On 1 October, King Abdullah announced plans to reform Saudi Arabia’s judicial system. One week later, he followed this unexpected reform with another significant change - the introduction of a new law to govern the succession of future rulers. On the same day, the King demanded that the country’s interior minister and 13 provincial governors come up with a way to tackle inflation.
It would be wrong to believe that this rapid series of initiatives shows that Riyadh has been gripped by a sudden bout of reformist zeal. The reality is that King Abdullah remains a populist leader, whose principle challenge is to build political consensus between the conservative and reform-minded parts of the kingdom.
This week he has demonstrated his ability to play to both audiences. The judicial reform in particular allows those who favour reform to claim that the influence of the sharia courts is being diminished. The conservative establishment can say the new judicial system will alleviate the strain on Islamic courts.
His comments on inflation illustrate that he is also still aware of the concerns of the common man. Although, compared to the rest of the Gulf, inflation at 4.4 per cent hardly seems cause for complaint, it is still an issue.
King Abdullah’s suggestion of price controls is bad econ-omics, but it is unlikely they will actually be enforced. It is an idea to show the public his concern, but it is likely to slowly slip off the agenda.
Governing by consensus may stall progress, but it is necessary in a kingdom of divided interests.
The reformers believe economic and social liberalisation is essential as a driver of growth and job creation. But conser-vatives are wary of what they see as ‘Westernisation’.
Nobody understands this better than King Abdullah, and though the pace of reform may be slow, it is increasingly clear that this is the direction in which he is seeking to steer the Middle East’s biggest economy.
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