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Saudi needs bolder steps to avoid protest contagion

Saudi needs bolder steps to avoid protest contagion

Saudi needs to do more than splash the cash; Clerics, conservatives a brake on reform; Young demanding jobs, prospects.

March 3, 2011 3:19 by


Since taking office in 2005 Abdullah has tried some reforms but has done almost nothing to alter the fundamentals of the absolute monarchy or loosen a strict sex segregation in public based on an austere version of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism.

Saudi analysts say many narrow reforms such as improving religiously-inspired state education are still in the early stages as clerics oppose big changes.

“My view is that we are still on the train heading to revolution town. People are not happy with the concessions so far and the future is still very murky,” wrote Saudi blogger Eman al-Nafjan on her website.

“It becomes reasonable to say that things will escalate if demands aren’t met or at least major compromises are made.”

While the Saudi capital has been full of speculation of a cabinet reshuffle since the king’s return there has been no sign that anything will happen soon.

“The government seems in no hurry to act. I think they don’t want to look like they are bowing to pressure,” said Dakhil. “But I expect some changes.”

Diplomats say any cabinet reshuffle is complicated by a looming succession, as the king is around 87 and the slightly younger Crown Prince Sultan was abroad for long periods for medical treatment.

A candidate for the throne is Interior Minister Prince Nayef, a conservative who appears lukewarm on reforms.

Currently, only sons of state founder Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud can become king. But with only 20 left, analysts say the royal family needs to promote younger princes while balancing the demands of Wahhabi clerics who helped found the kingdom in 1932.

Despite some signs of dissent, few Saudi analysts expect big protests in the kingdom where clerics traditionally have spoken out against challenging rulers.

“A tweet or two by a young, foreign-educated, Saudi woman resentful of her lack of rights does not make a Riyadh Spring,” said Simon Henderson, a U.S.-based author on Saudi succession.

Dakhil said most activists were not planning any Saudi revolution but were worried about rising social pressures such a lack of jobs or housing for young people.

“I think people want changes within the system,” he said.

(By Ulf Laessing. Editing by Jon Boyle)

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