Lately many international journalists have been invited to Saudi Arabia to obtain first-hand information about Saudi society and to determine why the country has not been affected by the Arab Spring. The reason should be obvious to all; however, for the sake of those who are not informed let me highlight the ongoing reforms that continue to be the main factor behind the stability that we enjoy today.
King Abdullah has initiated many reforms since his ascension to the throne in 2006, long before the unrest erupted in neighboring Arab countries. Some may feel that the implementation of reforms are slow and that our challenges are overwhelming, but nevertheless there have always been concerted efforts toward progress and development.
The nationwide reforms address six major challenges, namely combating terrorism, confronting extremism and the hardline position against women, reforming the judiciary, implementing social and economic reforms and upgrading the educational system.
In 2011, King Abdullah openly defied hardliners in his speech to the Shoura Council criticizing their positions and granting women political rights. He announced that women would be allowed to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015 and that they would be appointed members of the Shoura Council in 2013.
Investing in education for women has been a priority in educational reform. Women today represent almost 60 percent of university graduates. Vocational institutes for women have been established and private colleges and universities for women have been set up in major cities in the Kingdom facilitating the integration of more qualified women into the workforce.
Princess Noura University, the first women’s university in Saudi Arabia, has been expanded and modernized to accommodate 40,000 students and 12,000 employees. It has 15 colleges and a large number of departments.
Over SR200 billion has been allocated for education in this year's budget. The development of education or the “Tatweer” initiative was launched to improve nearly all aspects of education in the Kingdom, from teacher training through the quality of educational facilities to student evaluation methods.
In 2012 the second phase of the reform movement in education was launched with a SR81.5 billion budget to boost higher education programs in all regions of the Kingdom. The first phase of reforms was less effective than originally planned mainly because Saudi graduates did not have the qualifications or skills needed in the market due to an educational system which placed little emphasis on English and computer skills, the basic requirements in the job market today.
Moreover, the labor market was saturated with graduates in social sciences and religious studies, literature and history. New universities were established in each region of the Kingdom and a university branch was set up in each governorate in order to provide all citizens with better access to education.
The most significant achievement of King Abdullah’s reform of education is the scholarship program, which provides an opportunity for 120,000 students to study in universities abroad. The initiative is meant to raise the educational standard of Saudi graduates and expose a large number of students to other cultures promoting intercultural relations and global coexistence.
The World Bank has recognized Saudi Arabia as the world’s fastest-reforming economy. High oil prices and heavy government spending has boosted the national economy, initiating large-scale development programs across the country that include the underdeveloped regions which have been neglected for a long time.
The government stepped up its economic reforms in 2012 and allocated a SR400 billion budget for infrastructure projects and enhanced public services in all governorates and rural centers.
SR130 billion was earmarked for housing development plans and SR10.67 billion was provided for the construction of 500,000 houses.
Projects were initiated to address the major challenges of unemployment, the diversification of the economy and reducing reliance on state-run industries.
The reforms included a SR1 billion increase in the social security budget, a 15 percent increase in aid for unemployed young people plus payment of their tuition fees. Private sector growth, entrepreneurship, employment, and education were also high on the agenda of economic reforms.
Addressing the vast dependency on foreign labor, the government initiated the second phase of the Saudization of the private sector designed to increase the number of Saudi employees in private firms and therefore tackle the rising unemployment problem, which has reached 35 percent according to unofficial estimates. Most job seekers are between the ages of 20 and 24.
In 2011 King Abdullah ordered the prompt formation of the Anti-Corruption Commission and a number of relevant bylaws have been issued to crack down on bribery and corrupt practices in the workplace and in government.
However, the slow judicial reforms make it difficult to put an end to corruption and human rights violations that jeopardize the due process of law. Saudi courts need more effective reforms to uphold the rule of law to ensure justice for all.
Reforming the judiciary continues to be one of the major challenges facing the Kingdom. A Royal Decree was issued in 2007 to reform the judiciary system and improve human rights in Saudi Arabia. A budget of SR7 billion has been allocated to upgrade the judiciary. A new supreme court as well as regional appeal courts, specialized courts, and family courts have been established and the number of judges has been increased to 150 in order to expedite court rulings and dispose of cases as soon as possible.
A vigorous national campaign has been launched to defend the rights of children and put a stop to child abuse cases. Community doctors and social workers continue to call for more stringent laws to combat the rise in domestic violence and to penalize parents who fail to provide proper care for their children.
The determination to pursue the reform path that King Abdullah initiated has inspired the entire nation. In the course of eight years much has been achieved. The strong public support for King Abdullah’s reforms and the concerted efforts to initiate political, social and economic reforms are the reasons for the security and stability that prevail in Saudi Arabia today.
Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.