Unprecedented public ferment among once-silent Saudis

Islamic extremism, education, and women's rights are under scrutiny, as Saudi Arabia discusses democratic reform.

The capital is abuzz. Everywhere, it seems, from sidewalk cafes to women's salons behind closed doors, Saudis are talking about societal changes.

Religious extremism and democratic and educational reforms, as well as women's issues, are paraded for public discussion in what has long been one of the most tight-lipped and tightly controlled lands in the Middle East. While actual political reform may be moving at a snail's pace by Western standards, the new degree of openness is earthshaking here.

"There is a dialogue in society," says Khaled al-Maeena, editor in chief of Arab News, an English-language daily in Saudi Arabia. "Newspapers are flourishing. Papers are talking about accountability, corruption, leaders not being up to the mark, women, children, and empowerment."

A leading indicator, says Mr. Maeena, was a Nov. 28 commentary by Mansour al-Nogaidan, a reformed militant Muslim and Saudi columnist, published in The New York Times. The article bluntly questioned the Saudi government-sanctioned extremist religious culture - and was widely reproduced here. "I think the whole of Saudi Arabia read it and is talking about it," Maeena says.

The kingdom has been steadily - albeit slowly - evolving for the past 60 years, Saudi and Western officials say. But the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, along with the May and November suicide bombings this year in Riyadh, have galvanized Saudis and enabled the press to discuss reforms and societal problems more than ever before. Prior to the May bombing, says a Western diplomat, the government denied that Islamic extremism was a problem. The attack was a major turning point.

"The ironic thing is that at 11 p.m. on the evening of the May 12 bombing, television featured a scholar - a professor of Islam at Imam Muhammed Bin Saud Islamic University here. He spoke about extremism within society. That opened a lively debate here," the diplomat says. "To my surprise and astonishment, there is [now] a very lively debate within a fairly free press here."

The biggest changes since Sept. 11, says Norah al-Sowayan, a counselor at a private clinic here in Riyadh, are that "people in government see that [extremists] are not just religious people, but people who have a political agenda, and that newspapers have started to talk about these things."

Although Ms. Sowayan thinks that the pace of reforms - especially those that deal with women's issues - is much too slow, she's encouraged that they are at least being discussed publicly.

She runs a private clinic that has offered marriage and child-abuse counseling for seven years. It was one of the first of its kind, set up and secretly run by a member of the royal family. The services offered are free, and most of the clients are young women - between 25 to 30 years of age - who are experiencing marital problems and have no idea about women's rights. The clinic has recently begun to flourish, Sowayan says, in large part because "newspapers and radio talk about the organization and other social centers."

For example, Sunday's Arab News reported that the Saudi government is now considering opening up free marriage-counseling offices "to combat the high rates of divorce in the country."

Moreover, Saudi newspapers are publishing almost daily installments with the names, photos, and background information on four or five of the 26 men listed as Saudi Arabia's most wanted terror suspects. It's still not clear how much information the public is providing to the government about suspected terrorists. But it appears that the public is increasingly questioning the religious establishment they believe has incited the extremists.

Members of the Majlis ash Shura, the 120-member royal advisory council, which was recently given increased power to propose and enact laws, are speaking out, as well. In an interview in his elegantly appointed office, Maglis member Abdulmuhsin al-Akkas says the government is intent on increasing political participation, but initially only at the local level. Saudis must learn the art of participatory politics, he says, before national elections are held - in part to avoid electing religious extremists, popular clan leaders, and others who may not have the skills to run the government. "You must have the institutions and the culture ... and people don't learn this overnight," Mr. al-Akkas says.

Maeena, the Arab News editor, agrees. "There has to be civil society, institutions," he says. "Our national pastime is complaining. Now we need to roll up our sleeves and do something about it."

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