February 13, 2005

Saudi Elections, Take Two

As an extra cautionary note concerning reforms in Saudi Arabia, here's a brief bit that Khalid Al-Dakhil, a sociology professor in Riyadh, wrote last year after the municipal elections were first announced:
Clearly, the year 2003 saw new political dynamics taking shape in Saudi society. Although demands for reform were voiced in the early 1990s, the government did not respond positively until after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and the May and November 2003 terrorist attacks in the Kingdom. The rise of terrorism seems the most influential factor in forcing the new reaction. It is too early to tell if these new dynamics signify the beginning of a new political pattern, or merely a momentary impulse forced by the ramifications of these events. What is expected now is for the government to fill the new reform context with real substance.

Five factors are important with regard to substance and implementation. First, although the government has committed itself to reform, it has not yet laid out a vision for reform, the goals it will achieve, or how it will be implemented. Second, despite the fact that the petitions presented to the government concern political reform, most of the literature published in the Saudi press on reform was carefully steered away from the political. Third, those who stand for reform are mostly intellectuals and academics, the weakest political forces in society. The business community, although verbally supportive of reform, is not willing to get involved in the reform movement, largely because it is dependent on the government. Fourth, although the reform movement recognizes the legitimacy of the system, it has not managed to win the trust of the government. This is one reason for the government's hesitant position on reform. Fifth and most significant, the Saudi leadership is apparently split over the question of reform.
That's a little different from the analysis I wrote below—especially his fifth caveat—but it seems just as plausible. On the more optimistic side, meanwhile, praktike lays out reasons to think democratic reform will be more likely in a monarchy than in a "liberalized autocracy" like Egypt. Much of this seems to come down to what the Saudi royal family wants, and alas, the House of Saud is frustratingly opaque.
-- Brad Plumer 4:00 AM || ||