Thursday, February 24, 2011

King Abdullah Returns to Saudi: Concerns About Succession Fade as Concerns About Reform Grow

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah is greeted by a large number of people 
on arrival in Riyadh on Wednesday. (SPA) See also article in Arab News, "Grand welcome for King Abdullah"

I have procrastinated about posting on King Abdullah's medical condition, its treatment in the US, and his convalescence in Morocco, with the attendant concerns about succession in case he should not return to Saudi. I fully appreciated the worries about succession, including that generally any time of transition like a succession can be challenging and threatening to social harmony and progress, and that in this instance the likely successor, Prince Naif, is far more conservative than the current King. I also realized that the preparations King Abdullah made about an acting ruler in his absence increased fears among the Saudi people that he was more ill than stated and at greater risk of succumbing.

However, it always seemed to me that King Abdullah was suffering from exactly what was published, a herniated disk, which is painful and incapacitating, but rarely life threatening. Surgical repair has attendant risks, particularly for the elderly, but is a well-established procedure with a high success rate. I assumed he would return after a suitable post-operative recovery period to exercise his duties as before.

King Abdullah's return the lead story in Saudi newspapers (Photo AFP)

These assumptions were not due to naïveté about the minimization of a leader's illnesses that all governments practice. Rather, I never read anything anywhere, or saw any pictures that contradicted or made suspect the stated diagnosis. That is distinct, for example, from pictures, video, and accounts of the time George HW Bush (George Bush I) "fainted" after "vomiting" at a state banquet in Japan. It was obvious even before later confirmation that he had an episode of atrial fibrillation and a vaso-vagal response resulting in the vomiting and fainting, in other words, more a cardiac issue than a simple dinner faux pas. Similarly, I always thought that Fidel Castro would make a much better recovery than the pundits were predicting, and he did, though his brother Raul still has a more expanded formal role in Cuba's governance than previously.

Saudi flags flutter above pictures of King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz decorating a street in the Saudi capital Riyadh on February 23, 2011 as he flew out of Morocco and headed home after recovering from back surgery. (Photo AFP)

Whatever staging may or may not be involved in the jubilant reception of King Abdullah on his return to Saudi, there is sufficient relief that he and not a more reactionary successor is in power that there can be disappointment with his announced "reforms". Indeed, it seems as if there is less reform than an injection of substantial funding into and expansion of existing programs of social benefits, housing support, scholarships, and minimum wage standards. Increased funding and expansion of social programs does make a difference in resources particularly for the more vulnerable in society, and a realistic minimum wage can make a great deal of difference to the working class. In that sense, the announced "reforms" are to be welcomed.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah speaks to Saudi media upon his arrival at Riyadh airport on Feb. 23. King Abdullah unveiled a series of benefits for Saudis estimated to be worth $10.7 billion on his return home on Wednesday from three months abroad for medical treatment. (Saudi Press Agency/ Reuters)

However, this injection of funds falls far short of the more substantive reforms sought by many, of both genders. It definitely falls short of the expectations of the Facebook group The People want to Reform the Government Campaign:
To support the right of the Saudi people and their legitimate aspirations:
1 – a constitutional monarchy between the king and government.
2 – a written constitution approved by the people in which governing powers will be determined.
3 – transparency, accountability in fighting corruption
4 – the Government in the service of the people
5 – legislative elections.
6 – public freedoms and respect for human rights
7 – allowing civil society institutions
8 – full citizenship and the abolition of all forms of discrimination.
9 – Adoption of the rights of women and non-discrimination against them.
10 – an independent and fair judiciary.
11 – impartial development and equitable distribution of wealth.
12 – to seriously address the problem of unemployment
*English translation by Eman Al Nafjan of Saudiwoman's Weblog on her excellent post "The Arab Revolution Saudi Update".
Arabic original:
لدعم حق الشعب السعودي و تطلعاته المشروعة في:
1- ملكية دستورية تفصل بين الملك و الحكم.
2- دستور مكتوب مقر من الشعب يقرر فصل السلطات
3- الشفافية و محاسبة الفساد
4- حكومة في خدمة الشعب
5- انتخابات تشريعية.
6- حريات عامة واحترام حقوق الانسان
7- مؤسسات مجتمع مدني فاعلة
8- مواطنة كاملة والغاء كافة اشكال التمييز.
9- اقرار حقوق المرأة و عدم التمييز ضدها.
10- قضاء مستقل و نزيه.
11- تنمية متوازية و توزيع عادل للثروة.
12- معالجة جادة لمشكلة البطالة.
King Abdullah welcomed by Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on his return, at Riyadh Airport (Photo Reuters)

The funding of existing programs also falls far short of the concerns of those who protested the lack of effective government response to Jeddah's flooding, including infrastructure problems and corruption of officials charged with correcting them; Shia who protested their discrimination in the Eastern Province; and women protesting for the release of prisoners. All of these protests were small in comparison to the uprisings in other MENA countries, but signs of a change of attitude, and inspiration from those other courageous protesters.

Some have called for further and broader protests, either on March 11 in Riyadh, as the above group has done, or on March 20 as another Facebook group with similar demands has done, the aptly titled SSaudi Revolution March 20 (as described by Qusay of Qusay Today, in his post "Saudi Revolution on the 20th of March". Many (including Qusay) are skeptical that protests will occur, and just as many are fearful of swift and effective repression given the arrest of all members of Saudi's first contemporary  political party, the Islamic Ummah Party; and Saudi's firm stand with the autocratic rulers of other MENA countries, notably Ben Ali, Mubarak, and King Hamad of Bahrain.

Saudi youth wave their national flag as they celebrate the return of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz 
in the Saudi capital Riyadh. (Fayez Noureldine, AFP/Getty Images)

See Also:
Saudi Succession
Saudi king back home, orders $37 billion in handouts
Saudi Arabia: Stifling revolution with riyals
I don't want grants
Women launch Facebook campaign to participate in municipal elections
Saudi women protest, web activists call for reform
Egypt uprising, Wahabi numbers, Khashoggi, women in municipal elections, and other stuff
#EgyEffectSa

Your thoughts, comments, impressions, experiences?

Youth celebrate in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on February 23, 2010. (Photo CNBC)

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