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A Saudi Glasnost? By: Nimrod Raphaeli
Memri.org | Tuesday, October 18, 2005


In recent years, a number of critical events have driven home to the ruling Saudi family the need for structural reforms in the political, social, educational, cultural and economic domains. Among the most critical of these was the large number of Saudis who took part in the events of September 11, 2001 (9/11), economic decline and high unemployment, the war in Iraq that made the U.S. a de facto neighbor, the upsurge in terrorism inside the Kingdom, including the capital Riyadh and the holy city of Mecca, and the subsequent arrest of hundreds of members of clandestine terrorist groups operating within Saudi Arabia, and the confiscation of large caches of arms and explosives.

These events have also emboldened a growing number of reformists who are seeking changes through peaceful means. Their petitions to the ruling family have received prominent attention.

These events have underscored the dangers of political stagnation, economic dislocation, religious radicalism, social alienation and the absence of independent judiciary that characterize Saudi Arabia. In particular, the rising tide of Islamist fundamentalism must be seen in the context of a precipitous decline in the Kingdom's economic fortunes as well as its increasing vulnerability to acts of terror from groups and individuals who, but recently, were on the receiving end of the Saudi Kingdom 's financial largesse.

Not surprisingly, the Saudi regime has been facing mounting demands from groups of Saudi reformists, intellectuals, businessmen, and even members of the royal family to implement comprehensive structural reforms in the country. In what has been described as new and unprecedented development in Saudi Arabia, [1] these groups of reformers have been engaged in ongoing dialogue and discussions with the actual ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, concerning the nature and scope of the reforms and their pace. The terrorist attacks in Riyadh in May and September of 2003, which Abdullah characterized as "a satanic act and a devil's sting," [2] followed by those in November, have given a new sense of urgency to the demands for a comprehensive change in the Saudi polity, economy and society.

While there is a growing recognition about the need for reform, the political commitment to carry them through is either absent or overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks to be tackled. A Saudi columnist, Rashed Al-Fawzan, underscored the complexities of introducing reforms in his country. Some illustrations are:

  • total dependence on oil revenues, which account for 80 percent of state revenues
  • an enormous amount spent on education with a result of poorly trained students, most of them in non-technical fields
  • high rate of unemployment
  • failure of local factories to produce export-quality goods
  • national debt of SR700 billion ($187 billion), approximately equal to the annual GNP
  • many bureaucratic and legal barriers to direct foreign investments [other than in the oil sector]
  • limited job opportunities for women [3]

An examination of some of these complexities follows.

Saudi Arabia is an oil-based economy with strong government control over major economic sectors. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 75 per cent of budget revenues, 45 per cent of GDP, and 90 per cent of export earnings. Despite attempts at diversification, the Saudi economy remains heavily dependent on the production and export of oil.

The non-oil government revenues are constrained by a largely non-competitive market place where members of the royal family and their cohorts dominate monopolies and exclusive dealerships and usually do not generate revenues for the government in the form of sales or income taxes. [4] In a recent economic forum held in Riyadh, businessmen complained that the investment environment in Saudi Arabia was dominated by bribes and intermediaries, and was "black and dangerous." [5] The following day, the economic forum demanded that the government's control, which they characterized as "guardianship" of the infrastructure, be lifted and that components of the infrastructure sector be opened to private investment. [6]

While some monopolies and single dealerships control large segments of the market, they are protected by the shari'a (Islamic law) from paying taxes on their earnings. The owners are required to make a voluntary contribution of 2.5 per cent in the form of zakat (religious charity) to organizations or groups of their choice. A known religious scholar and a highly-respected authority in Sunni Islam, Dr Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, wrote a column in the Saudi daily Okaz stating that, "from the perspective of the giver, the zakat is a source of purification and inner cleansing [tazkia]; from the perspective of the taker and the beneficiary it is liberation and strength – it is the liberation of the poor from the hardship of poverty and the liberation of the slave from the fire of slavery... " Regardless of how it is viewed, zakat is a free-floating source of money that has partially been channeled into non-legitimate objectives. As the U.S. Treasury Department's general counsel David Aufhauser said in testimony before the U.S. Congress, "in many ways, [Saudi Arabia] is the epicenter for the financing of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network and other terrorist movements." [7] The Saudis themselves concede that the cost of planning and executing the terrorist activities in Riyadh in May was $15 million, much of it collected through "charity boxes" placed in front of businesses and shopping malls. [8]

This religious protection of the rich and the powerful deprives the government of vital sources of income to address the social and economic needs of the majority of the people. A high population growth of over 3 per cent, [9] coupled with declining economic growth estimated at about 2.5 annually, is eroding the GNP per capita. A recent study by the Saudi British Bank indicates that for every 100 working Saudis there are 490 dependents, which is 2.4 times the world average. By 2020, the population is forecast to grow to 29 million, while the GNP per capita was projected to decline from $8000 less than two decades ago to 10,000 riyals (approximately $2700) in 2020. [10] The same study found the education system at fault in terms of its focus and output. Of the Saudi university graduates, only 8.8 per cent obtain engineering degrees, while 42.2 per cent take what is described as "theoretical studies." No data were provided on the specialization of the remaining 49 per cent of the university graduates.

The growth of poverty is the result of a skewed income distribution. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, is over 30 per cent. The most recent census shows that 55.7 per cent of the Saudi population proper (excluding foreign workers) is below the age of 20, while those below the age of 15 represent 44.7 per cent of the Saudi population. [11] United Press International reported that 40,000 young unemployed Saudis competed for 5 days for 80 new positions in the Ministry of Finance. [12] This is ironic, if not entirely unfathomable, because the Saudis employ 6-7 million foreign workers, including 3 million maids and chauffeurs. (There are no exact figures of the number of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia because many of them stay in the country long after their permits have expired, or are undocumented in the first place, particularly those from neighboring Yemen. The Saudi bureau of statistics puts the figure at about 6 million.) The programs for "Saudinization" [Sa'wada] have been hampered by the reluctance of many Saudis, particularly young males who account for a large percentage of the unemployed, to work in non-white or menial jobs. [13] Dr Ihsan Abu 'Hulaiqa, a member of Majlis Al-Shura (the Advisory Council), says that economic reforms in Saudi Arabia have become a strategic necessity. It would mean liberalizing the labor market, initiating privatization, and opening the Saudi market to foreign investments. [14]

Wahhabism, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, is considered one of the most radical branches of Islam. It dictates to its believers a strict adherence to the precepts of the Koran and shari'a (Islamic law). Many critics have argued that Wahhabism's teachings have bred religious extremism and, probably, terrorism on a large scale.

Following the bombings in Riyadh on May 12, 2003, the deputy editor of the independent Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, Wa'el Al-Abrashi, wrote several articles on Saudi Wahhabism and the development of Islamist terror. "Wahhabism," wrote Al-Abrashi, "prohibits the woman from working, forbids her from driving a car, and bans democracy, treating it as [another] religion, in addition to the religion of Allah. Wahhabism attributed great importance to the [outward] forms of Islam – growing a beard, ankle-length garments for men, and the requirement to use toothpicks instead of the satanic western toothbrush. One Wahhabi leader, Sheikh ibn Taymiya, prohibited smoking, praying behind a smoker, shaving one's beard, praying behind a clean-shaven man, and wearing European clothing because it is polytheists' clothing... " Al-Abrashi goes on to say:

I say that this Wahhabism is incapable of establishing a modern state and incapable of spreading the values of tolerance on which Islam has been founded. On the contrary, this Wahhabism leads, as we have seen, to the birth of extremist, closed, and fanatical streams, that accuse others of heresy, negate them, and destroy them. The extremist religious groups have moved from the stage of takfir [charge of unbelief] to the stage of "annihilation and destruction," in accordance with the strategy of Al-Qaeda – which Saudi authorities must admit is a local Saudi organization that drew other organizations into it, not the other way round. All these organizations emerged from under the robe of Wahhabism. [15]

Following the same line of argument, a Saudi columnist, Khaled al-Ghanami finds the words of ibn Taymiya, the spiritual leader of Wahhabism, to be "the real problem." Al-Ghanami wrote:

Why did they [who were responsible for the terrorist acts in Riyadh] wave the banner of jihad? The answer is this: ibn Taymiya... said... that if the ruler does not observe the commandment of promoting virtue and preventing vice, this obligation is incumbent upon the clerics... it is these words that are the real problem. We must stop cajoling and say: These words are a mistake, and a true disaster, that leads to anarchy, and a threat to national unity, and the return to al-jahiliyya, [16] because anyone who thinks himself a cleric will try to remove everything he considers vice. Anyone who thinks music is forbidden will blow up stores that sell tapes; anyone who thinks smoking a narghila [hookah] is forbidden will blow up the shops offering them for sale, and so on. This is no exaggeration; the day is not far off when they will open fire on satellite dishes. [17]

Hardly a week after the publication of this article, the editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Watan, Jamal Khashoggi, was dismissed by order of the Saudi Information Ministry. At the time, no official reason was given for his dismissal. [18]

The intolerance of Saudi clerics has recently been demonstrated in their demands to suspend the showing of a TV series that addresses some of the country's social issues. The show is called Tash Ma Tash which translates roughly as "you either get it or you don't." One show recently that has riled them most was a criticism of the system that requires a woman to be accompanied by a chaperon or a guardian – husband, father, brother or son – to conduct any business outside her home. In addition, the series shows that women are prohibited from entering government offices, service agencies or video stores. If a crime occurs a policeman may not enter a home if there is no chaperon present. [19]

The defense of Islam as a tolerant religion, often characterized as a centrist religion (din al-wasat) is now commonly employed to deflect criticism of the Saudi version of Islam, Wahhabism, which is extreme and intolerant, and was often seen to be responsible for the spread of extremism through the Saudi religious schools, madrassa (pl. madariss) which have been used by the Saudis to proselytize as well as to spread their version of Islam. [20] Crown Prince Abdullah went as far as appointing a commission to spread the concepts of centrist Islam. [21] Another argument is that extremism is a foreign import into Saudi Arabia, produced by "the globalization of extremism and the collapse of geographical boundaries." [22]

A number of Saudi columnists strongly objected to the notion that extremism was imported, and stated unequivocally that the heart of the problem lies in Saudi society, and demanded that it be dealt with.

Columnist Abd Al-Qadr Tash wrote: "We must object to the interpretation by a few among us that the phenomenon of violence and terror is entirely imported from outside our Saudi society. These [few] claim that the ideology that feeds this phenomenon was injected into our midst, and is foreign to our culture. Although there is some measure of truth in this claim, it explains only part of the phenomenon. Therefore, accepting it unreservedly is a type of escapism, blame-shifting, and self-exoneration. We have become accustomed to handling many of the negative phenomena in our Saudi society in this way." Tash goes on:

The time has come for us to admit the bitter truth – the phenomenon of violence and terror has a domestic dimension... in our social culture, and primarily in its religious part. This culture suffers from many flaws that prepare the ground for growth of the ideology of violence and clashing with the others, instead of acting with tolerance. This flawed culture pushes our young people towards the same suspect streams [i.e. Al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements] that brainwash them and ultimately produce terrorists from among them. [23]

Projecting sarcasm, the editor of the London-based Saudi daily, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abdul-Rahman Al-Rashed, known as one of the leading liberals in the Saudi press, responded to those who deny Saudi nationals' culpability in local terrorism. Al-Rashed wrote:

I... discovered that the Saudis who went to Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Chechnya arrived there by chance; they were tourists who had lost their way... Likewise, it is not true that these Saudi tourists returned determined to carry out acts of evil... for the sake of the public interest, they decided to convey the technology and knowledge they had acquired in the mountains of Tora and the caves of Bora to apartment buildings [in Saudi Arabia]... In conclusion, you must not connect what I said with any bombings heard in your city; it is only fireworks and American propaganda. [24]

Writing in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, columnist Muhammad Mahfoudh attributes the emergence of extremism and political violence among the Saudi youth to what he characterizes as "social immobility" and the absence of "movement and dynamism" in the social reality of the country. The vacuum in which the Saudi youth live, and the absence of active and vibrant social institutions, says Mahfoudh, contribute to the "deviation of some of the young people and make them an easy prey for the entire destructive and terrorist disposition." [25]

The Saudi Majlis Al-Shura [the consultative council whose members, however, are appointed by the king] discussed the phenomenon of "extremism accompanied by terrorism," not the issue of extremism per se. The Saudi writer and academic Ghazi Al-Maghlouth told the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "The issue is not terrorism in the first place. It is necessary to discuss extremism, whether in thought, opinion or toward the world, in the abstract. If we fail to discuss this issue before discussing 'terrorism' it would not amount to a lot." He added: "We have to strive to [establish] a new educational, cultural, and information framework that would merge us into, rather than separate us from, the world. How embarrassing that our complete [educational] curriculum includes only 14 pages dealing with the world. The world has changed, and therefore there emerge new views and ideas. We continue to draw our education from yellow [meaning very old] books without looking into the new reality." [26] Or, as stated by Saudi columnist Dr. Ahmad bin Mahmoud al-Issa, who denounced his country's education system that emphasized hatred of the West as a whole without distinguishing what is bad, "a lot," and what is good, "equally a lot." Unfortunately, he laments, these lessons of hatred are televised during Friday sermons, that urge the youth to fight "the infidel West" everywhere. [27] An editorial in the Saudi daily Al-Watan also laments the opportunity missed by both the Arab and Muslim worlds "to change the wrong directions [in education] whose results are beginning to show, and forcefully, on the ground." The editorial warns that "the circumstances and the demands of the era will not allow further waste in time and abilities." [28]

Saudis are not allowed to hold public gatherings to discuss political or social issues, and petitions are the only means by which reformists can communicate with the political leadership. In January 2003, a group of more than 100 Saudi intellectuals met Crown Prince Abdullah and handed him a "vision document" in which they presented their views about the required changes in the political and social domains. The document discussed the promulgation of a constitution based on the principle of separation of the legislative, executive and judiciary powers. In particular, the document called for the replacement of the appointed Majlis Al-Shura by a Majlis or parliament, to be elected directly by the people. The authors of the document also called for the reform of the judiciary which is closely influenced by the executive branch. They demanded the restoration of the freedom of speech and assembly, the establishment of institutions of civil society, equitable distribution of wealth and, most significantly, giving women their due rights. Crown Prince Abdullah called the signatories to his office and told them "your demands are my demands" and promised the group that "reforms were only a matter of time" and assured them of his interest in their proposals for constitutional reforms. [29]

As a follow-up to the "vision document," Crown Prince Abdullah invited the reformists to "The National Meeting on Intellectual Dialogue," which convened at the King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Riyadh in June 2003 and lasted for four days. In a message to the conference, Crown Prince Abdullah urged the Saudis to engage in "a dialogue that respects the opinions of others" and conceded that protecting the nation from "harmful ideas" is no longer possible due to technological advances. It has therefore "become an urgent necessity to think together about employing new methods." [30] More than 50 people, representing the Sunni majority and the Shi'a and Isma'ili minorities, in addition to some known opposition figures such as Sheikh Salman Al-'Odah and Matrook al-Faleh, participated in the conference, which was described as "an intellectual think-tank." The meeting was chaired by Sheikh Saleh bin Hamid, the president of Majlis Al-Shura. A senior member of the ruling family, Prince Abdul-Majid bin Abdul-Aziz, the Governor of Mecca, was present, as were many senior government officials and the editors of Saudi newspapers. [31] The participants discussed religious radicalism and its effects on society; the multitude of ideologies and ideas; the rights, societal responsibilities and roles of women; freedom of expression; the need to integrate young people into the national economy, and religious edicts (fatwas) and their effects on national unity. In an attempt to contain the fatwas for jihad (holy war), the conference adopted the government's position that the proclamation of jihad should be the prerogative of the rulers, and that it was important to explain the rules of jihad to avoid its abuse. [32]

The participation of Shi'a representatives is the first concession by the Wahhabi Muslims who rule the country to a significant minority in the eastern, oil-rich, region of Saudi Arabia. The Shi'a minority, which represents 10 per cent of the Saudi population, has been suppressed for years, so much so that books on the Shi'a version of Islam were not allowed to be printed or sold in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia's support of Saddam's war in Iran and his suppression of the Iraqi Shi'a in the south following their uprising in 1991 reflected the Saudi rulers' preference for a Sunni-ruled state in Iraq that would serve as a buffer between their country and the Islamic [Shi'a] Republic of Iran. A post-Saddam Shi'a Islamic republic in Iraq is a matter of serious concern to the Saudis. Hassan al-Saffar, one of the leading Shi'a clerics who was in exile prior to the meeting, said that one of the outcomes of the meeting was the breaking of barriers between the various religious confessions. [33]

A follow-up meeting was held in Jeddah a few days after the Riyadh conference. It is significant that a Saudi daily, Al-Riyadh, provided a long list of princes who participated in the meeting. However, the list was headed by Prince Muwaffaq bin Abdul-Aziz, head of Saudi intelligence, and Prince Mamdouh bin Abdul-Aziz, the head of the Bureau for Strategic Studies, clearly suggesting that in the eyes of the rulers there is a link between reforms and the internal security of the country. [34] Also significant was the criticism of the royal family and Saudi governance. According to a newspaper report, "the biggest shell was fired" by Ibrahim Al-Afendi, a major figure in the city's business community. Al-Afendi is quoted to have said, "you talk extensively about reform. If you really want reform you have to start with the ruling family's incompetent princes, who control the highest positions in the state." Whilst criticism has often been leveled against the royal family by political figures in exile, public criticism of the royal family from inside the country is uncommon. [35]

The conferees submitted a set of recommendations to Prince Abdullah, encapsulated into three primary themes: the definition of national unity, dealing with non-Muslims according to the shari'a (Islamic law), and jihad and its rules. Other recommendations dealt with the need to remove barriers to informational technology as well as with the removal of difficulties and injustices that women face. They also gratuitously included, as a last item, a statement against the Zionist occupation of Palestine. [36]

The question is the extent to which these dialogues are taken seriously by the ruling Al-Saud family. Some observers believe that the ruling family is truly seeking to test the waters before taking reform measures. Others would argue that the dialogues with the reformists are but a breather to help the royal family absorb some of the anger and frustration until the state apparatus can handle the acts of terrorism. [37] One would tend to believe that the terrorist attacks in Riyadh in May 2003, followed by attacks in September and November, have acted as a catalyst, jolting many Saudis into seeing that Islamic extremism is a far more powerful internal threat than they had realized, and that the question of reform could no longer be swept under the carpet.

Four of the signatories to the "Vision Document," Najib Al-Khuneizi, Ali al-Dumeini, Muhammad Said Tayyib, and Abdullah al-Hamed, followed up recently with statements to the French News Agency in Al-Manama, Bahrain. They expressed their views that the terrorist bombings in Riyadh underlined the need for accelerating reforms in the country because terrorism was "a symptom of the culture of alienation." [38] For example, the Saudi writer Najib Al-Khuneizi said, "The Riyadh bombings may prompt some people to postpone, or suppress, the progress of reforms, claiming the need to protect national security and stability. But a fundamental analysis of these events proves the opposite, meaning the [need for] reforms and their consolidation." He said the escalation of terrorism [was] fundamentally an expression of cultural alienation and the refusal to acknowledge others. He warned that "delaying the reforms has created an atmosphere favorable to the forces of radicalism, terrorism and rejectionism, regardless of the slogans that any one of them uses."

The Saudi writer Ali Al-Dumeini has attributed the escalation of radicalism and terrorism to the monopolizing of the pulpits by radicals, to the exclusion of all others. He has stressed the need to allow all educational and religious doctrines to express their points of view. Al-Dumeini said that in order for the state to remain Islamic and, at the same time, capable of keeping up with the pace of the era, it must strengthen its legitimacy through "elected constitutional institutions, without the need for legions of missionary and religious institutions to support this legitimacy." He called on the government to respond to the demands for 'constitutional reforms and for people's participation in decision making.' [39]

Professor and human rights activist Abdullah Al-Hamed maintains that "the 'people's perception that [political] solutions are still unattainable may push them towards supporting violence and terrorism." He stresses that the bin Laden phenomenon has been "the result of discontent and absence of freedom." Therefore, he calls for the speeding up of reforms. "The farther the reforms are delayed," he warned, "the longer it will take to solve the problems, and the greater the symptoms of the malaise will become." [40] Muhammad Sa'id Tayyib, a lawyer and human rights activist, said that the events in Riyadh have indicated that there was a major flaw that could not be remedied by security measures alone. "In our opinion," he stressed, "the march should start immediately for total and comprehensive—not partial or secondary—reforms in all aspects of life." He warned that unemployment was a ticking bomb that could explode in the face of everyone at any time, and said that reforming the educational curricula so that youngsters were raised on values of forgiveness and acknowledgement of others was a priority that required "societal self-examination and honest admissions."

The four individuals, Al-Khuneizri, Al-Dumeini, Al-Hamed, and Tayyib, reside in Saudi Arabia, and all four were subjected in the past to harassment and imprisonment. [41] Two of the four, Al-Hamed and Tayyib, and a third reformist, Dr Matrook al-Faleh were summoned recently to the Minister of Interior, Prince Na'if bin Abdul al-Aziz, one of the most powerful figures of the Saudi oligarchy, who demanded that they sign a statement that they would not add their signatures on any petition calling for reforms. All three refused to do so, and the meeting was reported to have had a stormy ending. [42]

Despite official and encouraging statements about reforms, there is little evidence to suggest that much has taken place. Discouraged by the unfulfilled promises of reforms by the ruling family, a group of 300 intellectuals and businessmen, including 51 women, sent a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah in September 2003. Called "In Defense of the Nation," the petition highlighted the absence of popular participation in decision making The signatories argued that "being late in adopting radical reforms and ignoring popular participation in decision making have been the main reasons that led our country to this dangerous point. Therefore, we maintain that depriving the political, cultural and intellectual elements in society of their natural right to express their opinions, led in fact to the domination of one faction [the clerics], which is unable, due to its nature, to carry out a dialogue with others, and that this faction does not represent the magnanimity of Islam and its moderation, nor its enlightened elements, and indeed helped in crystallizing the mentality and ideas of terrorism, which burned our country with their fires." The petitioners warned that "confronting terrorism cannot only be done through security means and security solutions, but by a thorough diagnosis of the political, social, economic and cultural factors that have led to it... "

On the social and economic front, the petition called for the elimination of "all aspects of administrative corruption and mismanagement of public funds as well as widening the productive bases [of the economy], and applying the principle of fair redistribution of wealth among all social classes and regions, in addition to addressing the problems of poverty, education, healthcare and housing, and enabling women to practice their social and economic duties...." The signatories referred to the earlier petition submitted in January to the crown prince. [43]

Apart from these petitions, significant individual voices were also heard in favor of reforms. Mai Yamani, the daughter of the former Saudi oil minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani, and herself a fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, said it was incumbent on the royal family to choose between maintaining the current policies of discrimination or implementing political reforms to allow intellectuals the opportunity to participate in the political decision-making process. Whilst she praised Crown Prince Abdullah for his achievements, she had acid comment for his brother, the interior minister, Prince Na'if, whom she labelled "reactionary." She said it was difficult to convince the old princes who rule the country to introduce changes. The explosions in Riyadh, said Mai Yamani, "must have awakened the rulers from a deep slumber and made them realize that the enemy is near." The time has come, she concluded, that to resolve the problem of extremism in Saudi Arabia the ruling family must expedite the reforms which it has ignored for too long. [44]

Perhaps equally forthcoming was a recent statement by Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz, a half-brother of King Fahd. The time has come, he said, for the Kingdom to carry out reforms that transcend its political problems, including those of terrorism. Political reforms will be possible only if the executive becomes accountable to an elected legislature and not a group of three or four individuals (princes) who take arbitrary decisions. He said the current thinking of the Saudi state must change if the country is to enter the 21st century. Most significantly, Prince Talal said, the reforms should apply to the rights of women. "I see women," he said, "who look like black tents walking in the street. This is no longer suitable for the 21st century." [45] It is not surprising that his son, Prince Walid bin Talal, one of the wealthiest men in the world, said the demand for reform is shared by every man and women in Saudi Arabia. He supports an elected Majlis Al-Shura with the right to vote extended to women. [46]

Another significant figure who joined the reform movement is Sharif Abdul-Aziz al-Shanbari who criticized strongly the corruption and rising acts of oppression and discrimination in the Mecca area. The Sharif belongs to a family which is considered a descendant of the House of Prophet Mohammad. [47]

A third petition, signed by more than 150 reformists, demanded that the Saudi government embark immediately on structural reforms, by turning the country into a constitutional monarchy within a transitional period of three years. While the thrust of the third petition does not differ much from the two previous petitions, there is nevertheless one substantive difference. After much debate among the signatories, the petition was addressed both to Crown Prince Abdullah and to the people of Saudi Arabia. [48]

Coinciding with the third petition is the petition signed by 300 Saudi women with higher education, also addressed to the Crown Prince. In their petition, the Saudi women made eight demands relating to the status of women – the promulgation of rules regarding divorce and alimony; compulsory education for boys and girls; opening up opportunities for studying in various specializations at the universities; opening employment opportunities in government and public agencies; appointing women to leadership and decision-making positions; opening the business sector for women and eliminating the need for a chaperon to accompany women during business and financial transactions; allowing the establishment of organizations of civil society; and the equal treatment of Saudi women married to non-Saudis, like that of women married to Saudis. [49]

Although Saudi Arabia is signatory to the International Convention against Discrimination of Women, in practice the rules of shari'a prevail. For example, women cannot work without the permission of a responsible man in the family, cannot drive a car, and cannot go to a restaurant alone. These rules are strictly enforced by the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue Police, otherwise known as the religious police.

Not satisfied with the pace of reform and with growing unemployment and economic hardship, tens of thousands of Saudis took to the streets of Riyadh. The demonstration was organized by the Islamic Movement for Reform in Saudi Arabia. According to its spokesman, Sa'ad Al-Faqih, the demonstration was led by two women – Um Al-Khawaled and an old lady by the name of Um Mas'oud. They were treated harshly by the anti-riot police and the Palace Protection Guards, who arrested hundreds of the demonstrators. Surprisingly, many women took part in the demonstration. Some analysts have viewed the demonstration as a reminder to the government of the urgent need to take measures that would alleviate the feelings of anger and frustration among the Saudi population. [50] The government condemned the demonstration as a violation of the law, and the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Sheikh, characterized the demonstration as non-Islamic. He considered the demonstrators "a perverted group of no consequence." [51] The Saudi government daily Okaz was quick to describe the demonstrators as traitors. In an editorial titled "Reformists or Traitors," it wrote:

Those wicked – what do they want from us?
What do they desire for our country?
For whom do they work?
In whose interest do they instigate sedition and enrage the mob and spread
Rancor among the people?
[52]

Earlier in the year, the same daily published an extensive interview with a member of the royal family, Prince Turki bin Muhammad bin Saud al-Kabir, who attributed criticism of the human rights record in Saudi Arabia to Zionism or the Zionist lobby. [53] After the most recent terrorist acts in Riyadh, the president of Majlis Al-Shura, in a sermon at the grand mosque of Mecca, compared these acts to state terrorism by Israel, and could not fail to find some form of "coordination" between Israel and the Saudi terrorists. [54] A message found at the wreckage of the mosque at the Muhiyya quarters, which was bombed together with the residential quarters in November, suggests that such acts can only be "initiated by Zionists." [55]

A more balanced view was provided by the editor of the London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, which recently celebrated in Riyadh its 25th anniversary. The paper's editor, Abdul-Rahman Al-Rashed, wrote an editorial on the "The Culture of Elections." He referred to the apparent contradiction between the government's new curriculum to teach young students the principles of democracy, freedom of expression, skills of debate, and the arrest of people in the street also demonstrating for changes. How does one explain the contradiction? Quoting an unnamed official, Al-Rashed says that Saudi Arabia does not want to be a democracy "by Arab standards" and will not be "a complete democracy by western standards." Saudi society and government are too conservative to embark upon a complete opening up. Saudi Arabia wants to avoid the democratic experience in Algeria, which resulted in street clashes and pain for all. Nor does Saudi Arabia wish to be another Iran, or repeat the experience of Hitler, who obtained power by election. [56] Al-Rashed announced his resignation as editor of the newspaper, effective from the end of 2003. Saudi Arabia obviously prefers slow and gradual reforms. The question is whether the large disenfranchised and marginalized elements in society would agree to wait peacefully for moderate changes to be introduced over a long period, if at all.

Dr Khalid Al-Dakhil, professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, traces the history of the reform movement to 1990-91, which coincided with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the launching of Operation Desert Storm. Al-Dakhil underscores the environment of crisis which gave birth to the movement. "The fate of the Saudi nation," he suggests, "was on the line and the fact that foreign, rather than national, troops were protecting the Kingdom created a sense of vulnerability and political failure that still lingers to this day. By exposing the Saudi government's inability to safeguard national security, the Gulf crisis made pressure for political reform unavoidable."

Al-Dakhil goes on to say that unlike the non-Islamist reform movements, such as the Nasserist or Ba'thist, the members of the new movement who are characterized as "new liberals" accept a priori the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy as "reflecting the social and political reality and history of Saudi society." However, the "new liberals" take issue with the government's reluctance to respond to the political and social changes that are dynamic rather than frozen in time. According to Dr Al-Dakhil, the demands for reforms are not new, as many petitions on the subject have been submitted to the ruling family since the second Gulf War. In the past, "the government's response to such petitions was hesitant and mixed, alternating between limited concessions and crackdowns." [57] There are some indications, however, that the ruling family would be prepared to make concessions provided its grip on power and wealth is not seriously challenged, and provided terrorist acts can be brought under control. It is becoming evident to Saudis that harsh measures against dissident groups will only exacerbate the internal conflicts within Saudi society, and could further delay reforms well into the future.

With pressures for reforms rising, the Saudi leadership has taken some hesitant and tentative steps to bring about changes, although still in a disjointed and random manner. In the school curriculum, amendments were made to remove some sentences "which directly or indirectly promote enmity, hostility and hatred against persons violating the religion." In the textbook for fourth grade boys, the sentence "and bestow love and support for the sincere,and dislike and hostility for the infidels" was replaced in the new curriculum with "and bestow love through Allah." The term "hostility" was omitted and replaced by "and do not be unfair to them [infidels]." [58] The concept of infidels remains, however.

A new scheme called "The School We Want," to democratize a sample of schools, was introduced at the outset of the 2003-4 school year. Starting on an experimental basis, a Majlis Al-Shura made up of students and educators was to be instituted in 70 schools. The purpose of this exercise is "to encourage the freedom of speech, the skills of debate, and the acceptance of the views of others." [59]

In a further attempt to separate schools from terrorist activities, new guidelines were issued forbidding "the collection of donations in schools for charitable organizations" other than what can be directly deposited in bank accounts which are subject to supervision. [60] This particular measure must be viewed within the context of even broader restriction, that called for the removal of "donation boxes" from outside mosques, shops, supermarkets and drugstores. However, a reporter from the Saudi daily Arab News has found that the guidelines restricting the placing of collection boxes have not filtered downward, and these boxes remain. [61]

Also on the religious front, Saudi Arabia has been in the process of re-educating and retraining 1,000 imams whose Friday sermons exert considerable influence on the minds of believers. The most virulent Islamist imams have been dismissed. The government is also exerting stronger influence on the material used for sermons, and the duration of the sermons. However, any attempt to impose some form of censorship on the Friday sermons will run into difficulty because, as the Minister of Islamic Affairs has pointed out, the preacher is not required to read from a written sermon. He conceded, however, that certain "directives" have been issued to the preachers to avoid dealing with subjects that they cannot fully comprehend. [62]

On the political front, the government decreed, in its meeting on October 13 2003, that henceforth one half of the members of the municipal councils would be elected. However, this measure was to become effective within one year. [63] If the measure is implemented it will be the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia that elections, of any kind, will take place. It is doubtful that the right to vote will be extended to women. It is equally doubtful that Majlis Al-Shura will become an elected body any time soon, let alone allow women members.

On the economic front, Saudi Arabia is opening up its economy to attract investment. Most notably, in November 2002 Saudi Arabia announced plans to privatize 20 major public corporations or services. As a first step, Saudi Telecom has been partially privatized, and its initial public offering (IPO) was oversubscribed; those fortunate enough to buy the shares made a handsome profit instantly. There are also plans to privatize the postal services, the national insurance company, and Saudi Airways. [64]

Responding to pressures for reforms, the Saudi leadership convened the second national dialogue in Mecca from December 28 to January 1. The main topic on the agenda was "Extremism and Moderation – a Programmatic Vision." Four-day discussions were held behind closed doors and not much of the discussions was made public. However, at the end of the meetings a communique´ was issued stating the five themes of the dialogue and offering eighteen recommendations. The five themes were religious (shari'a), social and psychological, educational, political and economic, and media; each was discussed in terms of its application to the reduction of extremism in society. Some of the recommendations called for additional studies but three, in particular, are significant. The third recommendation on the list of recommendations called for expediting political reform and expanding popular participation including direct elections of Majlis Al-Shura and encouraging the establishment of trade unions, voluntary organizations and institutions of the civil society. The fifth recommendation called for greater control of the public funds and for meeting the basic needs of the citizens. The ninth recommendation dealt with reform of the education system to encourage a spirit of tolerance. [65] Crown Prince Abdullah received the participants and "praised the services that they provided to their religion and the nation," but offered no promises regarding the implementation of any of the recommendations. [66] In fact, shortly after the submission of the recommendations for reform in the education system, some 150 Saudis, including judges, university professors, and a cleric with links to Muslim militants signed a document warning the Kingdom against changes in the school curriculum. They criticized the proposed changes as "American pressure aimed at taking the Kingdom along the path of infidels." [67]

The strongest opponent of political and social reforms in Saudi Arabia is the religious establishment, which exercises considerable influence in the lives of most Saudis. The powerful religious police is a potent weapon in the hands of the clerics to enforce strict adherence to the tenets of Wahhabism, and the political will to disband it and enter into direct conflict with the clergy is not present at the moment. In fact, even the reformists might be reluctant to mount a direct challenge against the powerful religious establishment of the Saudi state.

The royal princes have even more to lose if Saudi Arabia were to be democratized. At the moment, a small group of princes, perhaps no more than 150, control almost all critical aspects of the political, military, security and economic life of the country. [68] Democracy could mean the loss of power, and with it the loss of the access to wealth, which has made many princes and their inner circle incredibly wealthy. It is not surprising that one of the senior princes, Prince Na'if bin Abdul-Aziz, who serves as a minister of interior, told the Saudi-owned London daily Al-Hayat that any reform must maintain "our principles," which is a code word for the status quo for the governing royal family. [69] A much more blunt criticism was sounded by Princess Al-Jawhara Al-Sa'ud. Talking to a reform-oriented TV station operating from London, that was recently closed down because of pressure from the Saudi government, she said the Saudi people are indebted to her family for education, hospitals, and the construction of cities. She concluded by telling her countrymen: "We have collected you from the desert. Without us you would not have become human beings." [70]

The debate in Saudi Arabia about reforms is intriguing, because the higher the temperature for reform, the greater the entrenchment of the royal oligarchy. Some observers, including Saudis, believe that Crown Prince Abdullah is serious when he talks about reforms, but whether he can carry with him the majority of the royal family and the powerful Wahhabi clerics is difficult to predict. There are already signs that religious extremists are fighting back and putting pressure on the reformists to withhold or delay their advocacy for reforms. The London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported about threats to writers and the dismissal of some journalists who crossed certain red lines. Three columnists, Mansour al-Nqaidan, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh; Hussein Shubakshi, a columnist for the Saudi daily Okaz; and Daoud Al-Shiryan, a columnist for the Saudi-owned London daily Al-Hayat, have been suspended by their respective papers. Both Al-Nqaidan and Shubakshi have received death threats for writing columns supporting the reform movement in Saudi Arabia. [71]

For the present at least, fundamental reforms in Saudi Arabia are a gleam on the horizon, but secondary reforms are taking place haltingly. Recent demonstrations in the streets of many Saudi cities, although still peaceful, may turn into a torrent if the reforms do not satisfy the aspiration of the Saudi people, among whom poverty and unemployment are high, and rising. Extremism is deeply rooted in the education system, and unless that system is fundamentally reformed it will continue to produce a potentially large number of terrorists who could eventually drive the Saudi royal family onto the path taken by the late Shah of Iran.

King Abdullah who, until recently, was the power behind the throne is now sitting on it and should be, if he wished, implement the reforms to which has claimed to be committed. He should be aided by the recent spike in oil price which would translate into tens of billions of additional revenues in 2005. He can use the revenues to introduce structural changes in the Saudi economy with a view of creating jobs for a rapidly growing young population or he can engage in scoundering these resources as his predecessors had done during the oil boom in the 1970s of the last century. In the meantime, King Abdullah has announced that the salaries of all civilian employees, military personnel, and retirees will be increased by 15 percent, effecting this month.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, June 22, 2003.

[2] Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 22, 2003.

[3] Translated by the Arab News, August 13, 2003.

[4] Ibrahim al-Assaf, the Saudi Minister of Finance, denied any intention of introducing income tax into the Kingdom. Al-Hayat, April 2, 2002.

[5] Al-Hayat, October 8, 2003.

[6] Al-Hayat, October 9, 2003.

[7] The Washington Post, June 26, 2003.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 23, 2003.

[9] The deputy director of statistics said the rate of population growth had declined in mid-2003 to 2.9 per cent from previous rates of 3.4–3.6 per cent, Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 21, 2003.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), October 28, 2003.

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 21, 2003.

[12] Reported by Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 3, 2003.

[13] Most of these data were confirmed by Prince Walid bin Talal, in an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 10, 2003.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 27, 2003.

[15] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), May 31, 2003.

[16] The pre-Islamic period.

[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 22, 2003.

[18] For more information, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 535, July 9, 2003.

[19] Al-Hayat (London), November 3, 2003. The translation of Tash Ma Tash was taken from The New York Times, November 24, 2003.

[20] See, for example, the interview with Sheikh Abd Al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al-Ammar, Secretary General of the Ministry for Islamic Affairs and Al-Awqaf, in Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 23, 2003.

[21] Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 22, 2003.

[22] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 24, 2004.

[23] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 18, 2003.

[24] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 17, 2003.

[25] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 3, 2003.

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 23, 2003.

[27] Al-Riyadh (London), June 17, 2003.

[28] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 21, 2003.

[29] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), June 20, 2003.

[30] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 21, 2003.

[31] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 28, 2003.

[32] Al-Watan (London), June 21, 2003.

[33] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 26, 2003.

[34] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 21, 2003.

[35] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 27, 2003.

[36] For a complete copy of the statement see Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 21, 2003.

[37] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 26, 2003.

[38] Al-Ayyam (Bahrain), June 17, 2003.

[39] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 17, 2003.

[40] Loc. cit.

[41] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 17, 2003.

[42] Al-Quds Al-Arabi, January 3, 2004.

[43] The letter with the names of its 300 signatories appeared in Al-Quds Al-Arabi, September 27, 2003. All quotations are from the English translation of the letter which appeared in the The Daily Star (Beirut), October 4, 2003.

[44] www.raya,com/2003/07/01

[45] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 14, 2003.

[46] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 10, 2003.

[47] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), 25 Sept. 2003.

[48] Al-Quds Al-Arabi, November 24, 2003.

[49] Al-Quds Al-Arabi, December 30, 2003.

[50] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 16, 2003.

[51] Al-Jazeerah (Saudi Arabia), October 15, 2003.

[52] Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 25, 2003.

[53] Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 27, 2003.

[54] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 15, 2003.

[55] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 13, 2003.

[56] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 25, 2003.

[57] The Daily Star (Beirut), 18 Oct. 2003.

[58] Arab Times (Kuwait), September 18, 2003.

[59] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 21, 2003.

[60] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 21, 2003.

[61] Arab News, July 28, 2003.

[62] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 13, 2003.

[63] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 14, 2003.

[64] Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia (Washington, DC), Press Release, November 7, 2003.

[65] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, January 4, 2004.

[66] The Saudi Gazette, January 4, 2004.

[67] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, January 2, 2004.

[68] See Nimrod Raphaeli, " Saudi Arabia: A Brief Guide to its Politics and Problems." Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol.7, No. 3 (2003).

[69] Al-Hayat (London), November 5, 2003.

[70] www.Arabianews.org/article.cfm?qid, September 13, 2003.

[71] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 11, 2003.

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