In Saudi Arabia, Political Ferment Bubbles Quietly

RIFFLING through the papers on his mahogany desk, one of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest businessmen reaches for some pages that require neither his signature nor any decision. He reads them, though, as avidly as any commercial document. They are the previous week's clippings of US press stories about Saudi Arabia, faxed to him by a friend in Washington DC.

In fact, in the wake of the Gulf war, such news and views from far and near are feeding an increasingly active debate about the kingdom's political future. ``The genie is out of the bottle,'' says one Western diplomat. ``There is as free a political discourse as there has ever been - in sitting rooms, on fax networks, in religious pamphlets. The debate is happening, and the government doesn't see an easy way to stop it.''

Most of the speculation and controversy is focused on whether King Fahd is about to honor a decades-old promise to name a majlis al shura, or consultative council, as a step toward more representative government.

But, both liberals, seeking to modernize Saudi Arabia's political and social system, and fundamentalist Muslims, urging even stricter adherence to Islamic precepts, are seizing the opportunity to argue over other aspects of life - ranging from banking practices to the size of the military.

Above ground there is little sign of this ferment: Pages are still ripped out of imported magazines if they are deemed to contain offensive articles, and running a newspaper in Saudi Arabia ``is like trying to dance the lambada without moving your hips,'' in the words of one editor.

It is over private fax machines, on cassette tapes circulated in the mosques, and in discussions among family and friends, that the debate takes place. Saudis on both sides of the divide say that liberals and fundamentalists are engaging in ever-sharper competition to influence King Fahd and his advisers.

Two weeks ago, the king was presented with an 11-point petition signed by scores of Muslim clergymen and religious scholars and approved by Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Abdullah Bin Baz. It set out a number of what they dared to call ``demands.''

In what one critic sees as ``an evident and almost public challenge to the government's authority,'' the signatories clandestinely circulated copies of their letter, which urged the creation of the majlis, advocated more equal distribution of the country's wealth, called for a drive against government corruption, and proposed a stronger military.

The letter also demanded that banks stop charging interest, which is forbidden by the Koran, and that all laws be revised to ensure they conform with Islamic tradition.

The religious leaders' growing boldness has prompted alarm in some quarters. ``The pressures from the fundamentalists are more evident than the pressures from the other side, and what is surprising people is that so far they have been allowed to get away with it,'' says a businessman fiercely opposed to the fundamentalists.

Role of the clergy

In a society as deeply religious as Saudi Arabia, where the king is referred to as the ``Guardian of the two Holy Mosques'' at Mecca and Medina, the clergy effectively legitimize the regime, says a local political analyst.

``They are also very well organized, the only organized group outside the Army,'' he adds.

To many Saudis, the clergy's inclusion of demands that are more usually identified with the liberals, such as fairer distribution of wealth, is an overtly political move to garner more popular support.

``They are taking advantage of the Gulf crisis to embarrass the government and appear as the guardians of the people, while in fact they are seeking power,'' argues Abdullah Kabaa, a professor at King Saud University.

``Putting things in that they don't believe in or talk about in the mosques, like corruption, is a bid to win public approval,'' says a senior royal family member.

Such approval is not hard to earn among a respectful and religious public, and some opponents of the fundamentalists say they are a threat that the government is not taking seriously enough.

``The king's response to their petition will be nonaction,'' says one, ``and that will encourage them. The royal family will be complacent, the fundamentalists will rise, and then only a bloodbath will put them down.''

To head off such a challenge, Saudi liberals mainly ensconced in the academic and business communities are calling on the government to open up its ranks. Earlier this year they, too, sent a petition to the king calling for a consultative council.

``The royal family must realize that if they want people to want them they have to change things slightly,'' says the political analyst. ``Turning a successful private business into a public company makes sure that it lasts longer,'' he adds.

The emphasis even among reformers, however, is on quiet and gradual steps rather than on dramatic new directions.

``The change most people are talking about is not radical change, it is an evolutionary process,'' says one of the country's top businessmen. ``They still see the monarchy as a unifying factor, that the system caters for their needs, but they want a system they can feel part of, that is based on a broader constituency.''

Females are not included in that constituency, however, complain Western-educated Saudi women who are anxious to play a greater role in the male-dominated society.

Women's rights ignored

If the Gulf crisis has opened up political debate, it has brought women no closer to professional or personal freedom, as some had hoped, they say.

The questions raised by the presence of women in the US armed forces here, and hopes that during the crisis the Saudi government would move to tap the unused talents of women, have been stifled.

``It was like a dream,'' says one professional woman. ``I don't feel that it happened. I'm filled with disappointment; we are back where we started.''

On the political front, Fahd has not moved against the signatories of the two petitions, and several times since the end of the Gulf war he has publicly mentioned the idea of a majlis al shura.

But how such a council would be chosen, and what politial or advisory role it might play, remain shrouded in mystery.

``It is extremely hard work to come up with a formula for a council,'' says a senior prince.

``It's not easy to hand power on a plate to different people,'' he continues, ``and we have to come up with a structure that develops continuity toward a fuller democracy, something that has its own momentum in a healthy way.''

Society moves slowly

Previously opposed to a majlis, which they saw as a liberal maneuver toward a secular society, the clergy have now adopted the idea themselves ``because they see it coming and they want to influence the shape it takes,'' according to a European diplomat.

Likewise, the liberals are ``staking out their position, trying to ensure that any council is in a form acceptable to them,'' the diplomat says.

``I think there is a general consensus among liberals, conservatives, and royals that a council has to happen,'' adds another Western diplomat.

``Now the fighting is over the very important details: Is this going to be a paper body, or a real advisory council that could be a nascent parliament?'' he says.

Some Saudis, recalling that the House of Saud has been promising a majlis for nearly 30 years, are unexcited by the current prospects. ``The maximum we can hope for,'' complains one advocate of greater democracy, ``is a sham majlis al shura.''

Others are more hopeful that the king is ready to relinquish at least a little of his iron grip on government. ``Saudi society does not move very fast,'' says the prominent businessmen, who is close to the royal palace.

``Things have to fall into place. People on the outside see the royal family as unresponsive, but they aren't. Every one of them at the top knows what is needed.''

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