Institutions in Government

The way change is introduced by the government is being influenced increasingly by institutions. It is no longer fair to say, as it was in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, that Saudi Arabia is ruled by a King and senior princes who have ministers to advise them and carry out their instructions. Although all important decisions are still taken ultimately at the top, they are much influenced by preparatory work done in the ministries. The non-royal ministers and other civil servants now have rôles more comparable to those of their counterparts in industrialised countries’ governments.

The major institutional change of the 1990s has been the introduction on an appointed consultative council, the Majlis as-Shura. This body had been talked about for many years and had been promised in fairly specific terms at the beginning of King Fahd’s reign in 1982, but it was not actually established until 1993. The reason for the delay seems to have been that some senior members of the royal family were afraid that it would become like the elected Kuwaiti National Assembly, which has a reputation in its own state and the region as a noisy, irresponsible body, concerned mainly with attracting publicity for its members and obstructing government policies as a matter of principle. The Kuwaiti Assembly has done much in the last thirty years to push the government into policies which have been against the state’s long term interests and prevent it from addressing some of its problems.

The Majlis as-Shura was originally given 60 members, representing all sections of Saudi society but with a bias towards intelligent, well-educated, energetic technocrats. The government - the senior members of the royal family and the ministers - was happy to discover that it did not display any populist or disruptive tendencies and that, in fact, much of its work was rather helpful. By questioning ministers and their deputies, the Majlis made for more responsive and transparent government. It has been a factor in helping toimprove the quality of services delivered to the public by the government. This has long been a matter of concern among members of the royal family, who have often said, in private, that they do not think they have been very well served by their non-royal ministers and civil servants.

The Majlis’s debates and the work of its special committees have been useful in helping to focus public attention on sensitive issues, such as the need for privatisation and the waste of the Kingdom’s water resources in wheat cultivation. The fact that a semi-independent body is expressing concern about the effects of a particular policy makes it easier for the government to change that policy, without losing face and without encountering too much opposition from vested interests.

The Majlis has also been useful in showing the King and senior princes the abilities of some of the Kingdom’s technocrats. It is seen as a proving ground for future ministers.

In 1997, at the end of its first four year term, the membership of the Majlis was increased to ninety. There is talk of its responsibilities being expanded. Up to now most of its work has involved the discussion of matters put to it by the government; in future it may be encouraged to take more independent initiatives. It may be allowed to debate and approve the budget, which could have all sorts of important consequences in promoting transparency and reducing corruption. In the long term the government might arrange for some of its members to be elected, indirectly, by chambers of commerce or the country’s appointed regional assemblies.

The other important institutional change has concerned the cabinet, the Council of Ministers. Between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s there was only one wholesale change of the cabinet - in 1975 after the assassination of King Faisal - and it was quite rare for there to be individual changes. The posts of minister and deputy minister, along with senior civil service jobs and positions at the top of state agencies, such as the central bank, became virtually careers in themselves. In many cases people held the posts for fifteen or twenty years.

In 1992, however, it was announced that in future the performance of senior officials would be reviewed every four years, and in August 1995, after a considerable lapse of time, the policy was put into effect. There was a wholesale change of ministers - excluding those who were members of the royal family - and senior civil servants and it was made known that there would be further changes in August 1999.

The ministers appointed in 1995 probably have less flair as a group than those given posts in 1975, in what was known as "the cabinet of PhDs", but under their direction the performance of the ministries has certainly improved. Businessmen say they are finding ministers more competent, that there is better "follow through", that less pushing is required to get a response to a letter or proposal. These changes, and the better service the public is getting from the ministries, are attributed rather more to the pressure ministers feel on their jobs than to the influence of the Majlis as-Shura.

The gradual institutionalisation and growing competence of government is having a useful effect in reducing the scope for middle ranking or junior princes to intervene to obtain favours for companies they represent. Now that the senior civil servants feel more confident and are able to explain, with justification, that they have to work according to a system, they are better able to resist pressure from fairly minor royals. They are also being helped by the fact that there now a great many princes representing foreign companies, which enables them to say, again quite truthfully, that they cannot do Prince "A" a favour because they have already been telephoned about the same matter by the business managers of princes "B" and "C" representing rival companies.

It has long been accepted in Saudi Arabia that for most types of contracts - those not related to defence - professional bidding can be just as effective as royal intervention in helping a company win. Now one hears it said in government and business circles that what is important in backing a professional bid is not so much influence as information. It is important for companies to link themselves to a network of well-informed people, who may not be particularly senior in government but who can tell them what material they should present to ministries, how and to whom it should be presented, and how they should go about getting a reaction to their presentations.

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

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