Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Continuing with Reform | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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This undated file photo shows the Riyadh skyline. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The process of reform, if it is to bear fruit and maintain momentum, must be continuous and sustained. According to writer and academic Homa Katouzian, any slowdown in the modernization processes in developing countries can, first and foremost, be put down to political or non-political turbulence and instability, which hinders the gradual buildup of expertise and can torpedo the entire process altogether.

During the reign of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia witnessed a considerable series of reform initiatives. This was an indicator of the resources available in the country that could push through changes on the ground and also laid waste to the odious claims that the Saudi people are unable to reform themselves or that they are even opposed to reform altogether.

But we must put these initiatives in their right historical context so we do not overlook the full extent of their significance and the magnitude of the efforts made in launching them. Look at organizations such as the country’s National Society for Human Rights and the National Anti-Corruption Commission, or even the initiatives to combat unemployment, develop the educational and judicial sectors, and provide more opportunities for women—all these projects faced great difficulties at the beginning, and we all know there are forces in Saudi society who view such efforts as a danger to their own interests and the status quo. These people fought and continue to fight such efforts using a variety of means, including inflaming religious feelings and playing on other tensions in society. I mention this as an “excuse” for what some may see as the slow pace of change in Saudi society, but I do so while bearing in mind that “excuses” or reasons are useful when considering the past, not the future, and can no longer be considered useful if the same past problems they are helping explain continue in the future.

I return here once again to Homa Katouzian’s ideas in order to reiterate the point that it is essential to safeguard and build on the achievements of any initial reforms, widening the scope with which such reform can work and expand—that is, to give it new momentum that will allow it to achieve maximum results. Reform is gradual in the sense that what has been achieved in the past can be used as a new springboard for reform in the future, which can then work in entirely new directions.

At this point I’d like to make use of three examples of reform initiatives which I see as pivotal in the Kingdom: establishing the sovereignty of the rule of law, involving citizens more in the official decision-making process, and providing legal guarantees for personal and civil freedoms and rights in the country.

In terms of the sovereignty of the law, this achievement perhaps dates back to the reform of the country’s political system that produced a complete and integrated constitution and contained the general principles that organize public life in the Kingdom, and provided the main political and legal reference point for all other reforms which followed.

In terms of involving citizens more in the decision-making process, this began with the adoption of new mechanisms for electing members of the country’s highest official advisory body, the Shura Council, and widening the powers of local councils and employing elected officials there. It will be important also to enact further legislation for citizens’ rights that can provide a context and framework for the relationship between the Saudi citizen and state institutions, especially where there is a conflict between the interests of one and those of the other.

We must always stress that Saudis are fully capable of developing their own country and solving their own problems without recourse to coercion, conflict or difficulties, or even the involvement of an outside party. In order for this capability or potential to become reality, however, the Kingdom must not only continue down the path of reform, it must also widen the scope of that reform considerably, so that the Saudi people can see their hopes were not ultimately misplaced and take more pride in themselves and their country.