Monday, November 9, 2009

Saudi Arabia in a race against time

Saudi Arabia is one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. It has a policy of discrimination toward women, a complete disregard for human rights and a total lack of democracy.

Rigid application of Shari'a - Islamic law - leads to such atrocities as putting women to death by stoning, cutting off the hands of thieves and widespread use of the death penalty.

The country is the center of ultra-conservative
Wahhabi Islam, and it contributes large sums of money to the creation of mosques and Islamic cultural centers throughout the world which teach the most extreme forms of the religion.

Finally, the Saudis supported the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hamas in Gaza, only ceasing such support when they realized that both groups also posed an enormous domestic threat.

All of the above did nothing to improve the image of Saudi Arabia in the world, an image which was further tarnished when it was revealed that 16 of the 19 terrorists who launched the 9/11 attacks in New York were Saudi nationals. Following the discovery, many US officials called for a drastic cooling in relations with the kingdom.

Today King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is desperately trying to improve his country's image abroad and introduce much needed reforms. But he is doing so while facing two very real threats to the stability of his kingdom: AlQaida and the subversive activities of Iran.

Oil rich Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. According to the Basic Law of 1992, it must be ruled by the descendants of King Abdel Aziz Al Saud. Further, as the Koran is the country's constitution, it must be governed according to Islamic law.

Both factors should have made the kingdom less vulnerable to modern influences than any other Arab or Islamic country. But current global culture being as pervasive as it is, changes were inevitable.

King Abdullah was wise enough to understand that his family would ultimately pay a price if he did not initiate some of the reforms so desperately wanted by the younger generations - and by women, who are still subject to discrimination and repression.

As soon as he acceded to the throne in 2005, he attempted to reform religious, cultural and judicial institutions to loosen the stranglehold of the Wahhabi religious establishment. One of his first decisions was to appoint younger and more liberal officials to the Ministry of Education to modernize school curriculums. It is unclear what - if any - progress was made.

Princess Adala, one of the king's daughters, has also been active in promoting better conditions for women. Under her guidance, gymnastics has been introduced into all public and private schools for girls. Sports and health clubs for women have been established, and women have been granted the right to take part in both domestic and international competitions.

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Source: JPost

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