Middle East

As Obama Visits, Some Saudis Hope For Change

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President Obama visits Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to meet with King Abdullah before heading to Egypt to deliver a long-awaited speech to the Muslim world.

The Saudi leader is expected to press Obama to take action on Middle East peace, but Obama is less likely to press the Saudi monarch on what many Saudis and Americans see as the slow pace of political and social reform inside the kingdom.

Postponed Elections

The first time Ahmed Al-Omran cast a vote, he figured it wouldn't be the last. It was 2005, and Saudi Arabia was holding its first-ever elections for municipal councils around the country.

"I went to the school, entered the school, you stand in line waiting for your turn, and then you get to the room where you can cast your vote in the voting booth," Omran says. "It was a really exciting experience — especially since it's the first time."

Omran, a well-known blogger, says that since that election, his municipal council has done little. He was hoping to vote for a new council later this year, but last month, the government announced it would postpone the next round of municipal elections. Officials say they need two more years to study the idea of expanding the electorate to perhaps allow women to vote.

Reformers such as Omran see this as one step forward, two steps back.

"Why this has all came right now? Why not earlier?" he asks. "I mean, it's been four years since we elected these councils. You should have done that earlier."

A Reformist King

Since taking the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has made big promises to reform Saudi Arabia. He says he wants women to vote, work and drive. He is spending billions of dollars to revamp schools and courts, both dominated by the country's conservative religious establishment.

The king has fired several leading religious figures and appointed a woman as deputy minister of education, the highest post to ever be held by a woman in the country. But Saudi political analyst Akal al-Bahli says such moves take time to convert into real change.

"I think the problem is the management," Bahli says. "Management is old people, very old people, very typical people," he says.

Bahli is referring to an entrenched and aging bureaucracy, and also to the clergy, which senses it is losing power and is fighting back. Religious figures recently have staged protests at events such as book fairs that they regard as too secular.

"We don't like to force change, because then it can have a negative reaction," says Saudi TV personality Muna AbuSulayman.

AbuSulayman points to neighboring Kuwait, where women recently were elected to parliament for the first time. She says that is both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.

Kuwait is just a fraction of the size of Saudi Arabia and is more open to Western influence. "Yet it took them so long to get women in," she says. "So again, I think this is a symbol of how long this change takes to occur. There's two lessons: That it can be done and it will be done; but also that it takes time. Change takes time."

A Country Slow To Change

Nearly everyone in the country agrees with a popular saying about Saudi Arabia: It is one of the few places in the world where the leaders want change more than the people. Some Saudi and Western analysts say that is just an excuse for leaders to drag their feet. Others, like Robert Lacey, author of a forthcoming book on Saudi Arabia, say it is the reality for King Abdullah.

"In that situation, I think he's perfectly right to be conservative and cautious. But it doesn't mean Obama will be happy with this. And he'll probably have to criticize it in some public way," Lacey says. "He shouldn't expect, however, that the Saudi government, at the end of the day, will respond to what he says."

The meeting between Obama and the king is much more about the two countries' mutual interests than the internal politics of Saudi Arabia, Lacey says.



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