Sunday, June 17, 2012

Women ready to be Saudi Arabia's new driving force

Story from the Canberra Times - by Ruth Pollard
Published: June 18, 2012 - 9:39AM

As Saudi Arabia mourned the death of another heir to the throne, a small group of women in the capital, Riyadh, were preparing to do what the late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud vowed never to allow: drive.

The 78-year-old is the second crown prince to die in eight months, and all eyes are on the increasingly frail King Abdullah, 88, as he prepares to choose a successor.

A hardline conservative, Prince Nayef's appointment in November raised fears that if he did become leader he would abolish King Abdullah's cautious attempts at reform, such as promising that women would be allowed to run and vote in the 2015 council elections.
He was a vociferous supporter of sending troops to neighbouring Bahrain in March last year to support the Sunni monarchy's crackdown on peaceful protests by the island nation's Shiite majority.

Leaders of the Saudi reform movement have reportedly been arrested and jailed on his orders, and rather than enter into talks with opposition figures he once famously said: ''What we won by the sword, we will keep by the sword.''

The man experts say is most likely to replace Prince Nayef, Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, is seen as a moderate on women's rights but a hawk when it comes to regional security, Iran and the ongoing revolution in Bahrain.

As revolutions sweep through the Arab world, the Saudi kingdom - a close ally of the US - is facing unprecedented demands for reform.

The push by women to be allowed to drive - and to work, travel and open a bank account without the permission of a close male relative - is part of that process, but there is also unrest in the minority Shiite community and concern about rising rates of unemployment among those under 30.

One of the organisers of the women's driving protests, 33-year-old Manal al-Sharif, last week posted an open letter to King Abdullah, asking that he end the ban.

She urged women with international driving licences to take to the roads yesterday - the first anniversary of the re-energised campaign for reform.

But reform is almost guaranteed to take a back seat to concerns about succession in the royal family and increasing rivalry between the king's sons.

''The advanced age of Saudi Arabia's ruling elite virtually ensures that the kingdom will undergo a series of leadership changes in the coming years, throwing an already troubled region into further turmoil,'' Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, an activist, economics professor and frequent critic of Prince Nayef's Interior Ministry, told the Los Angeles Times in April that ''the problem is an ageing leadership and a second generation that's really corrupt. The near future of this country is gloomy.''

Prince Nayef's body was expected to arrive in Jeddah yesterday, to be buried after afternoon prayers in Mecca.

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