Sunday, February 29, 2004

Reforms? What Reforms?

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

Foreign reporters and diplomats often ask me: “Why are your reforms so slow? Are you in two minds whether you want to go ahead and where?”
I always say: We all feel like passengers in an airplane. No reasonable person suggests we should stop midair or leave the plane or drop anyone. The whole debate is about at what speed we should go; which direction we take to what destination? Shall we go faster towards the northwest? Or must we take it one step at a time and stick to our southeast origin? All of us, in all the sections of the plane, vie for better seats, privileges and influence. Our captains have to listen to conflicting demands and positions. We have vocal minorities and a silent majority. Some push hard, others are shy. But justice requires taking all positions into consideration.
This was never even a single country until it was unified under the Saudi banner. It is made up of a colorful variety. We have tribes that number millions and small families of twos and threes, pure Arabs and mixed, Sunnis and Shiites, townspeople and villagers, farmers and Bedouins, and the list goes on. Some of us are highly sophisticated and educated, others cannot write their names. Many are liberal, Western-style, most are conservative.
Therefore, the government, which is a reflection of this variety, chose to rule by building consensus. This is a complex, slow, and even frustrating process, but has always been the only way to keep this country together. Time is not on our side, we must admit, and faster steps should be taken.
Still, we should not skip the most important step, talking to each other about where we want our plane to go. We have already had two national dialogue forums that took all on board. The next forum will be about women, who didn’t join the first, formed 10 percent of the second, and will make up 50 percent of the next.
After this essential step, we need to move much faster in implementing the recommendations we agree on, starting with the most essential and basic — more freedoms and rights, justice and equality, jobs and education, security and quality of life. We urgently need more transparency, better representation, and a freer press. No one should be above the law; we were all created equal, including the weak and poor, the Shia and women, Saudis and non-Saudis.
If we can only agree on this, and aim for that, we are almost there.

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