Middle East Reform: Revolution versus Evolution
The answer is depended. It depends on the level of willingness of the regime to implement change and how much persuasive power do we have over the regime in question. Let looks at Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that we all abhor the social-political condition in the kingdom. But many (particularly on the Left) often use Saudi Arabia to oppose our war in Iraq. They state that the Saudi Arabia is as oppressive as or even more so than Iraq. The comparison in term of level of oppression is impossible and irrelevant.
As I state earlier, it depends on the level of willingness of the regime to implement change and the persuasive power we have over the regime. Saddam Iraq was irredeemable. There was no possibility that Saddam would ever reform his country regardless how much the world put pressure on him. The Saudi (and to some extent Mubarak) has showed some willingness to reform. It is extremely slow but it is happening. And in the case of Saudi Arabia, Westerners see the reform as miniscule and negligent. But putting in the political context of an extremely reactionary and fundamentalist country, the reform is a major step – if not historical and unprecedented. From the Economist (subscription is required):
The late King Fahd moved cautiously to modernise the economy and made the first tiny steps towards a semblance of democracy by appointing a consultative council. Crown Prince Abdullah expanded the council and even allowed it to question ministers—within limits. More recently, he let half the seats on the country's toothless local councils be elected on multi-candidate (though non-party) slates, with women excluded from both voting and standing.
And this is not the only reform ongoing.
So too have small but real reformist measures, such as privatising and opening chunks of the economy, purging schoolbooks of hate-mongering material and this year's holding of municipal elections.
Abdullah, crown prince for 23 years, assumed the throne automatically and immediately named his half-brother, the long-serving defence minister, Prince Sultan, aged 80 or so, as his successor. In the past the pair have been seen as bitter rivals, with the more reform-minded Abdullah being serially thwarted by Sultan's powerful Sudairi branch of the family, named after King Abdel Aziz's favourite wife. Abdullah may be too frail to push hard for change, but any initiatives he does take may meet less resistance, now that Sultan is assured of eventual accession.
Mr Bush should now urge the new king to move a lot faster than he dared to do as crown prince—for instance, by bringing in a more tolerant educational system, facing down the most bigoted clerics, widening the scope of representative government, opening the budget to scrutiny, curbing royal privilege, giving women a voice and a vote, and sowing a culture of tolerance, pluralism and debate. The consultative council should become a properly elected parliament, perhaps with a college of princes serving as an upper chamber. In the end—“ready” or not—Saudis have as much right to democracy as Iraqis, or indeed anyone else.