Ready to be disappointed?

I had an interesting, albeit infuriating, conversation with a conservative friend of mine last week (yes, I do have conservative friends, can you believe that?). My friend said Saudis should not respond to the calls to protest posted on Facebook because if they do they would be ungrateful to their country. I was gobsmacked. “Huh?! What do you mean?” I asked.

“Our government has given us everything,” he said. “In the past, our nation was a made up of poor tribes fighting each other over food and water. Look at us now. Look at our cities, our universities, our hospitals. Our country is the homeland of Islam. You should thank your lucky stars you where born here. Those who call for change are evil, because they want to waste all these great things that we enjoyed for so long. They want to replace safety and stability with mayhem and chaos, and we must not let them achieve that.”

After he finished that monologue, I ended the conversation. There was no point in debating with him after he labeled all those who might have a different opinion as disloyal, ungrateful brats. Few days later, I wished that I did not end the conversation on that note. I wished I told him this:

Thanks to the vast oil wealth, our country had made some quick developments. But to put it the way you did is wrong and patronizing. We are not subjects; we are citizens. And when the government does what it should be doing (like building schools and hospitals), it is by no means doing us a favor, because this is their job and duty. And it is our right as citizens of a country that enjoys great resources to get a good education, proper health care, and high living standards. More importantly, it is our right to live in dignity, be free to speak our minds, and have a say in how our country is run.

When the so-called Friday of Rage finally came around, very little rage was actually seen on the street. Except for a man named Khaled, the streets remained awfully quiet thanks to the heavy presence of security forces. One picture from Olaya St. showed chains of police cars, bumper to bumper, on both sides of the street. What happened, or rather what did not happen, on Friday has shown that contrary to what some people said, the fear barrier has not been broken yet. But it has also shown how nervous the government was.

The very audible sigh of relief released by the government in the day after reveals that the government did not get the message of Friday. Or maybe that they chose to ignore the message. Who knows?

While we wait for the imminent cabinet reshuffle, the news came out that the next cycle of municipal elections will be held in September. I saw conflicting reports over the participation of women, though. Some reports said women will be allowed to vote but not allowed to run. Other reports said women will not be allowed to take part at all due to “social reasons.” Considering that the old councils have been useless, and that the elections have been delayed several times before, I wonder if the public really cares about this anymore.

Interestingly, the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) came out with a statement on Tuesday calling for reforms and urging the government to expand public participation. The language of the statement is much, much weaker than what we have read in other reform petitions released in the past weeks. While the previous petitions call for a constitutional monarchy and a fully elected parliament, NSHR merely calls on the government to “look into electing some members of provincial councils and the Shoura Council.” NSHR is said to be close to the government.

Some observers suggested that the statement reflects the thinking of the government and what they are willing to offer at this point. Such offer will probably fall short of what many people want. If the government is serious about reform, the least they can offer now is a fully elected Shoura Council with some teeth. Anything less than that will be a disappointment, and I don’t think that most people are ready for more disappointments. We had quite a few of those in recent months.

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Now we’re talking

I know I said don’t expect what happened in Tunisia and Egypt to happen in Saudi Arabia anytime soon. But I also added that things are happening. In addition to the buzz in social media, the past week has seen the release of several statements and open letters demanding reform. There was a statement titled “Toward the State of Rights and Institutions,” and it was signed initially by more than 1500 people, including prominent names such as Sheikh Salman al-Auda. The statement was put up online on a website calling people to sign it if they agree with its premise. The website was blocked few days later, which could be an indicator of how the government feels about this.

Another statement came out around the same time by a group that became known as the “Feb. 23 Youth”. The signatories list is mainly made up of journalists and cyber activists. Mahmoud Sabbagh told Reuters that the group’s demands are “national reform, constitutional reform, national dialogue, elections and female participation.”

However, the most interesting statement so far has come out yesterday. It is called “A Declaration of National Reform”, [UPDATE 2/28 14:51ET: the website has been blocked in KSA] and I have translated it below. The statement is impressive in its content and the names of signatories, most of them considered liberals by Saudi standards, which makes it clear who stands where at this moment of Saudi history. Compared to the first two statements, this one has a much longer and more detailed list of demands directed at the government.

Yes, the ideas in these three statements overlap in some ways, but the diversity of signatories shows how, in the absence of organized political action, how the different individuals identify with each other. We are waiting to see the cabinet reshuffle that will be announced in the coming few days, but I remain pretty skeptical about the possibility of major reforms in the near future. The local papers these days are full of hypocrisy and flat-out lies about how the government has addressed people’s needs through the financial aid package, when in fact people want much more than that. These statements, I think, make it very clear what people really want.


A Declaration of National Reform

It is no secret that the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, and their aftermath of crises and changing political discourse in many Arab countries, have created circumstances in which we need to reevaluate our situation and do our best to reform before it is too late, and before we are confronted with developments whose consequences we cannot prevent nor predict.

A group of Saudi intellectuals have previously presented the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in January 2003 with a set of specific suggestions in a statement titled “A Vision for the Nation’s Present and the Future.” His Majesty has welcomed it then, and promised to consider it. Moreover, a number of senior officials announced later that the government is determined to adopt a wide range of reform policies in the state apparatus, and in its relationship with the Saudi society.

After a decade of those promises, very little of the promised reforms has been achieved. We believe that the delay in political reform has aggravated the problems which were referred to in the “Vision” document and the other statements that followed it.

The status quo is full of risks and causes for concern. We are witnessing with the rest of the Saudi people the decline of our country’s regional role, the stagnation of the government, the deterioration in the efficiency of the management, the prevalence of corruption and nepotism, fanaticism, and the increasingly widening gap between the state and society, especially the new generation of youth. This could lead to disastrous consequences on the country and the people, and it is something we cannot accept for our homeland and our children.

Addressing this situation requires a serious review and an immediate adoption of large-scale reforms by both the state and society, focusing on fixing the fundamental flaws in our political system, and leading the country to a well-grounded constitutional monarchy.

The people’s acceptance is the basis for legitimacy of the authority, and it is the only guarantee for unity, stability, the efficiency of governance, and protecting the country against foreign interference. This requires a reformulation of the relationship between society and the state, in which the people are the source of power, a full partner in deciding public policy through their elected representatives in the Shoura Council, and that the purpose of the state is to serve society, protect its interests, enhance the standard of living, and guarantee the dignity and honor of individuals and the future of their children.

Thus, we look forward to a royal declaration that clearly underlines the commitment of the state to become a “constitutional monarchy,” and to set a timetable that specifies a date for the beginning of desired reforms, the initiation of applying them, and the date of concluding them. The declaration has to confirm adopting the great objectives of reform, namely: the rule of law, full equality for members of the public, legal guarantees for individual and civil freedoms, popular participation in decision making, balanced development, uprooting poverty, and the optimum use of national resources.

In this regard, we see that the reform program should include the following:

First: The development of the Basic Law into a comprehensive constitution that serves as a social contract between the people and the state stating that the people are the source of power. The separation of the three branches of government: the executive, judicial and legislative; defining authorities, and tying them with responsibility and accountability; the equality of all citizens, the legal protection of individual and civil freedoms, ensure justice, equality of opportunity. Reaffirming the responsibility of the state in guaranteeing human rights, protecting the right to peaceful expression of opinion, and reinforce public freedoms, including the right to form political and professional associations.

Second: To emphasize the principle of the rule of law, and that everyone — statesmen and citizens — are under the law equally and without discrimination; and to incriminate improper handling of national resources or using them outside the framework of the law.

Third: the adoption of general election as a way to form municipal, provincial, and the Shoura Council; and the participation of women in nomination and election.

Fourth: The adoption of the principle of administrative decentralization, and granting local administrations in regions and governorates the necessary powers to establish effective, local government that can interact with the demands of citizens in each region.

Fifth: To activate the principle of the independence of the judiciary, by canceling all the bodies that play parallel roles outside the framework of the judicial system, and to have the courts presiding over the investigation with the accused and the conditions of prisoners, and public prosecution; and to cancel all the instructions and regulations that limit the independence of the judiciary and its effectiveness or limit the immunity of judges, or open the door to the interference in judiciary. The codification and standardization of provisions must be accelerated. ‘Tazir’ must be regulated. The international charters on Human Rights that our government has signed must become part of the judicial system. All of this to ensure justice, equality and discipline in the application of the provisions. The system of criminal procedures and legal defense system must be activated, preventing any action or conduct outside their framework or a breach of their limits.

Sixth: Accelerating the issuance of the non-governmental organizations law, which was approved by the Shoura Council, and opening the door to establishing civil society institutions in all forms and for all purposes, as a channel to rationalize and shape public opinion, and increase popular participation in decision-making.

Seventh: Despite widespread debate on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, the government had failed to take adequate action to fulfill the requirements of this pressing issue. Ignoring or postponing the rights of women contributes to deepening the problems of poverty and violence, and undermines the contribution of the family in improving the quality of education. What is required is to take legal and institutional measures to empowering women to attain their rights to empower women in order to gain their rights in education, ownership, work and participation in public affairs without discrimination.

Eighth: The issuance of legislation banning discrimination between citizens, for any reason and under any justification. The legislation must criminalizes any practice that involves sectarian, tribal, regional, racial, ethnic or any other type of discrimination. The law must also criminalize hate speech for any reasons, religious or otherwise. Implementing a strategy for national integration that explicitly recognizes the social and cultural diversity of the Saudi society, and affirms respect for this diversity and considers it a source of enrichment for national unity and social peace. We need an effective strategy for national integration to that can rectify the situation of groups that suffer from exclusion, marginalization and denial of rights due to any of the above reasons, and to compensate them for what they have undergone.

Ninth: King Abdullah’s decision to set up the Human Rights Commission and the National Society of Human Rights was a promising step. But we find now that both HRC and NSHR have turned into what looks like a bureaucracy with a limited role in the defending the rights of citizens. One of the reasons for this decline is the government’s interference in the appointment of these bodies members, as well as the refusal of many government agencies to deal with them. Guarding the rights of citizens and residents, and protecting them against injustice, must be at the top of the priorities for the government and society. Therefore, we demand the removal of restrictions imposed on HRC and NSHR, and to ensure their independence within the framework of the law. We also call for legalizing the right to form other non-governmental organizations for the defense of human rights.

Tenth: There is no dignity without decent living. Our country has been blessed, but a large segment of our citizens complain of poverty and neediness. We have witnessed the slowness of the government in addressing the problem of unemployment and housing, and improving the quality of life, particularly in rural areas and suburbs, and among the retired and the elderly. There is no justification for the failure to develop solutions to these problems. We believe that not raising these issues for general debate, ignoring the role of the private sector and civil society when thinking about such problems, and to see it from a purely commercial perspective, had turned these problems into dilemmas, and it has become one of the reasons and to humiliate citizens and restricting them.

Eleventh: the past years revealed the aggravation of tampering with public funds, which requires the elected Shoura Council to use its powers to monitor government agencies and keep them accountable. The Council can establish structures and independent bodies capable of carrying out monitoring functions, the declare their findings to the people, especially those related to the administrative corruption, misuse of power, and mismanagement of public funds by government agencies. We reaffirm the need for the adoption of the principle of transparency and accountability, and the establishment of an institutional framework to ensure these principles by a) establishing a national for integrity that enjoys independence and declares the results of its investigations to public opinion; b) enabling the citizens to obtain access to the use of public funds by government agencies, and abolishing restrictions that prevent the press from exposing transactions suspected of being involved in corruption.

Twelfth: Oil revenues have jumped over the past five years to high levels, providing the government with huge funds that should have been used and spent wisely, rather than squander them in expensive, cost-ineffective projects. We call for a review of the foundations used as basis for the five-year development plans, and to adopt a long-term strategy for overall development, focusing on expanding the base of national production, building the base for alternative economic sources, creating jobs, and including the private sector in deciding economic policies.

In conclusion, we reiterate our call for the political leaders to adopt the reform proposals.

In order to show the goodwill and determination to reform, four steps must be taken immediately:

  1. A royal declaration that confirms the government’s intention to introduce political reform, and to set a timetable to initiate it and apply it.
  2. the immediate release of political prisoners, and to present those who committed crimes to trial without delay, while ensuring the necessary judicial guarantees for each of the accused.
  3. Lifting the travel ban orders that have been imposed on a large number of people who expressed their opinions.
  4. Removing the restrictions imposed on the freedom of publishing and expression, and to enable the citizens to express their opinions publicly and peacefully. And to stop prosecuting those who express their opinion in a peaceful manner.

As we make this declaration to our political leaders and the citizens of our country, we reaffirm the solidarity of all, the people and the government, in the face of the dangers facing us, and to avoid any unexpected surprises. We trust that all of us have learned the lessons from what happened in brotherly Arab countries.

Facing challenges can only be achieved through serious, comprehensive and immediate reform that embodies popular participation in decision-making, enhances national cohesion, and meets the people’s aspirations in a glorious homeland

Illusive reform, Swedish TV interview

  • Neil Patrick says, “All in all, substantive Saudi reform is largely illusive.” That’s debatable. What is not debatable is that many of the changes made since 2005 lack an institutional basis and have not captured our imagination, mine at least.
  • I was interviewed by Swedish television a while I ago. I said things. Jameel al-Theyabi, editor of the Saudi edition of al-Hayat daily, said things, too. I don’t think that Moroccan journalist Mohammed al-Jama’ai wears a suit to work everyday. That’s not my laptop, I’m a Mac. I hate the adjective ‘absolutely.’ What else? Oh, I’m not religious.

Education reform, Hassawi bisht, women in pharmacies

  • When the Saudi cabinet was reshuffled on Valentine’s Day last year, I said let’s not be overoptimistic. I thought the new ministers will need time before we can evaluate how they performed. About one year later, the minister of education asked today for three more years in order to “turn our ideas and visions for education development into reality.” I would happily give him these three years and then some more if he can really fix the education system, because if he could that would be the best thing to happen to Saudi Arabia since sliced bread.
  • Asharq al-Awsat has a short piece about the bisht, the cloak men wear over the white thobe in Saudi Arabia. Particularly, the Hassawi bisht that is made here in my hometown of Ahsa. It used to take about ten day to sew one of these by hand, but new technology allows you know to make 10 of them in one day. However, some people still prefer the handmade ones. Oh yeah, and the prices can go from $260 to $7000.
  • The ministery of health is studying a proposal to allow women to work in community pharmacies and optics shops. Currently, female pharmacists and optics technicians are only allowed to practice their jobs inside hospitals. The proposal was made by Jeddach Chamber of Commerce, who said they will keep pushing this proposal over the next three years. Aysha Natto, member of the Chamber, denied that this proposal is challenging the social norms in any way. Natto says the men who deal with women inside hospitals are the same men who will deal with them in community pharmacies. “It doesn’t make sense to continue viewing men in our society as wolves that look for women in every place,” she added.

Another Day, Another Statement

A group of reform activists has published an open letter to King Abdullah, asking him to ensure public and fair trials for alleged terrorists and demanding other judicial and political reforms. The group, called “Advocates of Constitutional Reforms, Civic Society and Human Rights” (ACRCSHR), is currently trying to collect signatures from the public. So far, 37 persons have signed the letter.

Supporting the alleged terrorists’ right to a public, fair trial is a noble call, but I wonder if associating other reform demands with this call is a good strategy. I heard many reformists accuse the government of practicing political opportunism when they deal with different groups in the country, but isn’t this kind of association similar to these practices?

One activist said the letter signals the end of a stage that witnessed a cautious flirtation between the king and the reformists. The letter boasts a strong language, but is it going to make any difference? Some people think that the era of statements and open letters is over.

If I sound skeptical, it is because I am. The glacial pace of progress the country has made over the past few years is not exactly a good reason to get all excited over anything. What many leaders in the government and outside it don’t seem to realize is that more and more young people are being left frustrated and now are considering leaving the country to pursue their dreams away from here.

Related:

The Onaiza Girl, Again

The Onaiza girl case is back to make headlines after the court there upheld its earlier verdict. Judge Habib Al-Habib’s original stipulated that the girl must reach the age of puberty before determining whether she would continue her marriage solemnized in June 2007. A relative of the girl told CNN that the judge “insisted that the girl could petition the court for a divorce once she reached puberty.” The Court of Cassation had rejected the previous verdict and demanded that the case be reconsidered. But in Saturday’s hearing the judge stuck to his earlier verdict, after he failed to convince the husband to nullify the marriage contract in lieu of returning the dowry he paid.

I don’t understand the position of the judge. So he wanted the husband to nullify the marriage, but when the husband refused, he decided to stick to his earlier bizarre verdict? Anyways, I’m not surprised, especially when we remember that the Grand Mufti himself sees nothing wrong in marrying off girls who are 15 and younger. Sources told Saudi Gazette that if the elderly husband continues to refuse and the judge sticks to his verdict, the Court of Cassation will hand over the case to another judge. Let’s wait and see…

Read more:

Confusing Signals

More than two years after publishing their first report, the National Society of Human Rights (NSHR) published their second report, and I have to say that I am impressed. The report is written in a simple, clean, and professional language that should promote human rights principles among Saudi citizens.

The report criticized many government departments for their abuses of human rights, and also criticized the slow pace of reforms in judiciary as well as the performance of the Shoura Council. The full text of the report is available here (Arabic PDF). Arab News provides some highlights from the report.

I don’t think I need to talk in detail about the report. I already said that I was impressed and I really think the report speaks for itself. But I would like to point out to one interesting tidbit here.

As part of the remarks on the Shoura Council performance, the report called for electing the members instead of the current method of selection. The report also said there is a need to take effective steps to protect and promote women’s rights. But soon after the report was released, Interior Minister Prince Naif came out to say that Saudi Arabia has no need for women members of parliament or elections. Yesterday, Prince Naif was appointed as second deputy premier.

Now this is exactly the kind of mixed signals that makes the world question the commitment of our country to its much publicized reform plans, not to mention how it leaves the people confused about where their nation is heading. So what’s going on here? Frankly, I don’t get it. I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.