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Saudi King Announces Reforms : Mideast: He establishes a Consultative Council and gives citizens a written bill of rights. Many credit the Gulf War for the liberalizing steps.

March 02, 1992|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since the war, both liberals calling for more openness and religious conservatives concerned that the Saud family already has gone too far have been asking for political reform. Just whose call will ultimately be answered will be unclear until the new Consultative Council is named by the king within the next six months. But the guarantees of personal liberties clearly show that the king is inclined to protect the Saudis' historic "live and let live" policy, at least within the confines of the home.

"I think we should really take this seriously," said Othman Rawaf, director of the Center for Arabian Gulf Studies in Riyadh. "To a large extent, you now have an opportunity for public debate over public policy, and public influence over what policy should be is very important."

He said the issues of the Saudi educational system, privatization of industry, drawing more Saudis into private sector jobs and the role of women in the workplace would all probably be issues debated soon by the Consultative Council.

"I would say that King Fahd has lived up to his promises," said Abdullah Kabaa, political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh and an advocate of political reform. "Fundamental changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia. . . . The king's decree for the first time deals with a legal constitutional framework, which is almost a constitution. That would put Saudi Arabia for the first time as a constitutional monarchy."

Diplomats in the Saudi capital said it is likely the king will seek to balance the council between members of the religious and business communities, tribal leaders, intellectuals and some princes. There was speculation that the chief of the council might be a lay member of the religious community, both to mollify the religious right and in deference to the Saud family's historic power-sharing pact with the conservative Wahhabi sect of Islam, a pact that for years has conferred legitimacy on the throne.

"In a society where the official media are so dominated by the Ministry of Information, to allow people to stand up in public and express their views and force them to express their views to each other would be a very significant step in the evolution of Saudi Arabia," said one envoy. "Whether or not you want to call this democratization--certainly by Western standards it won't be very much--but the government people have made it clear that they think of this as the beginning of a long process, and as the beginning of a process, I think it's very significant."

The kingdom in recent weeks has looked nervously at Algeria, where a rapid move toward democracy caused the military to step in to prevent a takeover by Islamic fundamentalists. "They say that's what happens if you try to go too far, too fast," one diplomat said.

The royal decree also casts new light on the historically murky rules of succession to the throne, which in the past has been handed down to the surviving sons of Saudi Arabia's founder and first king, Abdulaziz ibn Saud. The process has been far from clear, with the throne generally going to the next oldest in line, except in cases when the next oldest inexplicably disqualified himself after consultations within the family.

The new rules stipulate that the sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud should be consulted, choosing a king from "among the most qualified sons of (Ibn Saud)."

Some political analysts say this at once narrows the field, by ruling out the descendants of Ibn Saud's brothers, and potentially widens it by leaving the door open to Ibn Saud's grandchildren. These might include Saudi Arabia's well-regarded foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, son of the late King Faisal; the kingdom's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, son of defense minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, or one of King Fahd's own sons, such as Prince Mohammed ibn Fahd, governor of the Eastern Province.

However, King Fahd retained his right to confirm or remove the crown prince, who is presently his brother, Prince Abdullah, head of the National Guard and widely regarded as the leader of the conservative wing of the Saud family.

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