Jidda, Saudi Arabia -- Under pressure from economic problems, internal violence and the U.S. success in toppling Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq, Saudi Arabia is embarking upon a series of reforms that many Saudis hope will lead to the most sweeping political change since the kingdom's founding.
In recent months, Crown Prince Abdullah, the country's de facto leader, has taken steps to promote more political participation in the oil-rich desert nation, where the monarchy has ruled with absolute power since 1932.
In June, he held a national debate where for the first time religious and economic leaders joined to ask for more freedom for the press, religious groups and women. He has quietly loosened restraints on political critics. And he has approved a crackdown on clerics accused of preaching extremism -- more than 300 clerics lost their jobs, and another 1,000 were suspended for "re- education."
At the same time, ordinary Saudis are airing their discontent in unheard-of ways. People who once risked jail for urging an end to political corruption are now discussing their views on television, the Internet and newspapers.
As soon as next year, say royal family members and advisers, the crown prince may announce municipal elections -- the first such vote in Saudi history. Partial elections at the provincial and national level would come later.
While some observers are skeptical, Saudi leaders insist that change is coming to the kingdom.
"The decision is there," Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, said in an interview. "The political will is there, and to a surprising extent consensus is there."
"Sometimes people come here with the impression that the society is boiling to the point of explosion, and the government is trying to restrain the people from reform," said the prince, a close political ally of Abdullah's, who has run the country since King Fahd suffered a stroke in the mid-1990s. "But I see the opposite. I see the government boiling, and the restraint is coming perhaps from the people."
Such restraint is hard to find. Everywhere in Saudi Arabia these days, people are talking about one thing: al islah -- reform. From the luxurious palaces of the ruling family to private dinner rooms, both the powerful and the poor are demanding more participation in Saudi Arabia's long-repressive political system.
Locals are calling it the Saudi spring. There is a feeling that something historic is taking place: a Saudi Arabia where people can speak openly, if cautiously, about internal problems.
"There has always been a small group of people trying and trying and trying, " said Mohammed Said Tayeb, the grandfather of the country's reform movement. He has been arrested five times for speaking out, beginning in 1962 and most recently in 1993. "But now, reform is a popular demand. Everyone is talking about it -- men, women, friends, neighbors."
Longtime observers of the kingdom fear the Saudis may be making a show of reform while planning to do little. Critics note the kingdom has begun a public relations campaign in the United States to improve the country's image, hurt by the fact that 15 of the Sept. 11, 2001, attackers were revealed to be Saudis.
Top Saudi officials are currently engaged in damage control over the release of a congressional report in late July that raised new suspicions of possible Saudi ties to two of the hijackers.
The Saudi royal family is led by a small clique of aging, all-powerful rulers who in the past have shown little interest in change. And Saudi society itself is extraordinarily conservative. Religious and tribal leaders are committed to maintaining a rigid status quo that quashes dissent, marginalizes women's participation in public life and encourages adherence to the country's religious code, based on the strict Wahhabi form of Islam.
Even so, there are undeniable signs of an open if somewhat muted political debate -- itself a first in the kingdom.
In June, some 30 religious leaders, economists and scholars met in Riyadh to discuss the issue of reforming the government. The meeting was called by Abdullah in response to a petition delivered by leading dissidents.
The men -- no women were allowed -- spent three days privately discussing political, social and economic problems in the kingdom. Then, they delivered a report to Abdullah that was made public in which they asked for better performance from the government, more freedom for women and more public participation in the political process.
The national dialogue, as it was called, stirred a wave of debate. Newspaper columnists have written opinion pieces raising once-taboo topics like allowing women to drive. Two different groups of women are now circulating petitions demanding more freedom.
"Reform is not a choice anymore," said Hatoon Ajwad Al Fassi, a history professor and a leader in the budding women's movement. "It's a must. It's not something they can just think about. It's a must for the House of Saud to survive."
Mohammed Said Tayeb
Winds of change in Saudi Arabia
Leader introduces novel reforms that encourage more freedom and openness
T. Christian Miller, Los Angeles Times
Monday, August 4, 2003