Saudi Arabia In Protesters Sights
Saudi intellectuals call for sweeping reforms
CAIRO (AP) — More than 100 leading Saudi academics and activists are calling on the oil-rich country’s monarch to enact sweeping reforms, including setting up a constitutional monarchy, as mass protests that have engulfed other Arab nations lapped at Saudi Arabia‘s shores.
The statement seen on several Saudi websites Sunday reflects the undercurrent of tension that has simmered for years in the world’s largest oil producer. While King Abdullah is seen as a reformer, the pace of those reforms has been slow as Saudi officials balance the need to push the country forward with the perennial pressure from hard-line clergy in the conservative nation.”The current situation … is full of reasons for concern,” said the statement, which is signed by 119 academics, activists and businessmen. “We are seeing … a receding of Saudi Arabia’s prominent regional role for which our nation was known and the …. prevalence of corruption and nepotism, the exacerbation of factionalism and a widening in the gap between state and society.”
Detailing a laundry list of economic and social ills in the kingdom, the activists said “the people’s consent is the sole guarantee for the unity and stability” and the people must be the source of power.
It said that while Saudi Arabia enjoys tremendous oil wealth, the money needs to be better distributed to the people instead of being channeled to expensive projects with few immediate benefits.
Abdullah has been pushing for reforms, setting up a coed research university in a country where the sexes are normally segregated and pressing ahead with construction of industrial and economic cities to diversify away from — and better capitalize on — the country’s oil economy.
On Sunday, he offered a new carrot, ordering that government sector workers employed under temporary contracts be offered permanent contracts that carry major perks like pensions.
That move came after Abdullah on Wednesday ordered a slew of new measures targeting low-income earners. The roughly $36 billion in initiatives includes debt forgiveness and a 15% cost of living increase for public sector employees. It nearly doubles the budget for a development fund that helps Saudis buy homes and it boosts funding for a bank that offers interest free loans to Saudis for a range of needs such as marriage, starting a business or buying furniture.
Saudi Arabia’s finance minister, Ibrahim Al-Assaf, was quoted on state television as saying that the country would likely have to dip into its foreign reserves to pay for the new incentives. Saudi Arabia, which derives much of its foreign revenue from oil, has about $440 billion in foreign currency reserves, according to December figures posted on the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency’s website.
But with about two-thirds of the country under 30 years of age, Saudi Arabia faces many challenges. Unemployment in the youth demographic is about three times the national average and many complain of few job opportunities. There is an 18-year waiting list for housing from the state, meaning that many young Saudis are unable to get married since securing an apartment is a prerequisite. Calls for reform have repeatedly been raised, but action has been slow. Women still grapple with sharply restricted freedoms and intermingling of the sexes in public is banned. The statement called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and the election of members of the advisory assembly known as the Shura Council.
It calls for immediate action to set a timeline for the reforms, release political prisoners, lift the travel ban on activists or intellectuals who have run afoul of the monarchy and allow unfettered freedom of expression.
The call comes about a week after a Facebook page appeared and issued similar demands. The page, which called for protests on March 11, has shot up in popularity in the span of several days — going from about 400 people to more than 12,000.
Abdullah, who returned to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday after a three-month absence for medical treatment in the United States and recuperation in Morocco, has tried to pre-empt the unrest that has come dangerously close to his nation. The mass demonstrations that led to the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents have turned bloody in Libya, leaving Moammar Gadhafi struggling to retain control of his country.
In Yemen, the embattled president has shifted alternately between bribing and beating protesters. In Bahrain, the protests continue unabated, creating waves in the island nation off Saudi Arabia’s shoreline while Oman, a fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member, is seeing growing unrest. Addressing their demands to both the government and the Saudi people, the activists said they were “confident in the receptiveness of all to the beneficial lessons learned in the (other) Arab countries.”