Saudi Arabia’s Theater of Reform

Having raised expectations for real political reform in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has instead announced that the time for change has not yet arrived. After reshuffling the cabinet, everything remains the same. The Saudi population, 50% of which is under 15 years old, will continue watching the same old princes on national TV, some who have been in office for forty years, symbolizing the rot at the heart of Saudi politics. The paradox here is that as Saudi Arabia becomes far more active diplomatically in trying to sort out the problems and Iraq, it has become paralyzed domestically.

This was not what ordinary Saudis expected. For the past year and a half, they were anticipating a cabinet reshuffle intended to enhance the king’s reputation as a keen advocate of reform. The symbolic significance of a new cabinet was expected to reflect its redefinition of the Saudi nation and its future. There was hope of inclusion of marginalized groups, such as a Shia minister for the first time in the Kingdom’s history, and action against corruption, represented by the removal of long-serving ministers.

Instead, a crippling malaise has engulfed the Kingdom, as Saudi Arabia’s peculiar inertia has produced idle talk of reform that cannot mask the realities of stagnation. The inertia goes beyond the cabinet reshuffle: the judiciary – with 700 judges – also remains unchanged.

The irony is that while King Abdullah has energetically taken on a leading role in the region’s turbulent affairs, he seems unable to respond to Saudi Arabia’s acute lag in democratic reform in comparison to neighbors like Jordan and the Gulf states.