Is Riyadh's 'reform manifesto' an historic step towards democracy?

Is Riyadh's 'reform manifesto' an historic step towards democracy?
Analysis: Saudi Arabia is to carry out major reforms, a public statement by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's office has claimed, but sceptics dismiss reports as a PR stunt.
4 min read
13 November, 2015
Despite vast national wealth, one-quarter of Saudis live below the poverty line [Getty]
Saudi Arabia has revealed a "manifesto for change", which appears to cover reforms ranging from the economy to the role of women, and allowing human rights groups into the country.

The plan was published as an exclusive by the right-wing British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

The Telegraph said the "unprecedented" and "detailed programme" was drawn up by close advisers to the new King Salman and his son, at a time when the country's internal politics are under more international scrutiny than at any time for decades, and in the face of rumours of "coup plots".

Radical changes in the royal family since the king acceded to the throne in January, including the "sidelining" of a generation of older princes and the former heir to the throne, has met with opposition in Riyadh. There are claims outside the country that disgruntled princes are attempting to mount a coup to replace the king with one of his brothers.

The putative reform plan includes "Thatcherite" budget cuts, an increasing role for the private sector and reforms to the way the kingdom is governed.
The reform plan includes 'Thatcherite' budget cuts, increasing role for the private sector and governance reforms

Saudi Arabia also reportedly pledged a shake-up to turn the oil-rich kingdom into a major economic power.

The Telegraph
painted the document as "a rare acknowledgement" the Saudi authorities are themselves in part to blame for the country's poor international image, particularly over the issue of women's rights.

The Saudi government, the British newspaper claimed, will therefore "open the doors of the kingdom to international committees and human rights organisations".

Oil: 'The big dilemma'

The lengthy statement given to the British paper was reportedly prepared by members of the royal court and of the economic council, created by Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The document, the report claimed, addresses head-on the criticism that Saudi Arabia relies too much on oil revenues to provide its citizens with low-grade jobs in bureaucracy.

The new plan, The Telegraph said, therefore envisages cutting waste and increasing spending on infrastructure to "diversify sources of income".

The Financial Times has echoed the reports about economic reforms in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia was studying a programme of sensitive energy subsidy reforms to reduce pressure on its economy, "despite popular wariness of increases to the cost of living", the paper reported.
Saudi Arabia relies too much on oil revenues to provide its citizens with low-grade jobs in the bureaucracy

The FT claimed low oil prices have encouraged radical thinking on the economy in Riyadh - including subsidy reform, "which was avoided when government coffers were flush with petrodollars".

Quoting a senior Saudi official, The FT said the government would gradually lift energy subsidies, with details to be announced in January during the public launch of a new national agenda that includes "economic, financial and social reform measures".

However, The FT also said the potential for a negative popular reaction in Saudi Arabia overshadows the plan.

"Saudis have become accustomed to cheap electricity and petrol, part of a cradle-to-grave welfare state that forms a social contract with the kingdom's 20m nationals," it argued.

The government is also reportedly carrying out a review of state-owned enterprises that could be privatised to raise funds, boost efficiency and take large numbers of public sector employees off the books.

No change in 'constants'

In some areas, the kingdom reportedly insisted it would not change. The hyped reform plan seems to focus largely on neo-liberal economic reforms, and does not directly address questions of democratic reform or relieving the Saudi crackdown on human rights activists and pro-democracy campaigners since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, according to The Telegraph.

For instance, the Saudi document rejects criticism - that has come from Jeremy Corbyn, the UK opposition leader, among others - over its handling of protests by the minority Shia community in the east of the country in 2011 and 2012.

A Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and his young nephew, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, have both been sentenced to death by beheading. Ali al-Nimr was only 17 at the time of the protests.

It also says that the country should have been more open towards women, adding the authorities have been held back by "heritage and popular tradition".

The reform plan does not directly address questions of democratic reform or relieving Saudi crackdown on activists

Women still have to get permission from a male "guardian" - normally a father, husband or brother - before travelling, and are not permitted to drive. They are also required to wear a headscarf in public.

'PR stunt'

The Telegraph ran an editorial by the Saudi Arabian ambassador to London two weeks ago, rebuking the new leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, for what the ambassador suggested was meddling in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia after Corbyn's criticism of the kingdom's policies.

With the latest Saudi exclusive, some commentators have accused the Conservative-leaning newspaper of acting as a "PR office" for Saudi Arabia.

MediaWatch writer Adam Barnett said The Telegraph was also helping to settle internal Saudi regime disputes, and casting a positive light on the Saudi reform document with little criticism.

"Could it be that The Telegraph hopes to replicate their current £800,000 advertising deal with the Chinese government, replete with favourable coverage and a regular propaganda supplement?" asked Barnett.