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Saudi Arabia continued incremental reforms in 2006. King Abdullah resolved succession questions by establishing a committee known as the Allegiance Institution, composed of the male descendants of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, to elect future kings through majority vote. Following the previous year’s judicial reform, the government created security, family, traffic, and commercial courts. It also established a Supreme Court in Riyadh and an appeals court in each of the 13 provinces. Faced with increased international pressure over its educational system, the kingdom also worked to revise school curriculums. Separately, the composition of the country’s partially elected municipal councils was finalized in December 2005, after eight months of delays.
Since its unification in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia has been controlled by the al-Saud family, and the current king, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, is the sixth in the ruling dynasty. The Saudi monarchy rules in accordance with a conservative school of Sunni Islam. In the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia embarked on a limited program of political reform, introducing an appointed Consultative Council, or Majlis al-Shura. However, this step did not lead to any substantial shift in political power. In 1995, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud suffered a stroke, and in 1997, Abdullah, then crown prince, took control of most decision making.
Saudi Arabia has been under intense scrutiny from the international community since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States —15 of the 19 airline hijackers in the attacks were Saudi citizens, and Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorist group al-Qaeda, is from a wealthy Saudi family of Yemeni descent. The Saudi government has taken steps to stem the flow of financial support to terrorist groups, implementing new rules against money laundering and more closely monitoring charitable contributions and organizations suspected of financing terrorist operations in Saudi Arabia and abroad.
Terrorist groups that had posed a threat to Saudi Arabia for a decade escalated their attacks in 2003 in an effort to destabilize the autocratic monarchy. These assaults continued through 2004, culminating in an attack, on residential compounds in Khobar, where mostly foreign oil workers lived, that killed 22 people. The government subsequently increased its counterterrorism efforts, killing dozens of suspects, detaining hundreds of others, and claiming to have destroyed five of six major terrorist networks operating in the kingdom. Though peaceful compared with 2003 and 2004, Saudi Arabia experienced some unrest in 2005, with clashes between security forces and terrorist suspects breaking out in the spring.
The formal transition of power from King Fahd, who died in August 2005, to King Abdullah led to increased discussions of political reform. Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, a former finance minister and a half-brother of Abdullah’s, called for political reform and a constitution in Saudi Arabia. Talal also said that the current Majlis al-Shura should be given additional powers and be turned into a “quasi-legislative” council. These comments reflected growing support for similar proposals within the royal family and more broadly in Saudi society.
Saudi Arabia organized elections for municipal councils in the first half of 2005, giving Saudi men a limited opportunity to select some of their leaders at the local level. Women were completely excluded from the political process. The eligible electorate consisted of less than 20 percent of the population: male citizens who were at least 21 years old, not serving in the military, and resident in their electoral district for at least 12 months. Half of the council seats were open for election, and the other half were appointed by the monarchy. Officials in the Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry and the Interior Ministry screened candidates, and all results were subject to final approval by the government. Candidates supported by conservative Muslim scholars triumphed in the large cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, and minority Shiite Muslim voters participated in large numbers, seizing the opportunity to voice their opinion. In December 2005, the final composition of the 178 municipal councils was announced.
In a major step forward for the kingdom, King Abdullah in October 2006 announced a formal protocol to be used for determining future succession. Under the plan, a committee known as the Allegiance Institution, composed of the sons (or grandsons in the event of their deaths) of the founding King Abdul Aziz, would be established. It would be chaired by the eldest member. The committee would make decisions on the succession by a majority vote using secret ballots and would require a quorum of two-thirds of the members. The arrangement would be added to the Basic Law but would not apply until after the current crown prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, became king. The new committee would also have the authority to deem a king or crown prince medically unfit to rule, based on the advice of an expert panel.
Saudi Arabia has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. The country’s oil resources and importance to the global economy are key factors affecting its external relations, and the al-Saud dynasty uses its unmatched wealth to shape and control internal politics. However, the government’s dominance of the economy, endemic corruption, and financial mismanagement have led to mounting economic problems, including a decline in real gross domestic product (GDP) per person over the last decade. Unemployment is estimated at about 25 percent, and a growing youth population is making economic conditions even more difficult by adding to pressure on the Saudi government to create new jobs. The most recent census found that 59.4 percent of the Saudi population is between the ages of 15 and 64, and 38.2 percent is under the age of 15. The Saudi economy, buoyed by high oil prices, is expected to maintain 5.4 percent growth for 2006. Saudi Arabia joined the World Trade Organization in December 2005.
Saudi Arabia is not an electoral democracy. The country’s 1992 basic law declares that the Koran and the Sunna (the guidance set by the deeds and sayings of the prophet Muhammad) are the country’s constitution. A 120-member Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) is appointed by the monarch for four-year terms. This council has limited powers and does not affect decision making or power structures in a meaningful way. The Council of Ministers, an executive body appointed by the king, passes legislation that becomes law once ratified by royal decree. The monarchy has a tradition of consulting with select members of Saudi society, but this process is not equally open to all citizens.
Saudi Arabia does not have political parties, and the only semblance of organized political opposition exists outside of the country, with many Saudi opposition activists based in London. The al-Saud dynasty dominates and controls political life in the kingdom.
Corruption is a significant problem, with foreign companies reporting that they often pay bribes to middlemen and government officials to secure business deals. Saudi Arabia was ranked 70 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government tightly controls content in domestic media outlets but is unable to do much about satellite television coverage, with Arab regional satellite channels growing in popularity. Government authorities have banned journalists and editors who publish articles deemed offensive to the country’s powerful religious establishment or the ruling authorities. The regime has taken steps to limit the impact of new media. The government has blocked access to some internet websites deemed too offensive or sensitive.
Religious freedom does not exist in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to the faith’s two holiest cities—Mecca and Medina. Islam is Saudi Arabia’s official religion, and all Saudis are required by law to be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of any religions other than Islam and restricts the religious practices of both the Shiite and Sufi Muslim minority sects. Although the government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private, it does not always respect this right in practice.
Academic freedom is restricted in Saudi Arabia, and informers monitor classrooms for compliance with limits on curriculums, such as a ban on teaching Western philosophy and religions other than Islam. In 2004, the government began efforts to reform school curriculums by deleting disparaging references to non-Muslims in textbooks. However, in February 2005, Abdullah bin Saleh al-Obaid, a religious conservative, was appointed to the prestigious post of education minister, replacing a reformer who had been accused of secularism. In January 2006, al-Obaid announced the formation of a committee of experts to make fresh curriculum revisions, including syllabus reform and changes to rote learning. A Saudi foundation proceeded with plans to launch King Faisal University in 2007, to help reform the kingdom’s much-criticized higher education system. In March 2006, the Riyadh International Book Fair included a Bible for the first time.
Saudis do not enjoy freedoms of association and assembly. The government frequently arrests and detains political activists who stage demonstrations or engage in other civic advocacy. In 2003, the government approved the establishment of the National Human Rights Association (NHRA), a semiofficial organization charged with reviewing allegations of human rights violations and monitoring the country’s compliance with international human rights agreements. Although the NHRA reported in June 2005 that it had received about 2,000 human rights complaints, it has reportedly taken little action.
In 2005, the government approved a new labor law aimed at bringing Saudi law into line with international standards as the country prepared to join the World Trade Organization. The law extended protections to previously unregulated categories of workers, set end-of-service benefits, established clear terms for terminating employment, and required large companies to provide nurseries to help working mothers. It also banned child labor and set provisions aimed at resolving labor disputes. In addition, the new law sought to advance the goal of the “Saudization” of the country’s workforce by stipulating that Saudis must make up at least 75 percent of a company’s employees. Finally, the law stated that women are permitted to work in “all sectors compatible with their nature.”
The judiciary lacks independence from the monarchy. In May 2006, the Justice Ministry announced the establishment of specialized courts. State security courts, as well as family, traffic, and commercial courts, are to be set up in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. These new courts stem from judicial reforms implemented in 2005. As part of the plan, a Supreme Court will be created in Riyadh, with appeals courts in each of the kingdom’s 13 regions. In 2001, the Council of Ministers approved a 225-article penal code that bans torture. However, allegations of torture by police and prison officials are frequent, and access to prisoners by independent human rights and legal organizations is strictly limited. In July 2006, King Abdullah declared amnesty for any militants who surrendered to security forces after participating in radical groups.
Although racial discrimination is illegal, substantial prejudice against ethnic, religious, and national minorities prevails. Roughly two million Shiites live in Saudi Arabia, representing 10 to 15 percent of the population. Shiites are underrepresented in major government positions; no Shiite has served as a minister or member of the royal cabinet. The country’s estimated six million foreign workers from Asia and Africa are subject to formal and informal discrimination and have difficulty using the justice system.
Saudis have the right to own property and establish private businesses, but much private-enterprise activity is connected with members of the ruling family, the government, or other elite families. Although Saudi Arabia first joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1993, its slow process of privatization and economic reform prevented it from becoming a member of the subsequent World Trade Organization (WTO) for several years. However, at the end of 2005, Saudi Arabia was admitted to the WTO.
Women are not treated as equal members of society, and many laws discriminate against them. They may not legally drive cars, and their use of public facilities is restricted when men are present. By law and custom, women cannot travel within or outside of the country without a male relative. According to interpretations of law in Saudi Arabia, daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers. The testimony of one man is equal to that of two women in Islamic law courts. Unlike Saudi men, Saudi women who marry non-Saudis are not permitted to pass their nationality on to their children, and their spouses cannot receive Saudi nationality. Saudi women are not permitted to serve as lawyers, and women seeking access to the courts must work with a male. The Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, a semiautonomous religious police force commonly known as the mutawa’een , enforces a strict policy of segregation between men and women and often uses physical punishment to ensure that women meet conservative standards of dress in public.
The government did not allow women to participate in the municipal elections that took place in early 2005. Prince Mansour bin Miteb bin Abdul Aziz, head of the elections committee, announced in advance of the elections that the country did not have sufficient time to prepare for both women and men to vote, indicating that Saudi Arabia would require separate polling stations run by female election judges before it allowed women to participate politically.
Education and economic rights for Saudi women have improved. Girls were not permitted to attend school until 1964, but now more than half of the country’s university students are female. In May 2004, women won the right to hold commercial licenses, which opened the door for greater economic participation. In addition, women have generally become more visible in society. In 2005, Saudi state television began using women as newscasters, and two women became the first females elected to Jeddah’s chamber of commerce, a small step forward for women’s leadership in business.