Saudis Stand Firm Under Shadow of War

But military crisis has left first traces of change on Saudi social and political life

DRIVING and navigating on the high speed elevated freeways that thread among the glass and marble palaces of this desert capital takes a lot of getting used to. But Riyadh residents say that now is the time to learn.

Traffic is down by more than a third, they estimate - an indicator of how many people have fled the Scud-ridden city for the safety of towns out of rocket range, such as Jiddah and Mecca.

After allowing themselves to be caught up in the euphoria that swept all members of the anti-Iraq coalition in the first few days of the war, Saudis have generally gotten over their subsequent impatience and are taking a more realistic view of how many weeks the fighting might last, Western diplomats here say.

But some Saudis say they are nevertheless perplexed by how long the air campaign is taking, with no ground assault in sight.

``My friends are asking what is taking so long, and what sort of surprises might [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein come up with,'' reports a teacher at King Saud University.

No change in timetable

Though the Saudis are no more eager than anyone else to see the war drag on, there appears to be no foundation for reports that the approach of the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan in mid-March might force coalition military planners to speed up their timetable.

Ramadan was holy in the Arab tradition even before the advent of Islam and was one of the months of truce between warring tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.

Muslim guerrillas in Afghanistan, however, fought through Ramadan with special dispensation cited in the Koran, and Muslim soldiers in both the Iraqi and Iranian armies fought through eight Ramadans during their war, Saudi political analysts point out.

On the economic front, the six-month Gulf crisis has had mixed effects, officials say. Military and oil-related businesses are flourishing, but many others are on forced vacation and investment is at a standstill.

Although a protracted war would hurt the Saudi economy, says Abdullah Dabbagh, chief of the Saudi Council of Chambers of Commerce, it would not be likely to do serious harm.

The Scud missiles have caused anxiety here, but they have done no real physical damage yet, Mr. Dabbagh points out. And the oil industry, responsible for nearly 100 percent of the country's exports, is working overtime to prevent a world oil shortfall because of the embargo on Iraqi and Kuwaiti sales.

``Nor do I think there is any danger of shortages,'' he predicts. ``Saudi Arabia has strategic depth. And even if the eastern ports [on the Gulf coast] were closed, our Western ports could handle things.''

At a deeper level of Saudi society and political life, however, the crisis and the explosion of war have already left their imprint.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the arrival of foreign troops to defend Saudi Arabia sparked a ferment of debate that still bubbles below the surface, local and Western observers say. The debate has pitted a small but determined group of modernizing liberals against religious conservatives, with King Fahd's royal government holding the ring.

At the outset of the crisis, liberals said they hoped that the dramatic rush of events would catalyze social and political reforms to the absolute monarchy. A broadly extended royal family dominates most walks of life and a woman may not even ride a train unless she is accompanied by a husband, brother, father, or son.

But six months later doubts have set in, and many would-be reformers say that the Islamic fundamentalists have actually used the circumstances to their advantage instead.

``If you take the confrontation between the liberals and the fundamentalists, the fundamentalists have gained from this,'' laments an academic proponent of change.

Conservatives hold reins

The conservatives' most obvious victory followed an unprecedented protest three months ago when about 50 women defied a ban and drove cars through the center of Riyadh.

Religious leaders went on the offensive, and the government cracked down hard. All the women involved who had government jobs were fired, and they all lost their passports for two years, as did their husbands.

``Unfortunately,'' says a businessman who asked to remain anonymous, ``the forces of reaction are more vocal and more courageous than the liberals, and much more visible than they used to be, because the government is busy with other matters.''

Nevertheless, Saudi sources say, the majlis system of audiences that royal princes and other notables hold in order to keep a finger on the public pulse has exploded with debate over previously taboo subjects such as corruption in high places, or why the country was unable to defend itself against the Iraqi threat after spending billions of dollars on advanced weaponry.

One of the most keenly discussed subjects, in fact, is whether the majlis network alone is still a satisfactory mechanism through which dissatisfaction can be vented. King Fahd spoke in general terms last December about plans to study the feasibility of a majlis al-shura, a consultative council to assist in government. But what shape this might take is far from clear.

Certainly, it would be appointed rather than elected, Saudi analysts and foreign diplomats say. The king would likely draw on religious sectors, business, the academic community, and tribal leaders to represent their constituencies.

But the ruling House of Saud has promised such councils before to defuse social tensions, ``and I'll believe it when I see it,'' says the reform-minded businessman.

Fundamentalist religious leaders oppose the creation of such a council, because they see it as a potential tool of the liberals and as a new institution that could refract and diffuse fundamentalist influence on policy, says a Arab diplomatic observer.

That opposition has apparently given the government pause and nothing more has been heard on the subject of a council for the past two months.

Moderates seek influence

But Saudis pressing for reform say they are hopeful the royal family will align itself with more moderate, established religious figures in a bid to limit the influence of younger, more radical fundamentalists.

``Cracking down severely on the fundamentalists is not their style,'' says an academic analyst. ``They will do things piecemeal,'' he predicts, showing their support through such moves as naming a well-known moderate recently to head the public morals police, the muttawa.

While the war lasts, says a Western diplomat, the government has told both liberals and religious figures ``to put a lid on it and we'll talk about it later.''

Reformers admit limitations

That message seems to have gotten through, and even the most daring reformists say they are aware of the limits imposed on their ambitions by the inherent conservatism of Saudi society.

``However you look at it, everything should be delayed until after the war, and then it should be very slow,'' says the academic. ``The best way would be to develop existing institutions - we liberals should open up our houses more to majlis.''

But even as they envision a more open political system, none of the reformers believe that Western democracy would be a good idea in Saudi Arabia.

Obviously unnerved by the strength of religious conservatism in the country, they fear that a popularly elected government would merely impose Islamic law even more fiercely and curtail social liberties with even more vigor than the current government.

``With the fundamentalists dominating the street, how can you have democracy?'' asks the academic rhetorically. ``It really hurts me to say this - all my life I have been for democracy in the Middle East. But now I'm afraid.''

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