Maverick Saudi Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, half-brother of King Abdullah, remains at the age of 82 as vehement as ever in his demands for political reforms and rights for women in oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
Prince Talal, nicknamed « Red Prince » in his youth for defying the royal family, insisted in an interview with AFP that democratic reforms are needed in the kingdom, including the holding of parliamentary elections.
Until such a vote takes place, he said, the advisory Consultative Council must be empowered.
« Until elections are held, God willing, the Majlis Al-Shoura (Consultative Council) should be given the power to legislate, approve the budget and hold officials accountable, » Prince Talal said.
Saudi Arabia, where calls for reform are rare, has no parliament and the Consultative Council is a 120-member toothless appointed body that gives its opinion on proposed laws and government policies.
King Abdullah had been carefully treading towards change, introducing municipal elections for the first time in Saudi Arabia in 2005. He later granted women the right to cast ballots and run as candidates in the next local vote, set for 2015.
Asked about the situation of women in the kingdom, the only country in the world that bans females from driving, Talal said the issue had become « boring. »
Many Saudi families « go into debt to pay drivers’ salaries, » he said, while strongly criticising religious leaders in the ultra-conservative kingdom who reject any calls for women to be allowed to drive.
« How can it make sense to allow a driver (a male stranger) to stay in the house day and night while prohibiting mixing between sexes and women from driving?
« Do we not have confidence in our women? »
In June 2011, female activists launched a campaign to defy the ban, with many arrested for doing so and forced to sign a pledge they will never drive again.
No law specifically forbids women in Saudi Arabia from driving, but the interior minister formally banned them after 47 women were arrested and punished for staging a demonstration in cars in November 1990.
The kingdom enforces strict rules governing mixing between the sexes, while women are forced to wear a veil and a black cloak, or abaya, that covers them from head to toe except for their hands and faces.
On the economic front, Prince Talal in the interview with AFP called for the creation of a sovereign fund in the kingdom similar to those which exist in other Gulf states.
The kingdom’s budget surplus in 2012 hit $102.93 billion thanks to rising oil-dominated revenues.
« The annual budget surplus must be put in the fund which in turn must be independent of the government, » he said.
Such a fund is needed to prepare for the post-oil era. « Oil could dry up, but there are alternatives in the market. We are afraid that demands for crude oil would fall one day. »
Talal, who himself does not hold a government post, paid tribute to his half-brother calling him « a man of reforms » and expressed hope that « God will grant him a long life to speed up political and social reforms. »
The king’s age and frequent hospitalisations have raised concerns about the future leadership of the world’s key oil producer, which is also a regional powerhouse.
Talal, however, cannot be considered a contender to the throne as his mother is not Saudi.
Today his energies are directed towards the Arab Gulf Programme for Development (AGFUND) that he chairs and which promotes education and health in developing countries.
Influenced by late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, he created the rebellious « Free Princes » movement in the 1960s which demanded fundamental reforms in the kingdom.
Most famous among his sons is Prince Walid bin Talal, billionaire chief of Kingdom Holding investment group and one of the world’s richest men.
© AFP 2013