ON March 1, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia announced a program of reforming his country's system of government. This included the establishment of a 60-member consultative council known as Majlis Asshura. Although Western journalists hailed the king's decree as a step toward democracy, Saudi citizens received the news with mixed feelings.
In an Arabic-language press release, the spokesperson of a coalition of Saudi opposition forces, Tawfig Al-Sheikh, has pointed out that the proposed reforms failed to address fundamental demands of Saudi Arabia's people.
Those demands are articulated in two petitions given to the king last May by the leaders of both the liberal and conservative forces of the opposition. In those petitions both the clerics and the liberals explicitly called for respect for human rights and for establishing an independent judicial system. They also called for freedom of the press, redistribution of wealth, and establishing the Shura (an elected parliament) as a form of government.
Apparently the king's proposal of establishing a consultative assembly is not what the opposition understand the Shura to mean. "We understand the Shura in light of what Sheikh Khalid explained," one opposition member notes, referring to an article by Islamic scholar Khalid M. Khalid in the June 24, 1985, edition of Al-Ahram. Sheikh Khalid defined the Shura as, "democracy as we see now in the democratic countries. It should include the following elements: (1) the umma (the people) as the main source of a uthority; (2) separation between authorities; (3) the umma choosing its representative and its president; (4) a multiparty system; and (5) freedom of the press. These, my brothers, are the principles of Islamic governance without addition or omission."
Furthermore, Saudi religious leader Sheikh-Haffan Al-Safar points out that despite the king's claim of Islamic backing for his proposal, neither the limiting of the right to govern the country to the sons of the country's founder, King Ibn Saud, nor indeed the institution of monarchy itself reflect the Islamic concept of government.
Some critics' emphasis on freedom of worship reflects the fears of the approximately 20 percent of the country's population who are Shiites. They live in a predominantly Sunni Muslim society.
Although the king's proposal asserts the sanctity of private homes, the Shiite population does not seem satisfied that this will spare them violence from Sunni zealots. Shiites distrust the guarantees given in these reforms because of their history of persecution ever since formation of the Saudi state in 1932. Through its religious leaders and the state-controlled press, the monarchy continually accuses the Shiites of heresy. The Saudi government's discrimination against Shiites is documented by both in ternational human-rights organizations and the US State Department in its Country Report on Human Rights.
POLITICAL repression is not directed toward Shiites alone, but toward anyone who criticizes the practices of the Saud family. As recently as Jan. 21, the Saudi government arrested 50 activists from the al-Sahwa al-Islamia (Islamic Awakening) organization. This movement embraces students and young religious leaders who object to the royal family's monopoly of power.
Another concern some critics raise is that under the proposed reforms the king's authority is unchanged. Nothing in the new laws limits his absolute authority. For instance, the king insists on the right to appoint judges and dismiss them whenever he pleases - which is far from the Saudi elite's idea of an independent judiciary.
Despite proposed reforms, the media is still state-controlled, according to opposition spokesman Al-Sheikh. The opposition also accuses the king of breaking an earlier pledge that half of the consultative assembly members would be elected while the other half appointed by the king. The new reforms include no provision for elections.
Liberal Saudis point out that the reforms don't mention women's rights.
Names of the consultative council members have not been released. But critics of the regime claim that the council is unlikely to bring new faces into the political process. Instead, it will probably consolidate the power of families already supportive of the Saud family, whose members already work as advisers to the government. Furthermore, appointees won't actually participate in decisionmaking and aren't likely to offer dissident views.
The only real change resulting from the king's proposal, it seems, concerns the choice of future kings. This is because the young princes have demanded it - the only force in the country that could threaten the king himself. One has only to remember previous assassinations, such as that of King Faisal, to appreciate the young princes' power.
At this point, it appears the Saudi people view these reforms with cynicism. In fact, some Saudis see the reforms as a response to outside pressure more than a response to the people's demands.
"These reforms are nothing but a public relations campaign to control the damage done to the kingdom's image during the Gulf crisis, when Western reporters began noting Saudi human-rights abuses. I'm afraid these reporters are going to be deceived by the king's ploy," one Saudi intellectual observes. So far, his fears seem justified.