Liberalization, Saudi-Style

IT'S too early to call it democratization, but Saudi Arabia's move toward a new constitution that broadens governmental responsibility and establishes some safeguards for basic rights is laudable. The House of Saud will continue its firm hold on power - no talk of elections or legislatures.

Future monarchs, however, will come from a considerably larger pool of "candidates," and a consultative council will provide a counterbalance to the current Cabinet, dominated by the royal family.

The 60-member council will have power to initiate laws and review foreign and domestic policies. Council members will be appointed by the king, and since their identities are as yet unknown, the body's independence is hard to assess.

Particularly noteworthy to Westerners familiar with stories about Saudi Arabia's "religious police," the sanctity of private homes will be enshrined in the new bill of rights. Islamic zealots vested with police authority have in the past invaded homes to break up social gatherings. "Means of communication," such as telephone and letters, will also be given protection against official invasion.

King Fahd's motives in taking these liberalizing step are at least twofold. Saudi society is modernizing despite its traditional monarchy and adherence to Islamic law encoded centuries ago. The king is responding to pressures from the secular, often business-oriented part of his nation that wants the freedom to adopt Western methods and sample Western culture.

A second motivation springs from the tensions between the Saudi regime and some varieties of Islamic fundamentalism. Many fundamentalist movements in the region backed Iraq against the Saudis during the Gulf war; Riyadh has let it be known it wants Saudi donations to such movements to dry up.

At the same time, the king has to affirm his government's roots in Islam. By a degree of liberalization and decentralization of power, he may hope to please his more sectarian subjects while releasing some of the social and political pressures that might feed a rebellious fundamentalism. It's a difficult balance.

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