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  Nation 2  


 

Voters shun caste, opt for growth
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 education.
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, analysts say.
Kumar broke up such voter loyalty by concentrating on delivery.
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.”
‘Headmaster’ for Andhra

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 Rajasekhar Reddy.
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 researchers.
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, BitDefender said.
Trusted community
These apps would then either install malware used for spying on users or to send messages containing adverts to the users’ contacts.
Facebook has a thriving community of independent developers who have built apps for the social network. (BBC)
Pope boosts compassionate image in new book

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 image.
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 resolution said.
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 country”.


‘I don’t think about Sarah Palin’: Obama
WASHINGTON (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.”
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 said.
“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 president.”
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 in 2012.
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 and aloof.
“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 their country.”
In one passage, Palin questions whether Obama is proud of America.
“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 writes.
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 new book.
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 player.
“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.”
Newsweek sparks ‘Nadarajah’ row

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 Star.
Murugiah said sacred Hindu images were too often portrayed in pop culture without a proper understanding of their spiritual relevance.
“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?
By Thanapathi
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 cases.
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 Washington.
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.

Limited options
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 Yeonpyeong Island.
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.

Succession woes
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 leadership.
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
bargaining strategies.
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 device.
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.

China factor
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 the country.
China sees North Korea, however fragile its regime maybe, as a strategic partner against the expansion of US interest in East Asia.
A unified Korea would bring US troops to the border of China.
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 inaction.
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 Korea standoff

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 engagement
- 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 recovery.
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 repayments.
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 asset sales.”
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 values.
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 restructuring.
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 emirate’s economy.
“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 added.


Hardliners slow Saudi reforms

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 week.
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 be used.
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 in public;
- 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 of universities;
- 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 rights-violation cases.
But impatient supporters of the King say he is moving too slowly.
“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,” he said.
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 Lippman.