Controlled Liberalization -Yes. Democracy – No

Winds of democracy may be blowing through the Middle East but they have yet to kick up a dust storm in Saudi Arabia.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Riyadh sum up the changes filtering into the oil-rich kingdom in the past year as liberalization rather than democracy – and a very controlled liberalization at that.

A third round of municipal elections is due in the western Red Sea coastal regions on April 21. But, ever so carefully, the Saudi government has weeded out undesirables from candidate lists and reserved the prerogative of appointing half the members of municipal councils. The official argument is that a proper political balance must be preserved in each region, but this caution has had the effect of extinguishing any real spark of democracy.

Very few Saudis believe that democracy has arrived in the hidebound kingdom. Most of the population sees the local council ballot for what it really is, endorsement of tribal and clan interests. One voter in the Eastern Provinces said quite frankly that he and his friends had attended a campaign rally out of curiosity but he fully intended voting for a member of his clan regardless of any other candidate’s merits.

The same conservatism dictates the government’s plan to expand the advisory council or Majlis Shura from 120 to 150 members, with about 100 up for replacement. This body established in 1992 is the closest thing in Saudi Arabia to a parliament. But all the changes will be made as usual by appointment rather than election. In fact, defense minister Prince Sultan will personally handpick the new deputies. Two months ago, this powerful prince, number two in the royal hierarchy, announced he would name deputies from across the country and the different tribes to the expanded assembly.

Two years ago, the government, well aware of Western expectations concerning democratization in Saudi Arabia, acted to enhance the Majlis Shura’s authority with powers to enact new legislative without prior royal permission. But still, the royal family holds a veto over undesirable laws by making them subject to ratification by the government which the princes dominate.

Moves are afoot to grant the council another sliver of authority – for example, a mandate to debate the state budget before it is released. But ultimately, like all other laws, the budget too will end up in the government’s lap for the final say-so.


Women’s suffrage “too radical” for now


These changes therefore add up to very little. The Majlis Shura remains an advisory rather than a legislative body whose main function is to support the royal government. Even after its expansion, it is as vulnerable as ever to the pressures of regional and tribal interests and nowhere near granting the Saudi people any real say in the way their country is governed.

What the local council elections and marginal changes in the advisory council do say is that a form of liberalization is taking deeper root across more sectors of Saudi society than before, while at the same time regionalism and clan interests have been given a stronger voice.

This process, however subtle, has allowed women’s rights to surface as a burning issue.

Saudi leaders wrestled hard with notion of enfranchising women for local elections – as clearly distinct from letting them run for office – as well as granting them seats on the advisory council. But in the end, the princes decided that this reform was too drastic for now. Saudi women were told to bide their time until 2009 when they would be able to participate in municipal elections and gain seats in the Majlis Shura.

This may be no more than a delaying tactic. The opponents of a role for women in Saudi Arabia’s ruling institutions may be satisfied for now but will not ease up on their objections any time down the road.

To calm the rising clamor of women’s rights advocates, women have lately been given seats on the boards of directors of hospitals and named as department heads. According to some reports, they may be accepted to the Saudi foreign ministry and even for the first time in Saudi history be issued with their own passports – depending of course on a male “guardian” signing for them. Until now, Saudi women could never travel alone as they were listed on their father or husband’s passports.

Under discussion is a desperately needed overhaul of the Saudi education system to equip school graduates for a place in a global world, together with limits on the unbridled morals police. The Eastern Provinces, center of the oil industry, may also be allowed to open more cinemas and shopping centers.

Most Saudis regard even these small and excruciatingly slow steps – albeit under the constant scrutiny of the kingdom’s all-powerful conservatives – with open-mouthed astonishment. Westerners, for their part, are equally amazed that a society which for half a century was a key determinant for the world economy should be so backward, especially with regard to women’s rights, or that the government in Riyadh would actually venture to deny its citizens the right to go out to a theater to see a movie.

For almost a century, liberalization has been at the heart of a political debate between conservatives and progressive members of Saudi society.


Liberal flash in the pan in the 1960s burned out in 1979


King Faisal’s reign in the 1960s brought a brief spurt of progress to the country: a number of local councils held elections, women won more rights, several cinemas opened in Jeddah and the Western provinces and the educational system attempted a balancing act between Islamic teachings and the non-religious subjects required by a modern society. It was but a flash in the pan that burnt out abruptly in 1979 with the Islamic revolution in Iran and an attack mounted by Saudi fundamentalist rebels on the grand mosque in Mecca.

To restore stability and survive these shocks, the House of Saud fortified its traditional coalition with the narrow-minded religious establishment and other conservatives. This necessitated turning the clock back on liberal policies even as the country’s economy moved forward.

Now, de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah is leading the royal government back to the liberal track. He is motivated by the same objectives as his pro-conservative predecessors: to preserve stable royal rule and keep the monarchy intact. Badgered from Washington to introduce democratic government and civil rights, Saudi rulers are taking advantage of the divisions and infighting weakening the conservative clerical establishment under the weight of recriminations over Al Qaeda’s 9/11attacks in America to venture on tentative liberal reforms.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi sources report that Abdullah is not home free yet. Powerful conservative factions, some inside the royal family itself, continue to heap obstacles in the path of change.

Just a week ago, Abdullah overturned a religious court’s sentencing of a King Saud University lecturer to a flogging and prison term for saying religious texts taught at the school reflected the beliefs of radical Islamists.

In another recent incident, the education ministry disciplined teachers and students at a girls’ school for organizing a field trip to a newspaper office, where the girls were visible to men. Saudi hardliners are clearly still in there fighting. Even the powerful Prince Abdullah’s advocacy of liberal reforms is no guarantee of their success.

In the past, radical conservatives fought hard to retain their grip on the courts and education system. They are certain to do so now, while also battling attempts to de-claw the morals police and allow the ordinary Saudi access to public entertainment and culture.

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