Saudi Arabia's quiet voices of reform start to speak up

Since Sept. 11, Saudi dissidents have increased calls for elections and a new constitution.

Over dates and coffee spiced with ginger and cardamom, a group of 12 men has gathered to plot a peaceful revolution. The goal: to introduce democratic ideals in Saudi Arabia.

This fledgling reform movement - which has come into the open since Sept. 11 - promotes basic concepts by Western standards. The men debate the need to establish human rights groups, elected officials, and a new constitution that creates an independent judiciary.

But in Saudi Arabia these voices are innovative and rebellious.

Several members of the group, including its unofficial leader, professor of literature Abdullah al-Hamad, were jailed, fired, or demoted in the 1990s after calling for reform of the Saudi political system: an alliance between the ruling Saud royal family and a deeply conservative religious establishment. The Constitution is based on the Koran and political participation and free speech are denied.

Yet since Sept. 11, a tentative shift has begun, says Mohammed al-Mohaissen, a teacher of Arabic, who serves as secretary for the reform group.

"[Sept. 11] raised a lot of questions," he says. "What was behind it? Who was responsible? The government realized it must listen to inside voices and give a margin of freedom for these questions to be discussed. A red line has been crossed allowing our concerns to be expressed."

But the group dismisses a new Saudi initiative, released Monday by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, that promotes the political reform of Arab regimes.

"I believe he is sincere, but for his thoughts to be credible, they must first be applied in Saudi Arabia," says Mr. Mohaissen. "I also believe that he has reflected many of our ideas and so perhaps news of our discussions has already reached him."

Members of the group, who meet once a week, are still careful and uncertain that the freedom to speak out will last. But they are no longer covert. They have been interviewed in recent months on regional satellite television channels, including Al Jazeera, and have inspired similar gatherings across Saudi Arabia.

A letter outlining their ideas is being prepared and Mohaissen hopes to present it in person to Crown Prince Abdullah in the coming weeks. He expects to have 100 signatures of support from academics and intellectuals across the country.

"Reform is coming and I feel it like a current," says Mohaissen. "No one can stop it this time."

Analysts say that while Sept. 11 did not cause the move toward reform - many of these ideas were being debated long beforehand - the shock of the attacks on America has added urgency to the debate.

That urgency has been felt across the Middle East. Egypt recently named its first woman judge. Gulf states have begun to expand political and press freedoms. Bahrain recently held democratic parliamentary elections for the first time in 30 years in which women were also allowed to vote and run as candidates.

"I think Bahrain has taken a very large step in terms of political reform," says Khalid al Dakheel, a social science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, who is outspoken on the need for reform. "We need to do that here in Saudi Arabia. The irony is that Saudi Arabia pioneered the consultative process in the 1920s but has become the last Gulf country to jump onto the wagon of political participation. I think it is inevitable now."

Since Sept. 11, the Saudi government has taken tentative steps toward social reform. Crown Prince Abdullah recently visited poor Saudi families in a Riyadh suburb, acknowledging for the first time that the country's recipe for a desert Utopia - oil wealth and religion - was not delivering.

A vigorous debate is taking place in the media here over education reform, starting with the recent unification of girls' and boys' schooling under the Education Ministry. Women are now entitled to apply for their own identity cards. Companies with more than 100 employees are allowed to form workers' unions. Imams have been told to tone down their radical sermons.

Regional politics, along with Saudi Arabia's struggling economy and young population - 70 percent are under 30 - are feeding the reform movement by fueling demand for a political voice, says Professor Dakheel.

That clash worries Hamad, who believes the risks of ignoring political reform could lead to radicalism. "Ten years ago when we asked for civil reform we had a lot of youths following us, but because the government was very tough we lost them," he says. "If they can't express themselves legitimately then they will do it underground. This is a formula for breeding extremism."

Yet talk of political reform is complex because it poses a threat to the government, says Dakheel. "They are enjoying social and political prestige in this country, and don't want to lose it."

Official hesitation

Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki al-Abdullah al-Saud, head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, is open about the need for economic reform but more coy about reshaping politics.

"I generally believe that we don't have a deep political problem," he says. "What we question always is the management of things and the things that affect the dignity of daily life. If governments perform well and people have hope and they have credibility, fine. Otherwise, people start questioning the possibilities of political change. So far the Saudis, I think, are not [asking] these political questions. But how long will that be so?"

Hamad emphasizes that change must come slowly, and he does not advocate overthrowing the royal family or religious nature of Saudi society - all members of the group are deeply religious.

"The royal family and the religious establishment are two safety valves for this society," he says. "They ensure society does not resort to chaos. Very fast reform is not recommended. We need to take it step by step so society understands and accepts the need to move towards a civilized society with all that implies."

Gradual steps to reform

The point, says Dakheel, is that the government must encourage different points of view. "Let's maintain this alliance between the House of Saud and the religious establishment. Offering alternatives does not mean you have to break up this relationship. No one is asking to do away with religion here but religion is not confined to one perspective. Any religion is open to different perspectives," he says.

The first step, says Hamad, is to teach Saudis how to ask peacefully for political participation.

The next task is to convert existing institutions, such as the consultative assembly called the Majlis Shura, from government-appointed posts to elected ones with legislative powers, says Mohaissen.

"This will help teach Saudis what it means to be a citizen because this idea is not yet well understood by our society," he says.

Mohaissen hopes his children can benefit from the group's pioneering ideas. But he is concerned lest hese steps be viewed by Saudi citizens as a response to American criticism.

"There has to be an understanding that this is not a consequence of pressure from the US but is coming from inside the society itself," says Mohaissen. "If reform is seen as being directed by America, then it will very quickly backfire."

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