Shortly after assuming the throne 5 years ago, King Abdullah declared that henceforth September 23rd, the anniversary of Saudi Arabia's unification in 1932, could be an official holiday. The move proved wildly popular with ordinary Saudis, and not simply because it gives them a uncommon excuse to perform silly issues in public, like cruising about noisily in green-painted cars decked using the Saudi flag. Conservatives had extended banned secular festivities for instance birthdays, insisting that Islam forbids something but religious holidays. The king's defiance of this view seemed to augur a break from decades of deference by the ruling A1 Saud dynasty to killjoy puritans.
Saudi Arabia has absolutely grown less grim within the reign of King Abdullah, who's now 86. Reforms in state administration, education and law have loosened arcane strictures. Some arch-conservative clerics have been ousted from top rated posts and forbidden from proclaiming obscurantist fatwas. The notoriously intrusive religious police happen to be told to curb their enthusiasm. Females have won slightly far more freedom. The huge Shia minority feels slightly less shunned than it was under earlier kings. The press is a bit feistier.
However the changes remain, in lots of approaches, cosmetic. King Abdullah has championed international dialogue amongst religions, as an example. But when Saudi schools reopened in September, parents were surprised to locate that within the new, "reformed" religion curriculum, supposedly purged of bigotry as component of a post September 11th initiative to promote a extra tolerant Islam, students are still taught that it really is incorrect to say hello to non-Muslims.
A current report on political reform in Saudi Arabia by Human Rights Watch, a new York-based lobby group, argues that although gradual changes are welcome, unless they are appropriately institutionalised the kingdom dangers sliding backwards once more, because it has carried out several occasions ahead of. "Newly gained freedoms are, for the most component, neither extensive nor firmly grounded," the report concludes. "The restricted reform that has taken location suggests the elite is nevertheless floating stone crusher trial balloons, undecided regarding the kind of government and society it desires to steer towards."
On some certain human-rightsmatters, the report praises the kingdom's progress: reform with the justice technique, women's rights and freedom of expression. But it notes with concern that, whereas legal reform is among the locations where modifications are below way, new courts have yet to materialize, and new, impact crusher transparent procedures have yet to become put into practice. Greater freedom of speech is just not codified, and so remains subject to arbitrary intervention by the state. As for women's rights, an official loosening in the ban against the mixing from the sexes in public areas has not been widely implemented. Ladies are nonetheless forbidden to drive.
As for other problems, the report discerns no genuine progress either in ending religious discrimination against the Shia minority or in enhancing the position of Saudi Arabia's estimated 8m immigrant labourers. Gestures of tolerance to the Shia by the king himself have not been matched by a relaxation of restrictions on Shia worship. Shia dissidents nevertheless face harsh, systematic repression. Besides most foreign workers lack standard rights.
And there remains 1 huge subject that the report leaves aside. Saudis have heard barely a whisper of a single day setting the pace of modify themselves, by winning the right to vote in elections.