Building a Consensus for Change

Consultation and popular speeches are one thing, action another. There is a possibility that some foreigners - Westerners and Arabs from Egypt and the Levant - are coming to expect too much of Abdullah. The Westerners tend to imagine that because an issue - in this case a financial crisis - exists a government is bound to do something important to address it; and the Arabs, with a totally different agenda, have been hoping that because Abdullah traditionally has had links with Syria and Lebanon, he will move Saudi society in a more nationalist and less pro-American direction.

The probability is that whatever change takes place, it will be less radical and less associated with Abdullah personally, than people expect. Abdullah is already quite an old men; he will be 76 this year. He does not have any higher education and he is not particularly intelligent - though like many members of Al-Saud he has a good feel for the mood of his people. The fact that he has no full brothers and no other large, well-placed body of supporters, will limit what he will be able to do if he faces opposition from the rest of the family.

So far it appears that Abdullah is not facing opposition. Indeed the ideas he is putting forward and the changes he may be in the process of introducing probably represent not just his own views and those of the people he has consulted, but a consensus at the top of the royal family. It is quite possible that similar initiatives would be under way if Fahd were still wholly in control of his faculties.

Leading members of the royal family - barring a few rather private characters - are in regular touch with their people. They all receive people in their majles. The governors of the outlying provinces "sit" twice a day and afterwards invite those who have come to see them to lunch or dinner. Prince Naif and Prince Salman, their deputies and princes with similar jobs that bring them into contact with the population, sit once a day. And princes who have more technocratic jobs, or who are on the outside of government but would like to be more involved, are in their majles two or three times a week - normally in the evenings. People will come to see the princes to ask for their judgement in disputes - particularly disputes between an individual and the civil service, to request financial help, or the prince’s intervention to get them financial help from the government, or to talk about any subject of public concern that is on their minds. Generally those who attend majles are fairly simple people - not members of the educated middle classes.

Important members of the business community, bankers and senior executives in state agencies call on the princes privately, and sometimes invite them to dinner. It is not difficult for, say, a bank director or the head of a big trading or industrial group, to invite even Prince Abdullah or Prince Sultan to dine with him, in the company of twelve or fifteen others whom the prince knows. On these occasions the conversation is usually very polite; controversial issues raised will have to do with the bureaucracy or policies that are not directly concerned with members of the royal family. The diners cannot raise matters of corruption or royal greed - unless the prince is out of government and eager to hear anything which he may be able to use to embarrass other members of the family who are blocking his getting a job or whom he would like to see moved out of the line of succession. Prince Talal bin Abdel-Aziz, a half brother of King Fahd and Prince Abdullah, who has always been associated with radical causes, is an avid listener to tales of corruption. Given that he is one of the older princes (he is 68) and has some experience of government and of the world outside Saudi Arabia, he believes he has a better claim to be king than some of Fahd’s full brothers. He has made no secret of his belief that Sultan, who is older than he is, should be passed over in the succession. In practice, although Talal represents something of a breath of fresh air in Saudi politics, he does not have much influence.

Much of what princes have been hearing from businessmen recently has concerned the need for government to be more responsive to the non-material needs of the people. A theme one hears in the Kingdom is that the government and its officials should not think so much of themselves as being policemen, regulating the people’s lives in order to counter real or imagined threats to security or the proper running of society on Islamic lines. Rather, they should allow change in the style of government in ways people want. It is said that the administration should be more transparent, that there should be less regulation of the movement of goods and services into and out of the Kingdom, that it should be made easier for foreigners to get visas - which has happened, that priority should be given to making more telephone lines available and more seats on domestic flights, and that Saudis should be allowed access to the Internet - which happened at the beginning of this year. It is understood and accepted in the royal family that the arrival of the Internet, coming on the heels of satellite television, will have a huge impact on the Kingdom. It will help counter the boredom that is a feature of the lives of so many young Saudis. In arranging that Internet Service Providers filter the product they offer through proxy servers, the government seems less concerned about the introduction of pornography into the Kingdom than about keeping subscribers away from the web sites of opposition groups abroad.

A very different subject discussed by the royal family, government and business is unemployment among young Saudis. In the 1970s and early 1980s it seemed inconceivable that this would ever be a problem. The population was small, all young Saudis found jobs in the civil service or business, and the Kingdom needed to import foreigners to do manual, clerical and management jobs. Now, however, the population has reached some 17 million - composed of about 12 million Saudis and 5 million foreigners. The number of young men coming onto the job market each year has grown enormously as a result of the 1970s baby boom. The government is restricting recruitment into the civil service and business is growing slowly. The government is greatly concerned about the implications of Saudi unemployment for crime, which is increasing, and social stability. Its policy is to have young Saudis replace foreign workers, but this is not easy. Many do not have the skills or the command of English that are needed, they expect wages that are far higher than what foreigners will accept, and they will not do work which they consider demeaning - though sheer economic necessity has meant that there are fewer jobs that Saudis consider beneath them now than there were ten years ago. From the employers’ point of view the disadvantage of Saudi workers is that they have to be treated more carefully than foreigners. Employers cannot shout at them, or insist that they work long, anti-social hours. Foreign managers feel much less at ease giving instructions to Saudis than to fellow foreigners.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | September 2000

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