Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saudi debates

Riyadh, Friday 29 February 2010.
I have been in KSA nearly a week in which time I have dipped in and out of the Jeddah Economic Conference, a kind of big ticket stadium event for the Mid-East business analysis crowd, and then almost traversed Arabia to reach the capital Riyadh where I have been seeking interlocutors for my latest research project. My departure from Jeddah was premature; I later discovered that one or two of the people I really wanted to see here in Riyadh were actually at the conference. In addition, it’s an attractive city with a partly accessible shoreline a thousand plus miles from the Gulf, and that’s not a bad feeling sometimes.

Today I took the superfast lifts to get more than 100 floors up the Kingdom tower in Riyadh and stood on the SkyBridge (the tallest vantage point in KSA) and surveyed the city. I had walked there in the 35 degree winter heat (natch) and looked more than a little shabby as I arrived in the Mamlika Mall desperate to purchase my ticket. It was prayer time of course, although it was interesting (albeit not for the first time) to watch shopkeepers from right across Asia hurrying to briefly shut down these outlets in one of Riyadh’s many temples of mammon as the muezzin called (some of) the faithful to pray.

Thus far the trip has brought me closer to some of the debates raging around the Kingdom, but not that close. Everything is of course spun to suit the self interested or associated party that is being represented. So I am aware that the advancement of legal reform in the face of religious resistance and the flowering of civil society is in fact happening while at the same time domestic and foreign policy is in the hand of a tiny number of senior figures who in many instances don’t agree and don’t consult with each other. Hard to see how the latter adds up to anything other than the chance for some symbolic actions through dismissal and appointment rather than a major series of political shifts. In this vein the recent removal of two troublesome priests is seen by some here as an indication that the top man could push things further, not least on the planned shake up of the judiciary that in theory could water down existing clerical control in favour of a more structured management approach with proper specialised training not least in the much needed area of commercial law. If you can sack such big guns without merely a whimper, goes the argument, then major reform that allows more reform-minded clerics to manage the process is plausible. Maybe, but how far and with what impact, argue others. Being so personality-led, the issue seems to boil down to what can be achieved at the very top before mortality kicks in. Economic cities may not have progressed sufficiently to have a legacy but, goes one argument, rights-orientated legal judgements by the reconstructed supreme appeals court can create precedents.

On regional issues things have looked up in terms of inter-Arab diplomacy, with the KSA working closely with Yemen over the northern revolt that spilled over the Saudi border and unleashed disproportionate fire power from the Kingdom’s de facto military chief. The proportionality doesn’t seem to be bothering the Saudis however. The ceasefire between the Yemen Government and its northern rebels is holding, with KSA backing the GoY to the hilt with major funding while it turns its border policing operation into a regular pork barrel for the Saudi military and its de facto head. Saudi-Syria relations seem to be at their best for 5 years, or more precisely since Damascus had Saudi ally and top Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri blown up. This firms up the Arab tent with the hope that, being inside, they’ll piss out. Of course, from Syria’s point of view it’s probably a case of having your cake and eating it, as the Iranian tactical alliance isn’t going to come to an end and nobody expects otherwise. On Palestine, the hope is that a solution constrains Iranian asymmetric power, but no Arab state want to lift a finger to help other than to stand behind Egypt which is being limply backed by the US while Israel remains unbound.

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