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One Cheer--Two Grains of Salt : King Fahd makes a small move toward political reform

March 04, 1992

The winds of change are beginning to ripple the political landscape of Saudi Arabia, but gently, ever so gently.

King Fahd, the absolute ruler of the only country named after its ruling family, is moving tentatively--almost imperceptibly--in the direction of political reform. Fahd says he will name a 61-member Consultative Council that for the first time could give technocrats, intellectuals and clerics an advisory role in policy-making. At the same time he says he will appoint provincial councils with limited authority over such local functions as road-building.

Of perhaps most immediate interest to westernized Saudi businessmen and foreign residents of the kingdom is the monarch's pledge to restrain the powers of the mutawein , the religious police. The decree vaguely outlining Saudi Arabia's "basic system of government" bars arbitrary arrest, for which the mutawein are notorious; says that homes should not be entered without the owners' permission, and calls for protecting the privacy of telephone calls and mail.

Certainly these would be welcome changes, the most progressive political steps taken in the country's 60-year history. What stands out, however, is what Saudis are not being offered. The king's decree does not even nod in the direction of pluralism or representative government. Saudi Arabia will continue to be a country without a free press, a bill of rights or the most ordinary freedoms for women.

Fahd's plan, despite its reassurance that Saudi Arabia's religion will remain "Islam and its constitution the book of God Almighty (the Koran) and his Prophet," is likely to displease powerful religious conservatives while disappointing reform-seeking modernizers. The king's safety-valve approach thus seems unlikely to calm domestic tensions. That's a matter of much more than local interest. Saudi Arabia sits on top of one-fourth of the world's known oil reserves; what happens in and to the country can profoundly affect international economic stability. Fahd wants to maintain the Saudi tradition of absolutism, with certain cosmetic changes. Every sign, though, indicates that the winds of change on the Arabian peninsula are destined to blow stronger.

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