Under the auspices of the United Nations and the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, representatives from 14 Muslim countries gathered in Istanbul on April 12-14 to discuss implementing democratic reforms in the Middle East.
While it came as no shock that Syria and Iran boycotted the event, Saudi Arabia — cited often by the Bush administration as one of America's closest allies in the region and serious about reform — was conspicuous by its absence.
But given that one of the main themes of the conference was "the compatibility of Islam and the principles of democracy," it's no wonder the Saudis decided to take a pass.
The latest example of the royal kingdom's continued repression of democratic voices occurred on March 16, when 12 Saudi reformers were arrested and charged with "undermining national unity and principles of the Islamic-based fabric of society."
To date, three of the reformers — former university professors Abdullah Al Hamed and Metrouk Alfaleh and poet Ali Dumaini — remain in prison, while the others have been released under conditions that they cannot leave Saudi Arabia or talk to the media. They were also required to sign a letter of retraction vowing to cease from campaigning for reform.
Among the 12 reformers' "offenses" was their signing of a petition asking the House of Saud to adopt a constitutional monarchy featuring women's rights, religious freedom and freedom of the press. They also requested the implementation of local elections promised in October by the Saudi government (which, not surprisingly, have yet to be scheduled).
But of all the charges levied against the 12, the most scurrilous may have been the accusation that they planned to establish a human- rights committee independent of the Saudi government. Especially when, according to the Saudi ambassador to the United States, PrinceBandarbin-Sultan, "[Human rights organizations] are the foundation for successful and lasting reforms."
Indeed, just last month, the Saudi government announced the formation of Saudi Arabia's first-ever human-rights organization, the National Human Rights Association (NHRA). The group, which consists of 41 members, will supposedly "implement international human rights charters signed by Saudi Arabia" and include a special panel to monitor violations of women's rights.
Of course, the NHRA — like every state-run program in Saudi Arabia — will also be based on the totalitarian principles of Islamic Sharia law.
"The people who are involved [with NHRA] are puppets of the Saudi government," says Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Saudi Institute in Washington. "Why have only one human rights organization? Why aren't there many throughout Saudi Arabia? Each region and city should have their own."
If recent events are any indication, increasing numbers of Saudi citizens are in agreement with Mr. Al-Ahmed. On March 21, more than 130 Saudis signed a petition calling on the Saudi government to release all imprisoned reformers and expedite democratic change. A similar letter signed by 800 Saudi activists was presented to Crown Prince Abdullah in February.
And at an economic forum in January, several leading Saudi businesswomen discarded their mandatory headscarves and mingled with male attendees. The women's actions provoked a firestorm in the Saudi media, with newspapers featuring pictures of the unveiled women alongside approving editorials.
The Saudi government's reaction to these incidents has been typical: threats, surveillance and arrests, tempered by press releases lauding the House of Saud's own supposed steps toward reform.
On March 17, a day after the aforementioned 12 reformers were arrested, Abdul Rahman Alahim, a Saudi lawyer and human rights activist, appeared on Al Jazeera television criticizing the Saudi government for its actions. The next day, Mr. Alahim was arrested as well.
Mr. Alahim's arrest preceded a March 19 visit to Saudi Arabia by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who expressed "concern" about the Saudis' stifling of dissenting voices. According to Mr. Al-Ahmed, however, the United States could do much more to encourage change in Saudi Arabia.
"The U.S. should make reform in Saudi Arabia a permanent item on its agenda," he says. "It should establish a dialogue with Saudi reformers and go public with its desire to see Saudi Arabia reform."
The United States also could demand that the Saudis give an explanation for their boycotts of both the Istanbul pro-democracy conference and the recently postponed Arab League Summit in Tunisia, which was to have addressed the American-sponsored Greater Middle East Initiative to bring democracy and development to the region.
The case of Rania al-Baz, however, may serve as an indicator as to whether the Saudis' rhetoric of reform is genuine or merely a transparent move designed to pacify the United States.
Earlier this month, Mrs. al-Baz, a reporter with Saudi Arabia's Channel One television station, suffered 13 facial fractures after being beaten unconscious by her husband in full view of their 5-year-old son. According to doctors, Mrs. al-Baz has a 70 percent chance of a full recovery, but only after several operations and extensive plastic surgery.
Mrs. Al-Baz was met in the hospital by a senior member of the government-run National Human Rights Association, who vowed to see to it that justice would be done.
Time will tell if this was just another empty Saudi promise.