Saudi Arabia shares many problems common to the Arab world – a youth "bulge," lack of opportunities for graduates, precious few political freedoms, plus an absence of transparency and accountability by an absolute monarchy that includes 8,000 princes. Restrictions on women – who are not allowed to drive and cannot travel abroad without the permission of a male relative – are another big negative. The notorious religious police are another. Torture is frequently used on detainees. Unemployment between the ages of 14 and 24 is 40% – in a country where almost 70% of the population is under 20.I don't feel like I have any insight here, as to whether tomorrow will be a total fizzle, or the first crack in the regime. There's a great deal at stake.
Demands for change are relatively modest. Of three reform petitions circulating on the internet, one has gathered signatures from 1,500 prominent liberal and Islamist Saudis calling for a constitutional monarchy, an elected parliament and an accountable executive. Entitled Towards a Country with Rights and Institutions, it is couched in polite and formal language and starts by wishing the king good health. It is a far cry from the slogans heard in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli. But online access was still quickly blocked.
A "youth petition" signed by 60 journalists and cyber-activists calls for political liberalisation and lowering the average age of ministers to 40 and of shura council members to 45. "There is a new generation of people who are more liberal," says a senior Saudi journalist, "but they still respect the old red lines."
Many Saudi liberals insist the king is a well-intentioned reformist, if one limited by his age and experience. Khaled al-Maeena, editor of the Jeddah-based Arab News, is one of them. "People are adamant that the day of rage will not be about throwing stones and shouting slogans, so there shouldn't be an over-reaction."
Thursday, March 10, 2011
The Guardian has a good backgrounder: