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Saudi king tiptoes toward more openness

Women line up for their first shot at elected post: chamber of commerce

By Faiza Saleh AmbahCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 6, 2005


Saudi businesswoman Hessah al-Oun pointed proudly to a traditional seating area of colorful Bedouin rugs and floor cushions in her new office. "This is where I'm going to hold my weekly campaign meetings," she says.

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Her pronouncement - and well-appointed campaign headquarters - wouldn't turn heads in many parts of the world.

But Ms. Oun is one of the first Saudi women to be a candidate for elected office in this conservative kingdom, where women are not allowed to drive, and need permission from male guardians to travel and work. She is among more than a dozen female candidates running for seats on the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce in November.

Some in Saudi Arabia see this as a small but significant step, and part of newly crowned King Abdullah's desire to move forward with democratic reforms that he initiated as crown prince.

Since the monarch succeeded his brother King Fahd, who passed away Aug. 1, he has issued a series of edicts that have made the popular king even more well-liked. He pardoned three democracy activists who were sentenced last year to prison terms of up to nine years. He raised government employee salaries by 15 percent for the first time in over 20 years, and earmarked more than $20 billion for housing loans, education, and welfare.

He also banned the kissing of his hand and the hands of other royals. It was a common practice for citizens to kiss their hands as a sign of respect and loyalty. But in his edict, Abdullah said that should be reserved only for one's parents.

The king established a reputation as a reformer shortly after taking over the country's day-to-day affairs when Fahd became ill in 1995. Abdullah became the first official to highlight the existence of poverty in the kingdom when he visited a poor neighborhood in the capital Riyadh several years ago, taking public a problem that had previously been taboo.

He was also the first member of the royal family to meet in front of television cameras with leaders of the persecuted Shiite and Sufi minorities. This was during the first part of a series of intra-Saudi dialogues he set up several years ago, despite the fact that the official Wahhabi ideology dominant in Saudi Arabia reviles those Muslim sects as quasi-heretic.

As a result of his reputation as a reformer, Abdullah has received a deluge of petitions in the past couple of months. A leading Islamic cleric, Salman al-Odah, wrote an open letter asking for more government accountability and public participation in the decision-making process. A woman posted a letter to the king entitled "I want to drive" on a popular website.

Delegates from the Shiite minority in the east and the marginalized Ismaili minority met with the king and asked for more representation in government and the country's consultative Shura council. (The Shura was formed in 1993. It now has 150 members appointed by the king every four years. It debates government, social, and economic policy, and advises the king, but has no legislative authority.)