|Voters shun caste, opt
|NEW DELHI (AFP) - The stunning election victory of a
reformist chief minister in India’s poorest state, Bihar,
marks a break from caste-based politics as voters jump on
the nation’s high-growth bandwagon, analysts say.
Incumbent Nitish Kumar, who stormed back to power with a
massive majority Wednesday, was credited with racking up
average annual economic growth of 11 percent, as well as
slashing crime, during his first five years in office.
Now he is being talked about as a future prime minister.
“The people of Bihar have risen above sectarian aspects in
terms of caste and religion to vote for economic
development,” said Amit Mitra, secretary general of the
Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
“Construction of rural roads, law and order, and the focus
on education resonated with all communities.”
Kumar won the backing of vast numbers of Muslims and
marginalised Biharis, who until his rise had given
unswerving support for years to wisecracking, populist
strongman Lalu Yadav.
While Kumar is from a low Hindu caste himself, he bases his
appeal instead on competence, hammering away during his
campaign on practical issues ignored for decades before he
came to power -- roads, primary health centres and
Government rule was so corrupt under Yadav, the canny son of
a cowherder and self-styled defender of the downtrodden,
that Bihar was widely known as the “Jungle Raj”.
Yadav installed his wife Rabri Devi as chief minister when
he was forced to step down from the post over graft
allegations, and between them the couple ruled the state
almost uninterruptedly from 1990 to 2005.
Kumar then inherited a state of 83 million people who had
been shut out of India’s economic boom. Child-kidnapping was
a flourishing business, schools, hospitals and other
services were crumbling, and Bihar was often referred to as
a “failed” state.
But in the final year of Kumar’s first term, Bihar racked up
blistering growth of 16.59 percent, compared with 3.5
percent before he came to power.
“Kumar’s win is a harbinger of the national mood -- people
are moving from a caste-based society to a class-based one
which they hope will bring them goods like fridges and
cars,” low-caste activist Chandra Bhan Prasad said.
“He addresses these aspirations. You may be at the top of
the social hierarchy (of castes), but if you don’t have
these material things, you’re becoming meaningless in
today’s society,” Prasad told AFP.
Kumar’s right-leaning Janata Dal (United) party, in
coalition with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party,
swept 206 seats in Bihar’s 243-seat state assembly, in a
victory watched closely by national politicians in New
Delhi. Yadav’s party won just 22 seats.
Kumar said he wanted to complete the agenda he chalked out
during his first five years in office.
“It’s a vote for development. Bihar’s people want Bihar to
be on the road to success,” Kumar said.
Yadav often proclaimed he gave “self-respect and self-esteem
to the masses” but what really gave him his muscle was his
ability to rally caste-based voting blocs and Muslims,
Kumar broke up such voter loyalty by concentrating on
The lesson is “development works, caste does not, and nor
does religion,” said Surjit Bhalla, chairman of emerging
market advisory firm Oxus Investments.
“It was not the big-ticket items like caste that carried the
day,” the Hindustan Times concluded. “It was the small
culverts, the repaired bridges, the new roads (and) the
bicycles and uniforms for girls.”
HYDERANAD: His party colleagues say he’s
often like a headmaster wanting discipline in everything —
be it in the Andhra Pradesh assembly, which Nallari Kiran
Kumar Reddy, 50, presided over as speaker for nearly
one-and-a-half years or in his private life.
Even on Wednesday, when he was anointed chief minister, the
trademark discipline was evident. When TV reporters
surrounded him and started shooting questions, he said he
would not reply unless there was some semblance of order and
they asked questions one by one.
Kiran Reddy was noticed by the Congress high command last
year during the height of the Telangana agitation when
legislators from the Congress from Telangana and coastal
Andhra had resigned en masse over bifurcation of the state.
When the party leadership was thinking of imposing
President’s Rule, Kiran Reddy handled the situation deftly
by sitting on the resignations and later persuading the MLAs
to take them back.
Reddy, who calls himself a pucca Hyderabadi, comes from a
prominent political family. His father the late N Amarnath
Reddy was the Congress strongman of Chittoor district and
was considered the political guru of two leaders who went on
to become chief ministers — N Chandrababu Naidu and YS
An alumnus of the elite Hyderabad Public School and a
graduate in commerce from the popular Nizam’s College, Kiran
Reddy also has a law degree.
Making his electoral debut in 1989 from Vayalpadu seat,
which was earlier represented by his father, he was elected
to the assembly four times.
In a state where political groupism is endemic, he got
closer to Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) and was rewarded with
the post of the party’s chief whip in the assembly in 2004.
And he discharged that role effectively while taking on the
might of the Opposition and discrediting Chandrababu Naidu.
An avid cricketer in his college days and a batch-mate of
former Indian skipper Mohammad Azharuddin, Kiran Reddy had
represented Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy - HT
|Facebook news feeds beset with malware
|LONDON: One fifth of Facebook users are exposed to
malware contained in their news feeds, claim security
Security firm BitDefender said it had detected infections
contained in the news feeds of around 20% of Facebook users.
By clicking on infected links in a news feed, users risk
having viruses installed on their computer.
Facebook said it already had steps in place to identify and
remove malware-containing links.
BitDefender arrived at its figures by analysing data from
14,000 Facebook users that had installed a security app,
called safego, it makes for the social network site.
In the month since safego launched, it has analysed 17
million Facebook posts, said BitDefender.
The majority of infections were associated with apps written
by independent developers, which promised enticements and
rewards to trick users into installing the malware,
These apps would then either install malware used for spying
on users or to send messages containing adverts to the
Facebook has a thriving community of independent developers
who have built apps for the social network. (BBC)
|Pope boosts compassionate image in new
VATICAN CITY (AFP) - As Pope Benedict
XVI’s controversial new book is snapped up in bookshops,
Vatican experts say he has cast off his reputation as a
conservative ‘rottweiler’ in favour of a more compassionate
From condom use to child abuse, the burqa and female
ordination, Benedict talks candidly in “Light of the World”
about the polemical issues that have marked his pontificate
since April 2005.
The book is “the fruit of repeated crises” in the Church’s
relationship “with Jews, Muslims and also with public
opinion on delicate issues such as paedophile priests and
condoms,” Vatican expert Marco Politi said.
With this collection of interviews, the 83-year-old Pope
hopes to open a “new channel of communication with the
world,” Politi added.
Benedict caused a global outcry on a trip to Cameroon last
year when he said condoms would “aggravate” AIDS; in an
apparent about-turn, he now says they can be used “in some
case” to prevent the spread of disease.
“It’s a considerable step forward,” said Politi.
“It’s the first time that a pope accepts condom use this
clearly, even if a number of bishops and cardinals had
already said so.”
Sandro Magister, who covers the Vatican for the Italian news
weekly l’Espresso, said: “the book completely demolishes the
image of retrograde, ultraconservative Ratzinger.”
“He shows a desire to understand the world. The only example
he gives for condom use -- that of a sex worker -- shows his
goodness, even towards sinners,” he added. The German pope
also makes tentative inroads into delicate issues such as
banning divorced people from receiving communion.
|Junta ‘must reach out to Suu Kyi’
STRASBOURG (AFP) - The European Parliament called on
Myanmar’s military rulers to hold talks with opposition
leader Aung San Suu Kyi and lift restrictions imposed on her
following her release.
The parliament adopted a resolution welcoming Suu Kyi’s
release from house detention on November 13 but criticising
the fact that it happened after the country’s first
elections in 20 years.After being confined to her home for
the better part of the last two decades, Suu Kyi’s newfound
freedom “could be interpreted as a first step in the right
direction,” the resolution said.
But the parliament expressed concern that “she is being kept
under surveillance by the state security services”.
Her freedom “must be unconditional and unrestricted,” the
The parliament “strongly urges the Burmese regime to enter
into discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National
League for Democracy, as well as with representatives of the
minority peoples,” the text said
The Euro MPs also urged Myanmar’s main trading partners,
China, India, Russia and the 10-nation Association of
Southeast Asian Nations, to “stop supporting the
undemocratic regime that thrives at the expense of its
people and to exert more pressure for positive change in the
|‘I don’t think about
Sarah Palin’: Obama
(AFP) - President Barack Obama dismissed the Republican
Party’s brightest political star as a threat in the 2012
presidential election, saying: “I don’t think about Sarah
Palin, a conservative favourite who is stoking speculation
she will run for president, claimed in a recent television
interview that she could beat Obama.
“You know, I don’t speculate on what’s going to happen two
years from now,” Obama told ABC News when asked if he could
beat Palin in a race for president.
“What I’m saying is, I don’t think about Sarah Palin,” Obama
“Palin has a strong base of support in the Republican Party
and I respect those skills,” Obama said. “But I spend most
of my time right now on how I can be the best possible
In an interview to air on December 9, Palin, who left midway
through her first term in office as governor of Alaska, told
ABC that she was seriously considering running for the
Republican presidential nomination for the 2012 vote.
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, is
currently promoting a new book in which she savages Obama on
healthcare reform and foreign policy.
Obama’s remarks came as Palin kicked off a publicity tour to
promote a new book widely seen as a campaign manifesto ahead
of a possible challenge to Barack Obama for the presidency
Palin, the undisputed media megastar of conservative
American politics, has tantalised the nation with hints of a
White House bid but like other expected candidates is yet to
throw her hat in the ring.
She began her 16-stop book tour in Phoenix, Arizona -- home
state of 2008 Republican challenger John McCain, who plucked
her from the relative obscurity of Alaskan state politics to
be his presidential running-mate in 2008.
Fans surged forward when Palin appeared from behind a
curtain in the rear of the Barnes and Noble store in a
Phoenix suburb, applauding and shouting “Sarah! Sarah!”
“I’m very conservative,” said Debbie Haupt, sporting a dark
blue Tea Party movement sweatshirt. “And so is Sarah. I’d
like to see her as the next president.”
Less autobiographical than her first book “Going Rogue,”
Palin’s book is filled with the kind of folksy wisdom that
has made her a favorite of the ultra-conservative Tea Party
movement and won her an adoring fan-base.
Unsurprisingly, she is deeply scathing of Obama and launches
a number of attacks on his political philosophy as she
paints a general portrait of the president as un-American
“The epitome of progressive thinking was Barack Obama’s
promise, just before the 2008 election, that ‘we are five
days away from fundamentally transforming the United States
of America,’” Palin writes.
“I guess you could say that he warned us! But the problem is
that Americans don’t want a fundamental transformation of
In one passage, Palin questions whether Obama is proud of
“I think ordinary Americans are tired of Obama’s global
apology tour and of hearing about what a weak country
America is from left-wing professors and journalists,” she
She also has a dig at First Lady Michelle Obama, who was
widely criticised for a February 2008 speech following her
husband’s primary victory in which she stated she was proud
of America for the first time in her adult life.
America wants presidents “who are not embarrassed by
America, who see our country’s flaws but also its greatness:
leaders who are proud to be Americans, and are proud of her
every day, not just when their chosen ones are winning
elections,” Palin writes.
The book is billed as a tribute to veterans, hunting and the
Tea Party that her publishers say reads “like a bible of
American virtues for anyone hoping to understand the truths
that lie at the heart of the nation.”
In one snippet, Palin writes: “We have to know what makes
America exceptional today more than ever because it is under
assault today more than ever.”
Palin’s “Going Rogue” memoir, published after she resigned
as Alaska governor in 2009, was the nation’s bestselling
nonfiction book last year.
Palin has shunned the “lamestream media” after being
battered in early interviews during the 2008 presidential
campaign and embraced new media like Facebook and Twitter.
A reality show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” recently
launched on the TLC cable network, featuring the family
fishing, kayaking, bear-watching, and relaxing in their tiny
hometown of Wasilla.
“I have a kind of internal compass that keeps me sane and
grounded when the media attack dogs bark and the days on the
road get long. No surprise, I keep my internal compass
pointed due north, to where my roots are,” she writes in her
Palin’s prominence grew as the Tea Party gained momentum
this year and her reputation as a political kingmaker has
solidified, with several candidates she endorsed romping to
victory in the November 2 elections.
But the polarising populist is no favourite of the
Republican establishment, which regards her as bad
nationwide match-up against Obama in 2012 and has looked on
with dismay as she has become an increasingly powerful
“I sat next to her once. Thought she was beautiful,” the
85-year-old former first lady Barbara Bush told CNN in an
interview Monday, before adding: “And she’s very happy in
Alaska -- I hope she’ll stay there.”
KUALA LUMPUR: A Malaysian Hindu
organisation has urged the government to ban the latest
issue of American magazine Newsweek for “insulting Hindus”
by depicting US President Barack Obama as Lord Shiva.
P Murugiah, deputy chairman of the Malaysia Hindu Sangam’s
Penang state branch, said the November issue of the magazine
portrayed Obama as Nadarajah (Lord Shiva) with the caption
“God of All Things”.
“We have received many complaints since the magazine hit
news stands last Saturday,” he was quoted as saying by The
Murugiah said sacred Hindu images were too often portrayed
in pop culture without a proper understanding of their
“We want the publisher to apologise to Hindus worldwide for
their insensitivity in using the image of a highly revered
Hindu deity in such an incredulous manner,” he said.
Malaysia is home to 2.1million ethnic Indians, a bulk of
them Tamils. They form eight percent of the country’s 28
million population. (IANS)
|North Korea – One
provocation too far?
Tensions in the Korean Peninsula reached an unprecedented
level this week when the North fired artillery shells at the
island of Yeonpyeong, near its border with the South killing
two marines people and dramatically raising tensions between
American-allied South Korea and the nuclear-armed North.
Commentators have suggested a number of reasons why the
North launched this attack, chief among them being the
transfer of power to Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the
country’s ailing leader, Kim Jong-il, and to the chronic
food shortage in the problem.
The North is known to raise the stakes when it needs to
negotiate concessions from its foes.
There are fears that last week’s attack by the North, called
the worst incident since the end of the Korean War in 1953,
may escalate into a greater conflict in the Peninsula rather
than taking the usual path of sabre rattling as in previous
US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee
Myung-bak have agreed to stage joint naval exercises as a
first response to North Korea’s shelling.
The exercises will include the US aircraft carrier George
The South Korean government also announced plans to increase
the number of troops and heavy weapons on Yeonpyeong Island.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak accepted the
resignation of his defence minister, Kim Tae-young who
tended his resignation in May after criticism over the
sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in
March, also blamed on North Korea.
Tensions between the two Koreas were already strained when
the North sank a naval vessel on March 26, 2010 that killed
dozens of South Korean sailors which at that time was
considered as the worst incident since end of the War.
The 1,200-tonne Cheonan was on a routine patrol mission in
the waters near the Koreas’ maritime border when an
explosion ripped the sturdy frigate in two.
Fifty-eight sailors were rescued; 46 others perished. Later
investigations confirmed that the ship was destroyed by a
Torpedo fired by a North Korean Submarine.
Unlike the Cheonan incident that happened in disputed
waters, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last week is a far
worse provocation since it would mark the first military
action on South Korean soil since the end of the Korean War
nearly 60 years ago.
Previously South Korea and the US have had limited options
against a nuclear armed North in the face of grave
provocations such as the sinking of the Cheonan.
However, this time around the North may have gone one step
too far by attacking a South Korean military base on the
North Korea remains one of the most heavily sanctioned
countries in the world.
Since the mid 1990’ s the US and Japan has led the way to
impose biting sanctions against the reclusive North to
curtail its nuclear programme.
Economic and military sanctions have had a limited outcome
because the autocratic regime in the North is propped up by
the Chinese who for their own geopolitical reasons prefer to
maintain the status quo rather than allowing the Communist
North unify with US ally South Korea.
Many commentators have noted that the increase in North
Korean aggression could be related to the leadership
transfer which is currently under way.
Kim Jung-Un the 26-year-old son of the current leader Kim
Jong Il is marked to be the nest leader.
Though promoted to a four star general early this year the
young Kim Jung-Un has no credentials to cement his claim to
One of the major factors of gaining credibility as a leader
in the North is to prove one’s military prowess.
There are similarities between the current happenings and
the 1980’s when Kim Jong Il was being groomed to succeed his
father. “When Kim Jong-Il was appointed successor to his
father Kim Il-Sung, a similar sort of legitimisation process
took place in which Kim Jong-Il was responsible for many of
the actions in the 1980 s - such as the Korean Air 858
explosion in 1987, when North Korean agents planted a bomb
in the plane which had taken off from Baghdad. The agents
got off in Abu Dhabi, and the plane exploded over the Sea of
Andaman, killing all 115 aboard. And in 1983, North Korean
terrorists killed about half of the South Korean cabinet
while it was on a state visit to Burma,” said Lee Chang an
expert on Korean affairs at the University of Yale.
North Korean gamble
The North Koreans are known for their hard
At the height of a famine in the late 1990s, the North
started its nuclear programme which was seen as a bailout
from its own enemies who would go to extraordinary lengths
to stall the progress of the North to build a nuclear
Food and other economic aid was delivered to the North on
the promise that it would stop nuclear material enrichment.
After many years of playing hardball, obtaining aid that
kept its dictatorial regime in power the North eventually
did produce a nuclear bomb.
Though five nations have been negotiating with the North
Koreans over their nuclear programme, the only country that
has a significant influence on the hermit kingdom is China.
For years China has been both a conduit to engage the North
and an impediment to enforcing stricter sanctions against
China sees North Korea, however fragile its regime maybe, as
a strategic partner against the expansion of US interest in
A unified Korea would bring US troops to the border of
South Korea with 28,000 and Japan with 50,000 US troops are
both traditional foes of the Chinese and would be a
impediment in Chinese expansion in the region.
China, however, is under pressure to curtail aggression by
its North Korean ally.
Rogue actions by the North have come to reflect Chinese
In the wake of North Korean shelling last week Chinese Prime
Minister, Wen Jiabao, said that Beijing opposed any
provocative military behaviour by either side on the Korean
peninsula, once again proving that the Chinese are unwilling
to take a tougher stance against their Korean allies.
Irrational as it may seem, North Korea usually has a reason
for its erratic actions.
It can either be to prop up a young leader who needs to
showcase his “toughness” before assuming the mantle of
leadership or it could be to obtain an advantage to
negotiate concessions from the international community.
In the past such provocations have helped North Korea get
what it wants.
The next few weeks will reveal whether it has pushed its
luck too far this time around.
Timeline of latest
SEOUL (AFP) - A deadly attack by North Korea on a South
Korean island near their disputed border this week sent
tensions on the peninsula soaring and set alarm bells
ringing around the world.
Following are some of the key events since the crisis began:
Nov 23: Nuclear-armed North Korea fires a barrage of
artillery shells on to a South Korean island near their
disputed Yellow Sea border in the first such strike since
the 1950-53 war
- Two marines and two civilians are killed and 18 people are
wounded in the bombardment of the fishing and garrison
island of Yeonpyeong, as residents are sent fleeing
- The attack fuels anxiety about the intentions of the
unpredictable communist state, particularly after the
disclosure of an apparently operational uranium enrichment
plant -- a second potential way of building a nuclear bomb
- Most major powers condemn the North Korean attack, with
the noticeable exception of Pyongyang’s sole major ally
Beijing, which merely voiced its “concern” at developments
Nov 24: The US and South Korea announce plans for
four days of war games in the Yellow Sea starting Sunday
- US President Barack Obama telephones South Korean
counterpart Lee Myung-Bak telling him Washington stands
“shoulder to shoulder” with Seoul
- South Korea suspends shipments of flood aid to North
- The US-led UN Command, which oversees the Korean
armistice, calls for talks with North Korea but Pyongyang
rejects the request
- The foreign minister of China, which is facing pressure
from Seoul, Washington and their allies to rein in
Pyongyang, cancels a planned trip to South Korea
- Scores of South Korean protesters burn the North Korean
flag and call for revenge
Nov 25: South Korea’s defence minister Kim Tae-Young
resigns amid strong criticism that the military reacted
feebly to the shelling, which followed the sinking of one of
Seoul’s warship in March blamed on Pyongyang
- Seoul announces it will send more troops and guns to
frontline islands in the Yellow Sea and bolster its rules of
- North Korea warns of more strikes if it faces a “reckless
military provocation” from the South
Nov 26: North Korea warns that plans for a US-South
Korean naval exercise bring the peninsula “closer to the
brink of war”
-- Seoul says the North appears to have staged an artillery
firing exercise in the Yellow Sea, sending residents of the
island of Yeonpyeong rushing into air raid shelters.
|Debt-laden Dubai leans
on core sectors for recovery
DUBAI (AFP) - A
year after scaring global markets over its debt crisis,
Dubai still has a huge legacy of debt to deal with over the
medium term, and is leaning on its core economic sectors for
The focus in the city-state has shifted to the traditionally
strong sectors of trade, logistics and tourism in order to
recover slowly from a crisis caused primarily by a
boom-to-bust real estate frenzy.
Financial markets woke up in the red last November 26 after
Dubai signalled its need for a standstill on debt payments
by its largest conglomerate, Dubai World.
But Dubai succeeded in buying time, convincing its lenders
to restructure some $14.4 billion (10.8 billion euros) of
debt over five and eight years, at low interest.
But it still needs to secure capital to meet debt
Monica Malik, chief economist at EFG-Hermes investment bank,
says “we see fewer concerns over debt in the shorter term.
Restructuring the debt is reducing concerns about debt
servicing over the short term.”
“In the medium term, they still have the issue of raising
funds to reduce the debt levels. That will require some
Dubai World’s wide range of assets include DP World, the
world’s fourth largest container port operator, and Jebel
Ali Free Zone, as well as stakes in Atlantis Hotel in Dubai,
US retailer Barney’s and MGM Resorts.
It is trying to delay selling off assets until a hoped-for
significant recovery in the global economy helps to lift
Meanwhile, other government-related companies, known as
Dubai Inc, are feeling the pinch of debt servicing, although
not on the scale of Dubai World.
Dubai Holding is a diversified group owned entirely by Dubai
ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum -- the man
behind the emirate’s ambitious, yet extravagant development.
It has already been buoyed with an injection of two billion
dollars from the government, but its financial arm, Dubai
Group, is said to have recently missed two scheduled
payments on a 330-million-dollar loan.
Mohammed Al Shaibani, who has emerged as Shaikh Mohammad’s
lieutenant in the fight to sort out the emirate’s debt
crisis, told the Financial Times earlier this month that the
government will intervene when needed.
“I don’t want to put any more money in as the government,
but I will do it as and when it’s required,” said the head
of the ruler’s court, who is also a member of the Supreme
Financial Committee, created to tackle the debt problem.
Thanks to a lifeline of $20 billion from neighbouring Abu
Dhabi, the Dubai government managed to step in to avert a
default by Dubai World and take control of its
Estimates for Dubai’s total debt vary, but it is put at a
minimum of $100 billion.
The debt overhang, combined with a continuing decline in
Dubai’s real estate sector, which has shed more than half of
its value, maintain the state of uncertainty over the
“It is still going to be a difficult time. The Dubai economy
is going to feel the effect of the real estate bubble and
the debt over the medium term,” Malik said.
The emirate’s banks still also face uncertainty over their
exposure to troubled firms and the real estate sector.
“The legacy problem is really in the local banks, which have
still not cleaned up their balance sheets,” said Ali
al-Shihabi, chairman of Dubai-based Rasmala Investment Bank.
“That needs to be done, and new capital be injected into the
banks so they can resume lending. Until that is done the
recovery will not be complete,” he said.
Away from real estate, Dubai is building on the strength of
its core sectors, which have picked up pace along with the
global economic recovery.
The Dubai statistics centre said last month it expected GDP
to grow by 2.3 percent this year, way above a 0.5 percent
growth forecast by the International Monetary Fund, which
had said GDP contracted by 1.3 percent in 2009.
The IMF said last month that growth in Dubai’s tourism and
trade has been better than expected.
Malik said “there has been support from external sides,
including trade, (Emirates) airline, airport, and tourism
... These are the areas that Dubai has developed very well.”
“We saw a strong rebound in tourism and trade. These will
drive growth,” she said.
Dubai boasts the busiest and most modern airport in the
Middle East, home to Emirates Airline, the largest carrier
in the region whose net profit surged 351 percent in the
first half of the current financial year.
Shihabi believes Dubai’s “core” economy has emerged stronger
after the crisis as services in hospitality, logistics and
free-zone trade have become available at a competitive cost.
At the same time, hotel rooms, offices and homes are now
“available in quality and abundance for the first time.”
“When you add that to the first class airline and airport,
you get a winning model that is unbeatable regionally,” he
|Hardliners slow Saudi
RIYADH (AFP) - After five years in
power Saudi King Abdullah’s crucial reform programme faces a
formidable new obstacle in addition to hardline religious, a
turgid bureaucracy and rival royals: his own health.
King Abdullah successfully underwent back surgery at New
York Presbyterian Hospital, a palace statement said this
King Abdullah, 86, flew to New York for medical treatment
with a slipped disc and a blood clot pressing on the nerves
in his back. He temporarily handed control of the kingdom to
his half brother, Crown Prince Sultan.
The king had “back surgery, in which the blood clot was
extracted, the slipped disc was corrected, and the injured
vertebrae was stabilised,” the Saudi Press Agency quoted the
statement as saying.
Some analysts have raised questions about how far King
Abdullah can drive the political and social changes --
including loosening the ultra-strict regime governing daily
life -- necessary to bring the Middle Eastern power and
linchpin to global oil supplies into the 21st century.
Saudis are broadly supportive of King Abdullah’s changes,
but are acutely aware of his age, and respectfully cautious
when it comes to speaking about the future.
“He is doing many good things. I hope he stays with us a
long time,” said Ahmed, a young professional at a
foreign-owned bank in Riyadh, only wanting his first name to
The changes since King Abdullah became king in 2005 have
been slow in coming, but are increasingly visible.
- The feared religious police have been reined in, making
women increasingly more comfortable in showing their faces
and wearing decorated abayas, the all-black shroud they don
- Companies with offices are finding it easier to skirt the
ban on gender mixing;
- Socially it is slightly easier for unrelated men and women
to get together;
- The education ministries are trying to de-emphasise
religious education for international-standard maths,
science and liberal arts while undertaking a huge expansion
- Finance ministry auditors are tougher on spending after
massive corruption and mismanagement in the 1980s and 1990s;
- Legal reforms aim at creating better laws and courts for
contracts and commercial activities; there is also a
reported plan to codify Sharia law, the basis of the
country’s legal system;
- Human rights groups are taking up more and more
But impatient supporters of the King say he is moving too
“It’s not with the speed that the middle class wants,” said
veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“We are going in the right direction, but not fast enough,”
The main change has been one of atmosphere, and only in the
past two years.
King Abdullah has set the standard visually. Newspapers, for
instance, have published photographs of the king together
with groups of Saudi women, their faces showing.
Newspapers and television talk shows meanwhile are more
critical of government policies, can object to what
religious leaders say, and report scandals.
“The fact that you have more people talking about policies
is an eye-opener,” said economist John Sfakianakis, a
long-time Saudi resident.
For example, he said, “In the newspapers people are openly
critical of the minister of finance’s policies.”
But officially no rules have changed. The country still bans
public worship by non-Islamic faiths.
Gender-mixing is still forbidden, and the religious police
still make their presence known.
Women are not allowed to drive, and are still required to
have the permission of a male guardian to do many things.
Cinemas and musical and dance concerts are still forbidden.
A labour ministry move to allow supermarkets to hire female
cashiers has been rejected by the country’s highest
religious authority, which last month issued a fatwa saying
it was unacceptable.
And in May Khashoggi was forced from his job as editor of
Al-Watan newspaper after it published a column that
challenged basic precepts of Saudi Arabia’s
ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam.
Moreover, a small number of pro-democracy activists like
outspoken economist Mohammed al-Qahtani say the king has not
undertaken any fundamental reforms of the royal
family-controlled government like elections.
“There must be some accountability,” he said.
Public discussion of reforms now takes place heavily online
among Saudis, says Fouad Al Farhan, who was jailed for a
year in 2008 for his pro-democracy web activities.
“It is not changing the political system as a whole, but it
is changing thinking,” he said.
A big question is will Abdullah’s changes stick when he is
gone. Nothing is clear about the attitude toward reforms
among his possible successors.
“I am confident that ... whoever emerges on top will
continue more or less the same lines of domestic and
international policy. I don’t foresee the emergence of
either an extreme liberal or an extreme religious zealot as
leader of the House of Saud,” said US scholar Thomas