elements:
First: the development of the current basic governmental system into a fully integrated constitution that will function as a contract between the people and the state, with the recognition that the people are the source of authority. The separation of the three powers: executive, judicial and legislative, each governing only its specific area. Linking authority to responsibility and accountability. Ensuring equality of all citizens, and the legal protection of individual freedoms and civil rights and ensuring justice and equal opportunities. The emphasis on the responsibility of the state in ensuring human rights, and ensuring the right of peaceful expression of opinion, and the strengthening of public freedoms, including the right to form political and professional associations.
Secondly: the emphasis on the principle of the rule of law, unity, and that everyone – state officials and the general public are not above the law, equally and without discrimination. The prohibition of expending state resources for illegal or personal gain.
Third: The adoption of universal suffrage as a direct method for the formation of municipal councils, district councils and the Shura Council, and the participation of women in the nomination and election processes.
Fourth: The implementation of the principle of administrative decentralization and the empowerment of local administrations in the regions and provinces of all authorities necessary for the establishment of effective and interactive local governance that are able to directly address the demands of citizens in each region.
Fifth: The independence of the judiciary; the abolition of all bodies that play parallel roles outside the framework of the judicial system. The courts’ supervision over the investigation and the prosecution of defendants and the conditions of prisoners. The abolition of regulations that limit the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary, limit the immunity of judges, or fall within the jurisdiction of the judiciary. The acceleration of the codification and standardization of laws and judicial sentences while taking into consideration what our government has committed to by signing on to conventions of international human rights. All of this ensures justice, equality and discipline in the application of laws. The activation of a law of criminal procedure and a system of pleadings to achieve the above, and to prevent any action outside or in violation of the judicial process.
Sixth: Implementing the system by which civil associations are legalized, as was passed the Shura Council. Opening the door to the establishment of institutions of civil society in all its forms and purposes, as a channel to rationalize and embody public opinion, and activate public participation in decision-making.
Seventh: Despite the widening debate on the rights of Saudi women, the government has not taken sufficient action to fulfill the requirements of this file. The neglect of women’s rights or postponement contributes to deepening the problem of poverty and violence, and weakens the contribution of the family in raising the level of education. Legal and institutional action must be taken to enable women to attain their rights and ownership in learning, employment and participation in public affairs, without discrimination.
Eighth: The issuance of laws that prohibit discrimination among citizens, for any reason and under any pretext, and criminalize the exercise of any discrimination along sectarian, tribal, regional, or racial lines. Also the criminalization of hatred on religious grounds or others. And the development of a national integration strategy that explicitly recognizes and respects multiculturalism in Saudi society and considers it a source of enrichment for national unity and social peace. We need an effective strategy to address the situation of the national integration of minorities who have been exposed to exclusion and marginalization or impairment of rights due to any of the above reasons, and to compensate them for what they have been subjected to in the past.
Ninth: The decision by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to approve the formation of a human rights body, the National Assembly for Human Rights was greeted with optimism. But we find now that both the Commission for Human Rights and the Assembly had transformed themselves into bureaucractic factions controlled by the government. They have shown only a limited role in the defense of the rights of citizens .Among the reasons for their decline is government interference in the appointment of their members, as well as the refusal of many government agencies to recognize them. The top priority for any government and society must be the maintenance and protection of the rights and dignity of citizens and residents. We therefore call for the abolition of government restrictions imposed on the commission and the assembly, and the assurance of their independence under the law. We also call for the legislation for the right to form other associations for the civil defense of human rights.
Tenth: No dignity without a decent living. God has blessed our country with many riches, but a large segment of our citizens complain of poverty and lack of resources. We have noted the government’s delay in treating the unemployment problem, lack of housing, and the poor standard of living, particularly in rural areas, suburbs and for the retired and the elderly. We do not see a justification for failing to develop solutions to these problems. We believe that not to put these issues to public debate, and to overlook the private sector’s and civil societies’ roles is a grave mistake. When such issues come up they are considered purely through a business profit and loss perspective. Thus they have gradually turned from problems to dilemmas, and have become one of the main reasons for the humiliation and degradation of citizens.
Eleventh: the past years have revealed the increasing aggravation, tampering and mismanagement of public money. This requires the establishment of the Shura Council-elect to employ its powers to control and make accountable all government agencies. This is to be accomplished by establishing independent structures and administrative bodies that are able to perform regulatory functions, and the declaration of their findings to the people, especially cases related to administrative corruption, abuse of power and tampering with public money by government agencies. We in this area need to adopt the principle of transparency and accountability, and establish an institutional framework to ensure these principles, which consist of:
a) The establishment of a surveillance commission that has the benefit of national integrity, independence and immunity, and whose investigation results are open to the public.
b) to enable citizens to oversee the use of public funds by government agencies, and the abolition of restrictions that prevent the press from accessing information on transactions suspected of being involved in corruption.
Twelfth: oil revenues have leapt to high levels over the past five years, and consequently a lot of money was made available to the government. The people should benefit from this increase in funds, and its spending must be rationalized, rather than it being squandered on expensive projects of little use. This calls for the reconsideration of the current development plans and their basis. The building of long-term strategies for the overall development of the country; the focus must be on the expansion of national production, laying the foundation for alternative economic sources, job provision, and increasing the private sector’s participation in economic policy-making.
In conclusion, we call on the political leadership, to adopt the proposed reform program. In order to gain the people’s trust in the government’s sincerity and determination to reform, the following four steps must be taken immediately:
1 – the issuance of a royal announcement that confirms the government’s intention to undertake a program of political reform, and to develop a specific timetable to begin and where it will be applied.
2 – the immediate release of political prisoners. Those that have been proven to have committed crimes to be tried without delay, with the judicial guarantees necessary to secure justice for all.
3 – Canceling the travel ban imposed on a large number of opinion makers.
4 – Lifting of restrictions on freedom of the press and expression, and the empowerment of citizens to express their views openly and peacefully. And to stop the persecution suffered by those who express their opinions peacefully.
As we address this letter to our political leadership and the citizens of our country, we reaffirm the solidarity of all; people and government, in the face of threats, and in avoidance of unexpected consequences. We are confident that all have absorbed the lessons learned from the recent experience of our brother Arab countries. The challenges can only be overcome through a serious, thorough and prompt, participation of all in their resolution, and through the strengthening of national unity and achieving the aspiration of the people of a glorious and worthy homeland.