Saudi king tiptoes toward more openness

Women line up for their first shot at elected post: chamber of commerce

Saudi businesswoman Hessah al-Oun pointed proudly to a traditional seating area of colorful Bedouin rugs and floor cushions in her new office. "This is where I'm going to hold my weekly campaign meetings," she says.

Her pronouncement - and well-appointed campaign headquarters - wouldn't turn heads in many parts of the world.

But Ms. Oun is one of the first Saudi women to be a candidate for elected office in this conservative kingdom, where women are not allowed to drive, and need permission from male guardians to travel and work. She is among more than a dozen female candidates running for seats on the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce in November.

Some in Saudi Arabia see this as a small but significant step, and part of newly crowned King Abdullah's desire to move forward with democratic reforms that he initiated as crown prince.

Since the monarch succeeded his brother King Fahd, who passed away Aug. 1, he has issued a series of edicts that have made the popular king even more well-liked. He pardoned three democracy activists who were sentenced last year to prison terms of up to nine years. He raised government employee salaries by 15 percent for the first time in over 20 years, and earmarked more than $20 billion for housing loans, education, and welfare.

He also banned the kissing of his hand and the hands of other royals. It was a common practice for citizens to kiss their hands as a sign of respect and loyalty. But in his edict, Abdullah said that should be reserved only for one's parents.

The king established a reputation as a reformer shortly after taking over the country's day-to-day affairs when Fahd became ill in 1995. Abdullah became the first official to highlight the existence of poverty in the kingdom when he visited a poor neighborhood in the capital Riyadh several years ago, taking public a problem that had previously been taboo.

He was also the first member of the royal family to meet in front of television cameras with leaders of the persecuted Shiite and Sufi minorities. This was during the first part of a series of intra-Saudi dialogues he set up several years ago, despite the fact that the official Wahhabi ideology dominant in Saudi Arabia reviles those Muslim sects as quasi-heretic.

As a result of his reputation as a reformer, Abdullah has received a deluge of petitions in the past couple of months. A leading Islamic cleric, Salman al-Odah, wrote an open letter asking for more government accountability and public participation in the decision-making process. A woman posted a letter to the king entitled "I want to drive" on a popular website.

Delegates from the Shiite minority in the east and the marginalized Ismaili minority met with the king and asked for more representation in government and the country's consultative Shura council. (The Shura was formed in 1993. It now has 150 members appointed by the king every four years. It debates government, social, and economic policy, and advises the king, but has no legislative authority.)

Abdullah also met with two groups of women, including female activists.

But despite the flurry of requests Abdullah has not announced any major political reforms since taking power. Saudi Arabia held partial municipal elections earlier this year but those councils have yet to meet. The government has not announced the appointed members, who will make up half of the councils, nor explained the delay.

"There is a fear that the municipal elections are part of isolated and arbitrary reforms instead of a democratic reform program with clear goals and a time frame," says Saudi political analyst Tawfiq al-Saif.

Mr. Saif and other liberal analysts say the king must seize the moment to institutionalize reforms, taking advantage of widespread public support and a flush treasury. High oil prices have increased revenues in the world's biggest oil producer to over $150 billion this year, up from $106 billion last year. The Saudi stock market has grown six-fold in the past three years, going from a capitalization of $82 billion in 2002 to over $517 billion this year, according to the Samba financial group, a leading Saudi bank.

"A very good economic situation makes this a unique opportunity to move reforms forward. More political participation by the people, institutionalized [civic] societies, parliamentary elections, are the best way for the long-term stability of the country and the ruling family," Saif says.

During a recent informal gathering of some 40 liberals at the home of former jailed reformist Mohammad Saeed Tayeb, many echoed Saif's views. The priority for the king should be to separate the religious, royal, and state powers, they said. And Saudis should be allowed to set up civic institutions such as independent labor unions and human rights groups.

"Laws must be set out to clearly separate the powers of the royal family, the government and the official religious establishment. And none of them should be above the law," said writer Ahmad Adnan. "Our laws should also clearly protect every citizen's human rights," he said.

But that will be difficult in a country where royalty hold all of the key government posts. The male offspring of Saudi Arabia's founder, Ibn Saud, are now believed to number around 7,000. All members of the royal family receive monthly government stipends and are not required to pay their utility bills or their tickets on the national airline.

Though Saudis are today much more free to criticize government employees, criticizing Al Saud or talking about their expenditures is still considered a red line. "As members of the country's leading advisory council, we were not privy to the national budget. There should be more transparency and the national budget should be publicly announced and discussed by the Shura council," says Fuad Abu-Mansour, a former member.

Adds lawyer Bassem Alem: "For serious political reforms to take place in Saudi Arabia, [the royal family] needs to be willing to give up some of their rights and privileges, and I don't believe they're willing to do that."

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