"This region is roiling with turmoil and radicalism and the aspirations of a young population, and I am afraid we are not prepared for that. We cannot use the same tools we have been using to rule the country for a century,"
A senior member of the Saudi royal family has called for political and economic reforms in the world’s largest oil producer, warning that the kingdom is not prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century.
Prince Talal bin Abdelaziz, who has no role in decision-making and is known for his outspoken views, said there needed to be increased dialogue within the ruling family and called for greater powers for the Shura Council, an unelected consultative body, to pave the way for eventual elections.
“This region is roiling with turmoil and radicalism and the aspirations of a young population, and I am afraid we are not prepared for that. We cannot use the same tools we have been using to rule the country for a century,” Prince Talal, who is a half-brother of King Abdullah, told the Financial Times.
His remarks appeared to be triggered by King Abdullah’s decision last month to appoint Prince Naif, another brother, as second prime minister, causing many to believe the powerful interior minister has been chosen as third in line. The appointment eased concerns about the succession amid mounting speculation over the health of Crown Prince Sultan, the first deputy prime minister who recently underwent surgery in New York.
However, Prince Naif is considered a conservative and Saudi activists seeking reform fear he may quash any hopes of political change in a nation that is ruled by an absolute monarchy.
Prince Talal, 79, is one of 18 surviving sons of King Abdelaziz, Saudi Arabia’s founding father. He said his concern was that the Allegiance Council, a body established by King Abdullah in 2006 to select the next crown prince and king, would be bypassed.
“Bypassing the allegiance system would mean we do not respect our own rules or uphold our system,” said the prince, who is a member of the council.
In spite of its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia faces many social issues with high unemployment, a young population – more than 65 per cent are aged under 25 – and a continued threat from Islamic extremists.
King Abdullah, 84, is considered a modernising force in Saudi terms. When he ascended to the throne in 2005, many Saudis hoped that their country would embark on a period of reform. He is credited with allowing a greater openness and debate, and a recent cabinet reshuffle, which saw the removal of powerful conservatives who headed the judiciary and religious police, was widely praised.
Change in the kingdom is notoriously slow and reformers question the substance of the changes that have taken place in the past four years, while others argue that change could destabilise the ultra-conservative country.
However, Prince Talal, who says he fully supports King Abdullah’s efforts, was dismissive of such suggestions. “Hypocrites claim our society is unprepared for change and blame religious institutions,” he said. “Certain people are pleased to hear that. We have to stop using them as an excuse. King Abdullah is the ruler. If he wills it, then it will be done.”
Although political parties are illegal in Saudi Arabia, in 2007 Prince Talal, a long-time advocate of reform, proposed forming one. He believes the kingdom has to make gradual moves towards elections. “Young Saudis see elections in Arab countries, Gulf countries, and even Bangladesh and Bolivia, and they wonder why we lack the same thing. We’re not less able than those others,” he said.
Published: April 29 2009 03:00 | Last updated: April 29 2009 03:00
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009