In 1995, King Fahd suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. Crown Prince Abdullah thus became regent of the country, and in August 2005 he ascended the throne. From the time he started presiding over the destiny of the country, he instituted a program of reforms to render Saudi society more competitive in the global arena.
These reforms were not the making of an enlightened autocrat, but were the result of considerable pressure from Saudi society. In 2003 more than 300 prominent Saudi intellectuals from all provinces and backgrounds presented the petition ‘In Defense of the Nation’ to Crown Prince Abdullah. They argued for political reforms, to contribute to the development of a pluralistic intellectual development that would counter the religious claim to the truth, which they held responsible for the violence and tensions in Saudi society. This prompted Crown Prince Abdullah to launch a National Dialogue.
The National Dialogue, the creation of official Human Rights organizations and other state-sponsored efforts to start discussing reform, may have been, at least partially, window-dressing operations. Nevertheless, they prompted real discussions on internet between Saudi citizens, who now had received the green light from government to broach subjects previously considered taboo in the public realm, such as relations between Saudi Sunnis and Shias. The media also started reflecting these discussions; the creation of a self-regulating syndicate of journalists allowed the media to escape direct religious control. The Al Arabiyya satellite TV channel (set up in 2003, operating from Dubai, but fully Saudi-owned) offered proof of the increased freedom of expression, broadcasting its critical news about the US ‘liberation’ of Iraq to Arab audiences worldwide.
The most important reforms undertaken under Abdullah were probably in the field of education. With unusual speed, two world-class universities were established after 2005: King Abdullah University for Science and Technology near Jeddah and the women-only Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University on the outskirts of Riyadh. Both are self-contained campus towns with the best facilities available in the field and a largely foreign teaching staff selected from top universities throughout the world. The new King also established a wide-ranging grants system to fund Saudi students studying abroad, as in the 1960s and 70s, but more meritocratic.
King Abdullah also instituted reforms to include women in the labor force; in 2011 he decreed that women are allowed to vote and run for office in municipal elections. He also appointed some women to top-level posts in government. In July 2012, King Abdullah lifted a ban on Saudi women participating in international sports events such as the Olympics. In the same year, a female Saudi movie director from Riyadh created a surprise in the Cannes Film Festival (with the film ‘Wadjda’).
In politics, King Abdullah has reduced the power of the Sudairi clan and appointed ministers, deputy ministers and governors who could be qualified as technocrats, whereas the rule previously was to appoint people with strong connections to the House of Al Saud (there are about 4000 princes in the Al Saud clan while the extended royal family counts about 22,000 members: enough to fill quite a few government posts). He has also made – rather timid – overtures to the Shia majority in the Eastern Province, appointed relatively moderate heads of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and he has generally curtailed the strong grip of the Wahhabi religious establishment on society.
To avoid upsetting the pact between the royal clan and the clergy, which is the foundation of the Saudi state, two steps forward are generally followed by one step back. Obviously, despite the reforms undertaken under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia does not score high on global rankings of political and social freedoms. It is also unclear how the next King will position himself, as King Abdullah, born in 1924, is 88 in 2012. The current crown prince Salman (born 1935) seems inclined to continue King Abdullah’s cautious reforms, if he survives him.