Opening remarks by Minister of Labor Dr. Ghazi Al-Qusaibi at a press conference on the topic ‘The Process of Reform in the Kingdom’ in Riyadh on February 9, 2005, following the Counter-Terrorism International Conference that took place February 5-8.
Good morning, my friends.
It is a great pleasure to be with you on this day to talk about the process of reform and development that has been taking place in the Kingdom in recent years. I will start with a brief introduction and leave more time for discussion.
There are two things to remember about reform. Firstly, a genuine reform is one that is homegrown and responds to the real needs and demands of the society. Such a reform always goes hand-in-hand with the values that govern the behavior of individuals and groups, and cannot be attained through importing ready-made models. Secondly, the success of a reform presupposes a well-thought-out and gradual approach rather than the pursuit of an abrupt change. Experiences worldwide, and notably in the Arab world, prove that any attempt to develop communities through revolution and coups produces only destruction.
Many of those who write on the Kingdom ignore the fact that the Saudi people are very religious and conservative. Change in a society of this sort may seem a slow process to outsiders; this is not the case from the perspective of that society itself. Those who expect the government of Saudi Arabia to behave in the same way as do governments that represent people with drastically different circumstances, do not understand that it is the nature of the society concerned that should be used as a yardstick to measure the pace of change.
Let me review some of the reforms that have taken place over the past decade or so.
The most important reform has been the promulgation of the Basic System of Governance, which spelled out for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, the nature of political authority, its boundaries and its regulations, as well as the rights of the citizens that have to be respected by the State.
Following the enactment of the Basic System of Governance, new constitutional institutions were established: the Consultative Council and the System for Provincial Councils.
The Consultative Council, playing an increasingly greater legislative role, has been a landmark of political development. The Council is about to witness yet another expansion of its membership, and enjoys increasing authority. Moreover, while continuing the role of oversight that it is expected to play increasingly in the future, the Council has adopted a number of initiatives pertaining to major national issues, and established parliamentary traditions in keeping with the those of parliaments throughout the world.
The King Abulaziz Center for National Dialogue, another domain of political authority, has been organizing seminars offering a frankness of discussion hitherto unseen. These events have attracted elite groups of differing schools of thought, both men and women, and the positive recommendations resulting from them are now under study and consideration. The Center will continue to address important national issues. After discussing the issues of education, extremism, women, and youth, the next dialogue will focus on the important and timely issue of international relations from a civic point of view.
The government of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, in the interests of broadening popular participation, resolved to reinvigorate local municipal councils by electing half of their members, a step that has been received with enthusiasm by the citizens.
It is very important to stress how meaningful this step is, small as it may seem, since it is the first time that Saudi citizens have been so involved in essential election preparations, entailing extensive planning and organization. Moreover, these elections are pioneering, in that their success will serve as a defining factor for future steps, and that the lessons learned will serve as a guide to the processes of popular participation in the future.
The establishment of the National Human Rights Association (NHRA) is another important example of reform. The NHRA had a strong beginning and was able to make its presence felt in a short period of time, with several initiatives including visiting prisons, studying prisoners’ circumstances, and receiving complaints from citizens and residents whose rights had been affected. A government institution pertaining to human rights is planned, to complement and support the role of the non-governmental NHRA.
With respect to the economic arena the two major developments are the formation of the Supreme Economic Council and adding Economy to Planning to form the current Ministry of Economy and Planning. The focus of efforts in this domain has been to liberalize the economy from bureaucratic control and monopoly, encourage investment, and open new horizons for the Saudi economy. Key accomplishments are reflected in:
The ministerial commission on administrative reorganization has been working to overhaul government performance, and a number of decisions have been taken to establish new institutions, remove existing ones, or merge others, in accordance with the dictates of changing circumstances.
Water resources is a good example. As soon as it was established, the Ministry of Water was able to accelerate the country’s national plan for water, working on conserving consumption as well as introducing privatization. In another move, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs was divided into two ministries allowing the new Ministry of Labor to devote more time to its job of addressing unemployment, while the new Ministry of Social Affairs devoted itself to social issues.
One important landmark was the enactment of regulations governing litigation and criminal procedures including setting down principles for the protection of individuals against abuse of authority, and guarantees that litigating parties are able to attain their rights without difficulty.
Yet another move was to place the once decentralized administration of culture under the ministerial responsibility of information, creating a new Ministry of Culture and Information.
Decisions have also been taken to identify the relationship between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education in terms of quality and structure, with top priority given to reinforcing the independence of the universities.
Society has seen the following developments:
Civil society has seen considerable growth in the number of professional as well as charitable organizations, such as the association for writers and journalists, and the establishment of a number of workers’ groups that play a role similar to that of labor unions.
It should be noted that the government of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz strongly desires to provide women with opportunities for both employment and education, within the framework of the country’s values and social traditions. It is in this respect that the Ministry of Labor is now seeking, in cooperation with other concerned ministries, to create suitable environments for women to work in, and to provide them with appropriate training. The next few years are expected to witness an expansion of employment opportunities for women in the private sector, not just in the public sector as has been the case in the past.
A high level commission is currently reviewing curricula in order to purge them of any materials that incite extremism. The number of vocational training institutes, both government and private, has risen sharply to 710, with a total of 150,000 students.
It is expected that within a few years the private sector will be able to meet all its requirements with workers and technicians trained locally.
The universities have taken serious steps to adapt their curricula to the needs of the labor market through focusing on specialization in sciences; the Ministry of Higher Education intends to open universities dedicated to science teaching. Private universities have also been established.
In the Ministry of Education there is also a thorough review of curricula, overhauling syllabi and linking them to the needs of the labor market, including the introduction of English at an earlier stage. The Ministry has also established experimental schools in different parts of the country to provide students with basic technical and vocational training.
Dear friends: These steps taken one by one may not seem outstanding, yet their accumulation is sure to create dynamic development of our society and pave the way for further development. This process, it should be noted, is taking place with the oversight of a largely liberal media that is unchecked by any boundaries when criticizing ministers, not counting the contribution of intellectuals in the print media and in the dialogue forums.
The Saudi people have a genuine desire for reform, in spite of having suffered from terrorism; and statements made by King Fahd, and by Crown Prince Abdullah, and by Prince Sultan, confirm that the process of reform and development will continue, providing ever more benefits for the citizens.
Thank you, and now it is my turn to listen to you.