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Little Hope of Change to Poor Saudi Rights Record


In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, newly enthroned King Salman, right, talks with Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, during King Abdullah's funeral in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015.

In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, newly enthroned King Salman, right, talks with Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, during King Abdullah's funeral in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015.

Saudi Arabia's human rights record has long been the subject of widespread condemnation by rights groups. But within the context of the ultra-conservative, religious society, King Abdullah, who died Friday, was seen as a leader who gradually tried to lay the groundwork for rights reforms.

"Abdullah was known as something of a reformist inside Saudi Arabia," says Michael Fischbach, an expert on Middle East politics with Randolph Macon College. "Abdullah was noted for changing attitudes about what we might loosely call democratic practices, about voting rights for women."

During his rule, King Abdullah had limited success in loosening restrictions on Saudi women, expanding their opportunities to study and allowing them to work as supermarket cashiers. He also appointed the country's first female cabinet minister and, after several false starts, granted women the right to vote and run in 2015 municipal elections.

In a 2005 interview with U.S. journalist Barbara Walters, King Abdullah said he "strongly" believed in the rights of women and famously declared "the day will come" when the long-reviled Saudi ban on women driving cars would be lifted. The country's staunchly conservative Muslim clerics did not agree, and he failed to fulfill that promise.

Joe Stork with Human Rights Watch, tells VOA it is unfortunate that the monarch could not grant more rights to Saudi women, who are still considered to be property of their male relatives.

"He made a number of promises particularly in the area of bringing Saudi women more into the mainstream, so to speak, particularly in terms of opening certain occupations for them that had been off-limits up til then. And a little bit of that has happened, but not nearly as much as promised and perhaps not as much as he himself wanted to see," Stork said.

Following the Arab Spring protests that engulfed the region in 2011, King Abdullah rolled out a series of financial incentives for Saudi citizens, a move largely seen as an effort to preserve his rule. But he did little to respond to demands for greater political rights, overseeing a fierce crackdown on those who criticized Saudi religious and political leaders. He also sent tanks to Bahrain to help crush popular protests there.

Human rights abuses that have resulted from Saudi clerics' conservative interpretation of Islamic law are well-documented. The country routinely carries out gruesome public beheadings of convicted criminals. Other punishments include death by stoning, public floggings, and amputations of limbs.

International criticism of Saudi Arabia's rights record reached a crescendo in 2002, when religious police in Mecca prevented a group of schoolgirls from leaving a burning dormitory because they were improperly dressed. Fifteen girls died in the blaze.

Few expect King Abdullah's successor, his half brother King Salman, to usher in any major human rights improvements. Andreas Krieg, a Middle East security analyst and lecturer at King's College London, tells VOA both Abdullah and Salman are "made of the same cloth" and "have a similar outlook when it comes to reform."

"The way Saudi Arabia works is that it's always about a balance between the reformist part of society and the ultra-conservative, particularly the wahhabiyah part of society, and I think any king will have to find that balance. You will never see a Saudi king pushing through major reforms," Krieg says.

But while King Salman will most likely focus on security issues, Krieg says human rights will only become more important as time goes on, noting over half of the Saudi population is under the age of 25.

"These young people have access to social media, they have access to western culture and we'll see more and more people trying to test the boundaries of what is possible within an ultra-conservative society. So you will have to please them in a way," he said. "You cannot step back from any of these tiny reforms that Abdullah has pushed through."

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