Government powers and traditions remain strong in Saudi Arabia -- but there are significant signs of change. Saudi Arabia's ruling royal family has been making itself considerably more accessible in recent months. And Saudi leaders are emphasizing the need to wage war on corrupt practices and improve social conditions in the kingdom.
Leading Saudi princes seem aware that autocracy based on an informal consensus no longer is an adequate system of government.
Saudi Arabia has no parliament or electoral process. Except for the "majilis ," there is no machinery to focus political dissent. (The majilis, a concept inherited from Bedouin life in the desert, is a regular public audience in which every Saudi has the right to air grievances or ask favors.)
However, in the wake of the Nov. 20 assault on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Crown Prince Fahd has ordered the drafting of a set of constitutional principles. These guidelines are to include the establishment of a "majilis" ashura," consisting of 60 to 70 members, all appointed by the royal family.
Clearly the Mecca attack presented a major and unexpected challenge to the Saudi government. But more than three months after several hundred armed men burst into the holiest shrine of Islam in Mecca shortly after morning prayers, Saudi leaders appear to have regained their former self-confidence.
At the same time, gnawing concern exists about the rifts plaguing Islam, Soviet advances in the Arab world, and internal threats to the Saudi monarchy.
The leaders of the Mecca attack denounced the royal family and declared one of their own as the new leader of Saudi Arabia. Widespread corruption in the kingdom, along with the opulent living styles of Saudi sheikhs and princes, contravening Islamic traditions, are said to have motivated the unprecedented attack on the Grand Mosque.
Saudi armed forces took two weeks to dislodge the insurgents, with hundreds of casualties on both sides.
Both Western diplomats and Saudi officials maintain that the insurgents were "misled religious heretics." Yet they admit that religion and politics can hardly be separated in a country whose politial tradition and structures are so deeply steeped in Islam.
"Mecca showed the royal family that outbreaks of violence can take place in unexpected places with more support than they thought possible," one senior Western ambassador said.
He added that "an uprising like the one in Mecca, which constituted an extreme blasphemy, would have gained substantially more support had the rebels occupied a radio station in Jiddah."
Saudi officials describe the incident in Mecca as an "eye-opener." They quote Crown Prince Fahd as saying it has showed the need for paying "more attention to things we have taken for granted."
Yet neither Saudi officials nor Western diplomats believe that the royal family is facing an imminent danger of being overthrown. "This country is as stable as a monarchy can be in modern times," one Western official said. He pointed out that "Saudi Arabia is a family monarchy" where the royal family is extremely accessible.
Furthermore, the incident in Mecca appears to have been a stimulant, speeding up development programs.
Sources close to Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Abdullah ibn Abdul-Aziz, who is also commander of the National Guard, quote him as strongly rejecting "the construction of barracks and military cities." He reportedly added, "We are Bedouins. We can live in tents. Let's push the building of houses, community centers, and mosques."
Saudi officials stress that the insurgents in Mecca were mainly Saudi nationals. They describe them as a "small group of simple fanatics" and point out that the proclamation of a Mahdi or religious leader is not a tenet of Wahabism -- the dominant religious sect in Saudi Arabia -- and that no devout Muslim would commit such desecration.
Thus, Saudi officials attempt to place the insurgents outside of Islam.
However, Western officials recall that the rebels included people from the Harb, Shammer, Qahtan, and Oteiba tribes, which are spread throughout the kingdom. The captured rebel leader, Juhayman bin Muhammad bin Seif al-Oteiba, was beheaded with 62 of his followers.
These tribes, especially the Oteiba tribe, led the resistance to the unification of Saudi Arabia under King Abdel Aziz in the first half of this century. They are said to share the grievances of the Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Like the Shias, they feel hurt in their sense of justice and claim that the kingdom's wealth is not equally distributed among its inhabitants.
Nevertheless, Western officials appear confident that the royal family can overcome social discontent by paying more attention to expressed grievances. "If the government starts talking to the common leaders, I would like to see what there is to revolt about here," one senior official said.
He noted that a Saudi truck driver earns thousands of dollars each month. Moreover, he said, "This place has more democracy than most other places."