Saudis Impatient For King's Promised 'Reforms'

May 23, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2011 3:00 pm
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: Saudi Arabia. A couple of months ago, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah unveiled a multi-billion dollar package of economic reforms. The package focused attention on problems the kingdom rarely talks about, unemployment, a housing shortage, and corruption. Many Saudis believe the decrees were meant to quiet dissent that's been stirred up by the popular uprisings taking place across the Middle East. Saudi critics dismiss the package as a payoff. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and filed this report.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Here at Kingdom Mall in Riyadh, shoppers asked about King Abdullah's decrees voiced their approval - like 30-year-old Noura Ataybi.

NOURA ATAYBI: This is good, but you know, he's thinking for the future, for the new generations. This is the most important thing.

SARHADDI NELSON: Fellow shopper, Delaal, who is 50 and would only give her first name, says she too, believes the king will take care of them. She points to his decrees, which included an extra month's pay for government workers, unemployment benefits, money for a half-million new homes and new jobs. But Delaal's trust for King Abdullah doesn't extend to those in his government.

DELAAL: Unidentified Woman (Translator): The reform.

DELAAL: The reform.

SARHADDI NELSON: Reform is something people talk a lot about these days in the kingdom. It's a ripple effect from the Arab Spring that is toppling regimes in nearby countries.

EPTISAM: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Delaal's sister, Eptisam, says what she wants is for Saudi government agencies to be accountable to the people. That's not usually how it is now, says Al Hayat newspaper Executive Editor Ahmad Soliman al Fheed.

AHMAD SOLIMAN AL FHEED: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: As part of his March decrees, he established a commission to combat government corruption. But critics predict the commission won't get far, given that Saudi officials have more or less operated with impunity since the kingdom was founded less than a century ago.

MOHAMMED FAHAD AL QAHTANI: This is like a Soviet-style economy, that things are run in hierarchy and it's prone to corruption, so corruption is really intrinsic.

SARHADDI NELSON: Mohammed Fahad al Qahtani heads the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association based in Riyadh.

FAHAD AL QAHTANI: So it's not really a normal, you know, administrative or financial corruption that you may see in other countries. This is a political corruption and the solution requires a political solution, political reform. And they are not willing to do it.

SARHADDI NELSON: There were no measures changing the power structure in the March decrees from King Abdullah. The Saudi government also chose to ignore demands from domestic and international human rights groups for the release of political prisoners. Qahtani believes that's a mistake. His organization has called on the king to create a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia, with parliamentary elections and ministries run by commoners.

FAHAD AL QAHTANI: We are not really calling for toppling the royal family, but they must reform. I mean this kind of absolute monarchy is really out of time, this like medieval political structure is really out of time. That we live in this day and age where revolution is roaring throughout the Middle East and you want to hold and maintain the status quo? It's not going to survive.

SARHADDI NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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