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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 November, 2003, 17:53 GMT
Saudi princes grapple with change
Roger Hardy
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Saudi Arabia's ruling princes find themselves fighting several fires.

The crown prince is in charge of the day-to-day running of the country
Crown Prince Abdullah has committed himself to reform
Even as they confront pressures for political and economic reform, they are cracking down on suspected al-Qaeda cells in the kingdom, while pledging to eliminate intolerance from the mosque and the classroom.

The debate about reform has official backing. Over the past few years, Crown Prince Abdullah, who has run the country's day-to-day affairs during the prolonged illness of his half-brother, King Fahd, has publicly committed himself to political and economic reform.

As a result, the state-guided media have become freer in debating where the country is going. Journalists are reporting with a new candour on issues such as crime, drugs, Aids and domestic abuse which in the past were ignored or downplayed.

This year alone, the Crown Prince has received a succession of petitions setting out agendas for reform. The signatories have been writers, academics and business people and have included women as well as men, and members of the country's Shia minority as well as its Sunni majority.

Spectre of violence

The debate intensified following the multiple suicide attacks in Riyadh on 12 May. Thirty-five people were killed when Islamic militants, suspected of links to al-Qaeda, attacked compounds housing foreigners.

Saudis refer to 12 May as their own 9/11.

Partial elections for municipal councils are planned for next year
An embryonic parliament, the majlis al-shura, has been established
Liberal reformists like Jaafar Shaib argue that the government should have seen the writing on the wall.

"Many intellectuals warned of such actions earlier," he says. "Part of it was the result of the education system, part of it the result of the domination of one ideology that leaves room for only one interpretation of Islam."

That ideology is Wahhabism, the austere form of Sunni Islam which is practised by the Saudi religious establishment and enables the ruling family to lay claim to an Islamic legitimacy.

Mr Shaib belongs to the country's Shia minority, which has long complained of discrimination by hard-line Wahhabis.

But, contrary to Western perception, Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia is not monolithic. A hard core disputes the legitimacy of the ruling House of Saud and is sympathetic to Osama Bin Laden's brand of violent jihad, or holy war.

The government should evolve into a constitutional monarchy, with an elected parliament of men and women
Abdullah al-Hamid, Sunni reformist
But a larger body of Sunnis, while socially conservative, is against violence and in favour of reform.

"It's time for everyone to wake up in this country, and that includes the society and the rulers," declares Abdullah al-Hamid, a former university professor who in the past was jailed for campaigning for human rights and is now an influential Sunni reformist.

"The government should evolve into a constitutional monarchy, with an elected parliament of men and women and an independent judiciary," he says.

"The whole world has advanced to this level, and we are the only ones who are lagging behind."

Not all Sunnis would agree with him [two of the most divisive issues are the rights of women and of the Shia], but his views suggest that some Sunni intellectuals are moving in new and interesting directions.

Liberal coalition

The Sunni religious intellectuals retain a powerful voice in Saudi Arabia, one which the House of Saud cannot ignore.

In contrast, the "liberal coalition" of Western-educated academics, Shia, women's rights activists and others has much less clout.

Police cars patrol a street in Riyadh
There has been a strong police presence following demonstrations and terror warnings
Their most recent petition, in September, antagonised Islamists by accusing Wahhabism, without naming it, of fostering terrorism and intolerance.

The government's response to pressures for reform has been to promise greater political participation, but as a gradual process.

Without adequate preparation, says Abdel-Mohsin al-Akkas, a member of the majlis al-shura, the country's embryonic parliament, elections would be a leap in the dark.

The authorities are accordingly planning to start at the grass roots, with partial elections for municipal councils next year.

Unofficial sources say that, in three years' time, citizens would be able to elect a third of the 120 currently appointed members of the majlis al-shura.

But will this be enough?

Ordinary Saudis complain of unemployment and economic hardship, which they contrast with princely power and privilege.

In October, popular anger spilled over into the streets. Hundreds of Saudis demonstrated for political reform in the heart of Riyadh, and the following week only a heavy police presence thwarted further demonstrations in several cities.

Demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia, but part of the population seems to feel it has nothing to lose by taking to the streets.

Professor al-Hamid believes that petitions are not enough, and that without popular pressure, from academics, from the religious scholars, and from businessmen, the government is unlikely to embark on serious reform. And without that, he warns, the country will face incalculable dangers.

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17 Oct 03  |  Middle East
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15 Oct 03  |  Middle East
Saudi status quo under threat
15 Oct 03  |  Middle East

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