Thursday, March 10, 2011

Saudi Arabia Faces Difficult Choices

Joseph A. Kechichian writes: Kingdom will have to look beyond economic progress in its quest to become the world’s sixth richest state by 2050
This commentary was published in The Gulf News in 10/03/2011

According to a recent Citibank report, Singapore is set to become the world's richest country by 2050, with an estimated annual per capita income of $137,710 (Dh505,396). In this carefully assessed ranking, the city-state would be followed by Hong Kong ($116,639), Taiwan ($114,093), South Korea ($107,752) and the US ($100,802).

The surprise country in the top ten is Saudi Arabia coming sixth with $98,311. Canada ($96,375), the United Kingdom ($91,130), Switzerland ($90,956) and Austria ($90,158) round off the top ten.
As Saudi Arabia prepares to become the sixth richest global state, nearly quadrupling the current rate of $24,200, and against the tide of opposition voices spreading throughout the Arab world, can it accomplish this goal while struggling with public order?

Public safety, it goes without saying, is the first responsibility of any government and Riyadh is no exception even if King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz's latest benefits package failed to thwart a series of protests. While authorities released Tawfiq Al Amir, a prominent cleric who was arrested on February 27 for calling for a constitutional monarchy and equal rights, others remained in jail.
Moreover, and although the Council of Senior Ulama condemned "deviant ideas," calls for activism have not declined. In fact, while the Council affirmed that "demonstrations were forbidden," because "the correct way in Sharia to realise common interest was by advising, which was what the Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] established," the official statement published by the body headed by Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh highlighted innate concerns about governance.

Many of these were addressed a few days ago by Khalid Al Nowaiser, a Saudi lawyer and columnist, in an open letter to King Abdullah in the widely read Arab News.

In his letter, Al Nowaiser "candidly" expressed his apprehensions about a variety of challenges facing the kingdom, avowing that "regional events have shown that the power of any ruling system really depends upon how strong, peaceful and transparent the relation between the regime and its people" is.

Social contract

He then launched into a criticism of the very idea of reforms calling on Riyadh to adopt genuine measures on an urgent basis to quell dissent.

Al Nowaiser beseeched his government to alter the powers of the Shura Council, give it the tools to enhance the social contract between citizens and state institutions, and urged Riyadh to enhance personal freedoms.

Such guarantees, he claimed, would avoid social unrest, especially in the context of a constitution derived from the Quran. Basic freedoms, he elucidated, would shun excesses associated with regimes that allocate to themselves intrinsic political rights.

To be sure, these observations were not unknown, but in the context of current developments they took on a rare urgency. Rather than perceive challenges as threats, Al Nowaiser and many others correctly argue that greater political rights will lead to political stability that, in turn, would foster the environment for economic prosperity.


Only then would the kingdom's oil wealth matter. Indeed, although Saudi Arabia derives nearly half of its GDP from petroleum, this is set to change because the rapidly growing economy, set to register close to 4 per cent in 2011, will require solid contributions from non-oil sectors.

The latter are recording impressive gains and will naturally continue to accomplish small miracles but only if Riyadh continues to support diversification away from oil, provide real economic encentives, encourage private consumption as well as wealth creation and, most important, tolerate political emancipation.

To be sure, state institutions that focus on infrastructure and education must do a far better job than the Jeddah flooding catastrophes or mediocre graduation levels illustrate, but what is truly required for the kingdom to reach a coveted sixth position in the global economic food chain is for Saudi businesses to feel more confident.

They must be assured that the government will wither current tensions, eliminate the growing gap between haves and have-nots, and allow socio-economic expansion.

In the short term, Riyadh can spend its way out of the economic crisis that confront the country, though what it would really need over the long term are meaningful political, social and economic reforms. Dramatic changes cannot occur overnight and will not be ushered in by frail appointees lacking strong mandates to introduce systematic new approaches.

It behooves King Abdullah, indeed all Arab rulers, to unleash the genius of their populations and allow them to excel by creating their own opportunities, which would promote goals and responsibilities in tandem.

Beyond pure economic progress, therefore, two specific areas need urgent attention. First, the conditions of Saudi youths, both men and women, ought to change. Al Nowaiser asked, can Saudi Arabia secure its future while the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice continues to define the kingdom's morality?

Although Al Nowaiser invited the ruler to simply abolish the commission, it is far more important to instill a culture of life based on human rights, which cherishes individual freedom and dignity.

Equally important is the ability to empower the kingdom with a modern legal system that will define and protect rights, which are critical if citizens are to respect their government and work in earnest to add value and achieve the enviable ‘Sixth Global Power' position by 2050.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.

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