Saudi polls, aid sweeteners not enough

The announcement of municipal polls, hot on the heels of a huge economic aid package, may not be enough to spare Saudi Arabia from the upheavals sweeping the Arab world, activists said on Wednesday.

They said the ultra-conservative Gulf state still needed to embark on real political reforms, including an elected Parliament with legislative powers, public freedoms and true independence for the judiciary.

Riyadh announced late on Tuesday that it will hold its second municipal elections next month, after a two-year delay. In landmark first polls held in 2005, Saudi men elected half the members of 178 municipal councils.

“If the municipal polls are going to be held in the same way like seven years ago, then it will be of very little significance,” said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, head of the Human Rights First Society.

“At least all members must be elected, women should be allowed to take part as well as men, and the voting age should be lowered to 18 from 21,” said Mugaiteeb, whose group is based in the oil-rich state.

It was the second major measure taken by the kingdom in less than a week in apparent reaction to democratic uprisings in several Arab countries and increased calls from Saudi activists for true political reforms.

On Friday, King Abdullah announced unprecedented economic benefits worth nearly $100-billion, on top of $36-billion ordered in February, mostly catering to solve chronic unemployment and housing shortages.

‘True economic reform’
The 86-year-old Saudi monarch also ordered the establishment of a state authority to fight corruption, almost four years after the Cabinet approved such a body.

“Excluding the corruption combating body, I really don’t see any signal for political reform yet ... People do not live with food only,” Mugaiteeb said.

Anwar al-Rasheed, coordinator of the Gulf Civil Society Forum, a pan-Gulf group of liberal intellectuals, said the spending packages do not amount to “true economic reform”.

“These are simply distributing surplus funds to buy political favours ...
Most of it cannot be called real economic reforms like the two-month bonus to employees and the 60 000 security jobs,” Rasheed told Agence France-Presse.

“The support to the security and religious establishments ordered by the king were particularly frustrating and disappointing,” he said.

Despite repeated appeals by activists for a parliamentary election, public freedoms and for women’s rights, including the right to drive, the Saudi dynasty has remained unmoved and at times cracked down on reformists.

With pro-democracy revolutions sweeping Arab countries, Saudi activists have submitted petitions urging the king to undertake democratic changes, including the establishment of a “constitutional monarchy”.

‘Anything could happen’
Cyber activists have urged Saudis to demonstrate twice in March to press for political reforms, but their calls have gone unheeded, at least in part because of a massive deployment of security forces.

Protests have still been held in Saudi Arabia’s largely Shiite Eastern Province, calling for the release of prisoners and expressing solidarity with Shiite demonstrators in neighbouring Bahrain.

Reforms have been very slow and almost negligible, despite warnings by King Abdullah’s half-brother, Prince Talal, that “anything could happen” in the kingdom unless it speeded up reforms.

Earlier this month, the National Society for Human Rights, a body close to the government, called for political reforms including the partial election of the consultative Shura Council and more independence for the judiciary.

Abdullah bin Bajjad al-Oteibi, a columnist in the Saudi newspaper Okaz, on Monday defended the government’s policy and said activists have drastically raised the ceiling of their demands.

“Some thought the [Arab] scene will transfer to the kingdom and raised their demands to an irrational level,” said Oteibi, who however acknowledged that some of the demands were legitimate.

Rasheed of the Gulf Civil Society Forum, however, said the Saudi authorities may have “misunderstood” why ordinary Saudis appear to have shunned calls on the internet to go out on the street and demonstrate.

“If the Gulf dynasties, including the Saudi ruling family, do not respond to changes in the region, they will certainly be at risk. Those who think they can maintain the status quo are definitely mistaken,” Rasheed said.—AFP

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