What awaits the Kingdom after the ‘Arab Spring’?
IF the “Arab Spring” has already transformed into a divisive historic line in the landscape of the region, this means that it has come with political variables distinct from what came before it. It has laid the foundations for a new political reality in this region. This reality is still in the making. No one for sure knows on what terms it will stabilize, when the stability will occur and whether it will be short-term or if it will hold in the long run. This is exactly what both those countries that experienced the storm of the “Spring” and those that avoided the storm have in common. Indeed, both bear the responsibility of recognizing the changes and meeting the requirements in order to grasp the movement of change and avoid finding themselves facing a reality without having the tools to control it.
Compare the Moroccan model, which so far has succeeded in avoiding the storm, with the Syrian model, which has sunk in the maze of the storm. Firmly grasping the movement of change is the responsibility of all Arab countries without any exception. However, what concerns me here is Saudi Arabia, not only because it is my own country and one which I always care about before others, but also because it is a big country and a pivotal player in the Arab world. With its political clout and its economic and historic capabilities, Saudi Arabia is among the most qualified states to catch the movement of change. Saudi Arabia generally is an ethnically and religiously harmonious society.
The history of its emergence goes back to the middle of the 12th Hijri and 18 Gregorian century. This state was established through local dynamics, concepts and tools, both Arabic and Islamic, which means that it is a state that did not arise according to the external conditions and factors and not owing to foreign interests, but in response to local factors and interests. In addition, it is a country that has enjoyed political stability for more than 80 years since its third founding. It is currently enjoying a comfortable economic and financial status, in addition to a favorable regional and international environment. As a result, the political leadership of the Kingdom always senses the significance of its responsibility in front of this legacy, as well as the consequent responsibilities and the interests that come with that responsibility.
The Kingdom was able to overcome the political storms that swept the region since the beginning of the last century until now. However, the “Spring” storm is different in nature and size from all earlier storms and requires a different approach. The former storms were all related to regional conflicts and their international extensions. The “Spring” storm is of local origin and has local goals. It relates solely to the local political relations of each Arab country. Therefore, the most important variables that set this “Spring” in motion are related to the concept of the Arab state, its nature and its relationship with its people. Also, it is related to the rights of its people before the requirements of its foreign relations. This means that this storm seeks to put an end to the political nature of the state since its modern inception after the World War I.
This country was founded at the time on the basis of a single political principle that encompassed many elements. In essence, the relationship between the state and its people is a relationship with one direction, from the leadership to the people. This was favorable in the social and political conditions half a century ago or more. Then came the “Spring” storm to announce that circumstances had changed. It shook the old concept implying that its political validity had expired. There is no longer any argument about whether this relationship should change. The argument now should be about how this change should occur. If fixing the system before the “Spring” became a demand of the Arab world, it became an unavoidable regional reality after the “Spring.” It will not be prudent to underestimate its implications, and if the aim of change is one of them, the method of accessing this change is not the same in all the Arab countries.
What should Saudi Arabia do in such circumstances? The excellent success of the Kingdom in dealing with the previous storms should be considered, as I mentioned, and a great achievement; however, it carries with it great responsibilities. Foremost, this success should be a source of confidence in its ability to move the concept of the state from the basis on which it was founded at the beginning of the 20th century to what it must be by now. Here again I am referring to the words of the founder, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman, to the writer Amin Al-Rihani in the twenties of the last century in Riyadh: “We build as our predecessor did, and do more than what they did”
It is not possible here to deal with all the reform files, which are well-known files to the leadership of the country and are under its attention. Interest in addressing concerns of the financial and living conditions of citizens is an important and urgent step, but limiting ourselves to these concerns only will leave an impression that the Saudi people are not interested in their political rights, and accordingly, the state is not interested in those rights either. Yet it is not as it apparently seems, neither from the people nor from the government. Thus, this concern should be only the first step toward giving priority to addressing the immediate and most pressing issues, such as unemployment, housing and standard of living. This is to be followed by other steps of reform dealing with political issues, such as elections, representation, the separation of powers, activation of the Allegiance Commission, freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary, and making all people equal before the law, etc.
The necessity of political and constitutional reform is due to the fact that the positive impact in people’s economic reforms, especially financial, is usually temporary because of the variable nature of their economic and social circumstances. Increase in salaries, for example, or secure housing projects, or the unemployment allowance and its impact on the people will diminish in one year at the most due to its association with factors such as inflation, changing lifestyles and needs, and the steady increase in the number of people, and so on. The positive impact of the political reforms, particularly the constitutional reforms, remains for decades, because these reforms, before anything else, are concerned with the promotion of the durability of the state institutions, and support the political stability in the current phase that the region is passing through. Perhaps it is clear that the economic reforms associated with the political and constitutional reforms are the best option, because it reinforces the strength of the relationship between the state and the society, and provides them with a sustainable institutional foundation, based on the fact that the state and the people are the two main parties of the equation of the political process in the community.
Of the political steps needed is the addressing of the booming bureaucratic growth in the state in recent decades, as well as the survival of a central decision in the state and the impact of this bureaucracy on the government’s performance in managing the daily affairs of the state.
The other step is activating the elite recycling system and getting rid of the phenomenon of the survival of the high-ranking officials (or at least some of them) who have been in office for decades. However, before that should come the activation of the Allegiance Commission to secure and fortify the process of the transfer of power on a solid legal basis. This is a law which is unanimously accepted in its current form and it is important to achieve this under the leadership and sponsorship of the first generation, which enjoys power, prestige and acceptance from everyone.
The third step is to begin a phased expansion of the powers of the Shoura Council, and its gradual conversion to the elected legislature authority. All these steps require constitutional amendments to open the door to separate the powers of the State and moving the Kingdom to enter a new constitutional stage integrated with the above-mentioned factors, and finally to move them to the requirements of the new phase.
The previous steps represent the constitutional and political framework for further steps to complement the initiated administrative and economic reforms, such as addressing the issue of unemployment, foreign workers, and the phenomenon of corruption.
The prevalence of this phenomenon to insofar as the king was forced to create an anti-corruption body means that the state has become for some a booty and a legal framework to achieve personal benefits, and not just legal, political and moral responsibility.
Then follows the importance of giving priority to the issue of diversification of income sources so as to put an end to the fact that became known to all, which is that after more than 60 years, oil still constitutes more than 80 percent of the Saudi national income. As a result, we have become hostage to an odd equation: State revenues are doubling, productivity is going down, unemployment rates are rising, education is falling far shorter of what is expected of it and the numbers of foreign workers are rising.
In short, a synchronized economic and political reform is the only option for the Kingdom to cope with the requirements of this stage, the completion of its development, the consolidation of the foundations upon which it was established and to support the political stability it has enjoyed over the past eight decades. The Kingdom deserves all that and more.