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Rich and Poor Alike, Saudis Demanding Political Voice

As in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, a glasnost is taking shape. But doubts about whether reforms will really happen persist.

August 03, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Under pressure from economic problems, internal violence and the U.S. success in toppling Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq, Saudi Arabia is embarking upon a series of reforms that many Saudis hope will lead to the most sweeping political change since the kingdom's founding.

In recent months, Crown Prince Abdullah, the country's de facto leader, has taken steps to promote more political participation in the oil-rich desert nation, where the monarchy has ruled with absolute power since 1932.

In June, he held a national debate where, for the first time, religious and economic leaders joined to ask for more freedom for the press, religious groups and women. He has quietly loosened restraints on political critics. And he has approved a crackdown on fundamentalist preachers opposed to change.

At the same time, ordinary Saudis are airing their discontent in unheard-of ways. People who once risked jail for urging an end to political corruption are now publicly discussing their views on television and the Internet, as well as in newspapers.

As soon as next year, royal family members and advisors say, the crown prince may announce nationwide municipal elections -- the first such vote in Saudi history. Partial elections at the provincial and national level would come later.

While some longtime observers are skeptical, Saudi leaders insist that change is coming to the kingdom.

"The decision is there. The political will is there, and, to a surprising extent, consensus is there," Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said in an interview at his seaside palace in this country's sweltering summer capital.

"Sometimes people come here with the impression that the society is boiling to the point of explosion and the government is trying to restrain the people from reform," said the prince, a close political ally of Abdullah, who has run the country since King Fahd suffered a stroke in the mid-1990s. "But I see the opposite. I see the government boiling and the restraint is coming perhaps from the people."

Such restraint is hard to find. Everywhere in Saudi Arabia these days, people are talking about one thing: al islah -- reform. From the luxurious palaces of the ruling family to private dinner rooms, both the powerful and the poor are demanding more participation in Saudi Arabia's long-repressive political system.

Locals are calling it the Saudi openness or the Saudi spring. It is a sort of glasnost -- the period of political opening that marked the end of decades of censorship and repression in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. There is a feeling that something historic is taking place: a Saudi Arabia where people can speak openly, if cautiously, about internal problems.

"There has always been a small group of people trying and trying and trying," said Mohammed Said Tayeb, the grandfather of the country's reform movement. He has been arrested five times for speaking out, beginning in 1962 and most recently in 1993. "But now, reform is a popular demand. Everyone is talking about it -- men, women, friends, neighbors."

Just as in the early days of glasnost, there is also doubt here about whether the reforms will really happen and where they will lead.

The Saudis have promised change before, most recently after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But those measures did little to include ordinary people in politics, or to relieve growing anger at a monarchy that in many quarters is viewed as distant and corrupt.

Longtime observers of the kingdom fear that the Saudis may be making a show of reform while planning to do little. Critics note that the kingdom has launched a public-relations campaign in the United States to improve the country's image, hurt by the fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 attackers were Saudis.

Top Saudi officials are engaged in damage control because of the release of a congressional report in late July that raised new suspicions of possible Saudi ties to the two San Diego-based suicide hijackers. Prince Saud last week flew to Washington to ask that still-classified parts of the congressional report be made public, a move that President Bush rejected.

The Saudi royal family is led by a small clique of aging, all-powerful rulers who in the past have shown little interest in change. And Saudi society itself is extraordinarily conservative. Religious and tribal leaders are committed to maintaining a rigid status quo that quashes dissent, marginalizes women's participation in public life and encourages adherence to the country's religious code, based on the strict Wahhabi form of Islam.

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