CAIRO — Saudi Arabia's King Fahd announced major new steps toward democratic reform Sunday, creating a national Consultative Council to provide citizens a voice in government and spelling out guarantees for personal liberties for the first time in the history of the conservative desert kingdom.
The king may also have opened the door to younger, more dynamic members of the ruling Saud dynasty to succeed to the throne in future years. Any new monarch would, however, maintain the positions of prime minister and commander in chief of the armed forces.
The reforms, widely believed to be the product of intense pressures for democratic reform in conservative Persian Gulf sheikdoms brought on by the Gulf War, mark the first time that Saudi Arabia has had the equivalent of a written bill of rights. The kingdom, home of Islam's two holiest shrines, has always relied on the Koran as its constitution.
"Nothing like this has ever been done here. The fact that they've put it in writing, not only how the government is organized but that people actually have rights, is unprecedented," a Western diplomat said in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
"This obviously is a whole new door that's being opened up," said another political analyst in the Saudi capital. "There are many here who think that this is part of a much larger process. . . . With greater public participation in the governing process, it is now something less than an absolute monarchy."
The reforms come in the wake of widespread calls for change within the kingdom, both by religious conservatives who resented the influx of Western forces during the Gulf War and by liberals who saw the war as a potential impetus for opening the conservative kingdom more to the West.
In a country where alcohol is forbidden, public contact between the sexes is prohibited, public criticism of the monarchy is not tolerated and adultery can in rare instances be punishable by death, the new reforms open the way both for political debate and for citizens to live freely within the privacy of their own homes.
Guarantees of the sanctity of the home and freedom from unreasonable searches, which are among the reforms, are viewed by many as an end to the free reign of the religious police, who last year raided at least two prominent private parties at which liquor was being served, beating some of the party-goers and arresting the hosts.
A new, 61-member national Consultative Council, or Majlis al Shura, will be appointed by the king and given the authority to review and make recommendations concerning all matters of public policy, though ultimate decision-making authority remains with the king.
The monarch left the door open to appointing similar provincial councils throughout the kingdom for action on local issues.
"Momentous events in the recent past . . . have made it necessary to develop the country's administrative structure," King Fahd said in announcing the new "Basic System of Government" on national television.
"We are certain that these regulations . . . will help the state achieve all that the Saudi citizen would wish for in progress for his country and his Arab and Islamic nation," the king said.
A consultative council similar to one convened by the prophet Mohammed in the early days of Islam had been promised in Saudi Arabia for years but never put in place except in the earliest days of the kingdom. A new Majlis al Shura building was constructed in Riyadh shortly after King Fahd's ascension to the throne in 1982 but never activated.
In part, the Saudi ruling family has argued that an unofficial consultative process has been in place since the early days of the kingdom, providing all citizens with the opportunity to meet the king or their local Saud-family governor on a weekly basis to raise issues of concern.
But the Gulf War brought to light many issues in which citizens complained they lacked a voice. Why, many wanted to know, had the kingdom spent billions on defense and yet was left unable to defend itself when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait? Why, asked a group of women who conducted a controversial demonstration in Riyadh last year, are women not permitted to drive cars?
The debates were exacerbated by the influx of hundreds of thousands of U.S., British and French military personnel, which raised the ire of the religious police, and by Western governments that began asking questions about whether they should be defending the essentially dictatorial regimes that line the shores of the Persian Gulf.