Dr. Khaled Batarfi,
How far and how fast we go down the road of reforms is an open question in all Saudi political, intellectual and social circles. Most believe in reforms.
A minority is not hot for change. Since they are happy with the way it is, they insist all be as happy. Unfortunately, many are influential in all above circles.
In the reform camp, we are of two minds. Some believe in speed, others advocate slow progress. Speeders disagree on where to go fast and where to slow down, or even halt. Economic reforms might top the agenda for some, but they might not stand for social reforms, such as women and minority rights.
Others, especially in intelligentsia and academia, advocate democratic and personal freedoms and rights first. They would like to see the glass ceiling that prevents many parts of society from rising above certain level broken. They’d like to see the divide between sexes, races and economic classes brought down. Education and legal reforms are priority, too. Then comes other kind of reforms like that in the investment and business sectors.
For me, all these issues should be given the same level of attention. Reforms should go in parallel and packages. You can’t fight corruption without free press. You don’t get to the moon without good education. Citizens who don’t feel they belong won’t give you their best.
They need an environment of trust and fairness. They want to identify with the rest of us. They demand the same treatment regardless of race, gender and ideology under the rule: What you know and do, not who you know or are that matters. In short, reforms are trains not cars. Trains don’t go one carriage at a time. On board you receive as much as you give. No one is left behind, and no one is given the red carpet without paying first for the privilege.
I had a debate lately with an advocate of slow progress. “Democracy took over 400 years to take hold in the ‘mother of modern democracy,’ England, since the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 to the issuing of the Bill of Rights in 1689. Let’s at least have a breathing space of 40 years,” he suggested.
I asked him: How come we didn’t need that much time to catch up with the rest of the modern world in other aspects of civilization? Why didn’t we wait forty years to make use of its modern tools and sciences? That is because human knowledge is an accumulative project. We don’t rediscover the wheel in every civilization. We build on each other’s achievements, block over block. And we start from where the others ended.
“But democracy is a social revolution. You open your doors to its winds and may end up with a hurricane that brings down the temple. Going slow is the surest way to reach your destination without an upheaval like the French or the American Revolution, and now the Iraqis’ sudden jump to the turbulent high seas of democracy. We are a deeply conservative society rooted in certain ways of governance, from family to tribe to nation. We need ample time to change.”
I remind him that in the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his caliphs, we had more democracy than most Arab countries do today. More recently, King Abdul Aziz in the 1920s gave us fully elected and authorized Shoura, regional and municipal councils. If our Arab culture could absorbs democracy then, why not now? Thanks to education and modern communication, we are ready. Check discussions on the Internet and satellite TVs and meet people in the street to see how far they are enlightened. Let’s not forget that more than 70 percent of our population is below thirty.
They expect more than what’s on offer. And their expectations should be met, at least in their lifetime.
He countered: “Just look around you! Arab countries who claim to be democratic are dictatorships, poor and backward.”
But theirs is fake democracy, I reminded him. The Iraqi Parliament under Saddam had never represented the people. The same could be said of many Arab and regional democratic experiments.
But when there are real, sincere ones, like that of Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, and now Saudi Arabia, you can see it is working. They might not be perfect, comprehensive or advanced, by Western standards, but they’re certainly sure and steady steps in the right direction. What we need today is more, faster steps on the road of democracy, freedom, equality and reforms. We need to open up to the world we live in, educate ourselves of its ways and tools, connect and ... belong.