Reform or reshuffle? A comparative glance at Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan

Taha al-Mukhtar

In late 2016, most people had never heard of Muhammad bin Salman or Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Both, however, would take control of their respective countries within six months. The shifts of power in Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan represent an abrupt interruption of stable, autocratic regimes. At the outset, there was no reason to expect long-lasting changes to civil rights. Indeed, both countries still smack of autocracy, despite a spate of civil reforms. The approaches taken, however, indicate a seemingly substantial difference in the extent to which each country is willing to reform. Saudi reforms have so far merely amounted to image-conscious window-dressing initiatives. In Uzbekistan, reforms represent real, albeit modest, attempts to eradicate the deep-seated presence of absolute power –– at least for now. The fundamental difference between the two is that Mirziyoyev has opened a direct line of communication to Uzbekistan’s citizenry, allowing their voices to be heard in government for the first time.

 

Changes at home: authentic, or merely skin-deep?

In September 2016, after 25 years in office, Islam Karimov died suddenly. With no obvious successor, Uzbekistan’s momentary freefall sparked fears of a power vacuum, an emboldened Islamist insurgence, and potentially catastrophic reverberations throughout the region. A week later, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev was approved as interim President by the Uzbek parliament. By comparison, King Salman’s appointment of his son as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in June 2017 has been far more widely reported in the Middle East and elsewhere. This coverage has included more attention paid to Saudi reforms than to those occurring in Uzbekistan. Looking at Mirziyoyev’s innovations illuminates the shortcomings of bin Salman’s changes.

In Saudi Arabia, no one outside the royal family can be entirely sure why the King stripped former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef of his title in June 2017. Elevating Mohammad bin Salman over bin Nayef disrupted the typical succession pattern by placing the King’s son ahead of his brothers in line for the throne. Skipping an entire generation of royals, bin Salman is an uncharacteristically young Crown Prince –– a factor that may have contributed to his initial promise as a progressive reformer. Since his appointment, bin Salman’s most celebrated domestic moves include lifting Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers, admitting Saudi women to football matches, and promising to increase the number of women in the workforce. These changes have been lauded by champions of liberalist politics. Bin Salman promised to root out corruption at the highest levels of the Saudi elite, “even if he’s a prince or a minister.” While some observers noted that a sweeping corruption crackdown could constitute a power-consolidating purge, the investigations were welcomed by large segments of a society that has long observed political corruption in silence. The move reportedly recovered over $100 billion in misappropriated funds, but has also sidelined several prominent political forces within the Saudi elite.

In Uzbekistan, Karimov’s regime had fit the famously repressive model of authoritarian power in post-Soviet Central Asia. The state curtailed freedom of religion, association and assembly. Political parties were effectively banned under restrictive registration schemes. Karimov’s government has been accused of conducting forced sterilisation of women in rural areas and pressing state employees into slavery, particularly to pick cotton. This restriction of civil rights and liberties culminated in the Andijan massacre of 2005, when operatives of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (SNB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs shot at civilians protesting the arrest of 23 local businessmen allegedly linked to Islamic extremism. The government reported 187 casualties. An intelligence agency defector later reported 1,500 civilian deaths.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev, had faithfully served the previous regime as Karimov’s Prime Minister, and was selected as interim president while elections were prepared. When Mirziyoyev fully took office with 88.61% of the vote in December 2016, many outside Uzbekistan reported the election as a sham. Three little-known candidates from government-aligned parties were present on the ballot, but the people of Uzbekistan were widely seen as lacking real choice. Perhaps out of respect for his predecessor, Mirziyoyev won with a slightly smaller majority than Karimov’s customary 90%.

Even while acting as interim president, however, Mirziyoyev began to institute a range of unexpectedly liberal policies. In the span of three months, he invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to observe the election campaign, allowed traffic to flow by Karimov’s residence in Tashkent for the first time in many years, set up a website for citizens to voice concerns directly to the government, and released the high-profile political prisoner Samandar Kukanov. While these changes garnered some notice, the assumption that the thaw would be short-lived tempered any optimism.

Since fully taking office, Mirziyoyev has continued on his path of Uzbek openness. He dismissed Rustam Inoyatov from his 22-year tenure as the head of the SNB before arresting several officers and ordering the headquarters in central Tashkent vacated. The new leader also launched investigations into misconduct connected to the arrest of Bobomurod Abdullaev, a journalist arrested by the security service. A long-banned human rights lawyer has also been allowed to meet with Abdullaev and to introduce evidence of his client’s torture at the hands of the SNB, something previously unheard of in Uzbek courts. Mirziyoyev also released journalist Yusuf Ruzimuradov, the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist in March 2018, after 19 years in jail.

Dismantling the historically unchecked power of the secret police will not be simple, but Mirziyoyev seems committed. So far, he has pardoned over 2,700 convicts and removed at least 16,000 individuals from the SNB’s infamous blacklists. In an effort to roll back Karimov’s repressive approach to religious freedoms, the new President established the Council of Faiths under the Religious Affairs Committee—with leaders of all 16 faiths practiced in the country—to counsel the government in its stated mission. Whether these beginnings become fully-fledged freedoms is within Mirziyoyev’s control––Uzbekistan’s President could easily roll back his reforms. They do mark, however, several firsts in the country’s national conversation, and now that Uzbeks have heard the rumblings of real reform, it will be harder to re-entrench absolute power.

 

Changes abroad: between pressure and engagement

Saudi Arabia has sought to market its nascent image of progressivism to the rest of the world. In 2018, bin Salman embarked on a whistle-stop public relations tour of the West, dressing down with former Mayor Bloomberg and living it up with Oprah Winfrey. Early into his tenure, bin Salman’s visit seemed promising to the United States and Europe. This was followed by a more sober tour of Arab states in North Africa and the Middle East where, while bin Salman was granted Tunisia’s highest honour, he was roundly rejected by the region’s public. Saudi Arabia also instituted a new entry-visa system, allowing foreigners to apply for and receive approval online. Saudi Vision 2030 and its propagandistic festival, “Davos in the Desert,” have promised economic stimulation and a series of public service innovations around tourism and recreation.

However, Saudi Arabia’s increased visibility has brought about renewed criticism of its policies, as well as a certain dose of scepticism toward the recent raft of reforms. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has been repeatedly linked directly to bin Salman by multiple sources. There has also been an uptick of political detentions and allegations of torture. Just as virulent is international denouncement of the intervention in Yemen, where Saudi forces have killed civilians, targeted non-military objectives, and contributed to a famine affecting millions.

Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has been hesitantly heralded for increasingly abiding by international legal obligations. Soviet-era exit visa requirements were recently scrapped, allowing Uzbek citizens the right of egress. Departing from Karimov’s isolationism, Mirziyoyev has allowed visits from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Regional Representative of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Central Asia, as well as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. This has resulted in a 90-event Action Plan proposed by the UN for the protection of human rights and religious freedoms, with Uzbekistan’s government already beginning to adopt legislation to implement the recommendations.

Mirziyoyev has sought closer relations with the United States while maintaining pre-existing ties with Russia and China. Within the region, Mirziyoyev has visited many of his neighbours, dropped his predecessor’s policy of opposition to Tajikistan’s hydropower projects, revived discussions of electricity trade, and promised closer diplomatic and economic cooperation in Central Asia, reversing Uzbekistan’s historical aversion to collaboration.

At least at this stage, whether liberal reforms in these resource-rich nations turn out to be profound or perfunctory may produce little difference in international relations. The United States and the United Kingdom continue to support Saudi Arabia, their closest Arab ally, with immense arms deals. As for Uzbekistan, Europe has warily begun to recognise the stirrings of liberalisation while withholding full cooperation for the time being.

 

Evaluating authenticity: looking to the future

By publicly addressing decades-old constitutional hypocrisy, corruption, torture, slavery and other human rights abuses, Mirziyoyev has unclenched decades of taboo around the Uzbek state’s transgressions towards its own people. To be sure, it remains to be seen where exactly Mirziyoyev will lead a newly aspirational Uzbekistan, but Mirziyoyev has begun to transform the dialogue between state and citizen for the first time. Dialogue, however, is only the beginning. Nothing less than a transfigured political culture in Uzbekistan will empower its citizenry. But by opening the country to international scrutiny and the government to citizens’ complaints, Mirziyoyev has made a genuine move in the right direction.

Bin Salman’s conspicuous clampdown on corruption, on the other hand, while admirable in theory, leaves several grievances unaddressed, including human rights violations, censorship of speech and media, and an increasingly bellicose foreign policy. Both states, it must be said, continue to ignore the concerns of the LGBTQ community. Rather than holding the government accountable to its citizens, bin Salman’s raft of reforms has failed to address the urgent need for civic engagement. And until a state opens the channel for communication between government and citizen, reforms may merely amount to reshuffling of the political elite.

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