February 2, 2006

Saudi Arabia Takes First Steps Down Path to Reform

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH -- Slowly but surely, ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia appears to be loosening the bonds of its strictly controlled society, in spite of the absence of big government initiatives on political reform.

King Abdullah, a supporter of cautious reform, ascended the throne last year, but there have been no moves to dilute the absolute monarchy, turn the consultative council into anything resembling a real parliament or advance women's rights.

However, observers note a series of small steps that, taken together, are evidence of a new political atmosphere in the country, whose powerful religious establishment still has free rein to impose its austere "Wahhabi" form of Sunni Islam.

The royal family has ruled the desert kingdom in close coordination with hardline clerics since it was set up in the heart of the Arabian peninsula in 1932. Analysts say the royals want to reform but are wary of upsetting their clerical allies.

"The kingdom is moving on the path of reform step by step, without rushing, and through firm steps," the king said during a high-profile tour of Asian countries last month.

Many ordinary Saudis have taken affairs into their own hands. They have the tacit or open approval of the government, which fears social strife from high unemployment in the country of 24 million, including six million foreigners.

Women have been elected to the boards of some business and professional organizations, which are slowly becoming independent of government ministries.

The authorities have encouraged women to be economically active. Many are investing in the booming stock market, making use of new rights to have their own identification cards.

Clerics have tried in vain to hold back inventions that have come with the global revolution in information technology.


Some Muslims argue that, as the guardian of Islam's holiest sites, Saudi Arabia should remain immune from liberal trends as a kind of Islamic utopia where modern technology must be made to fit uncompromising rules of public morality.

Mobile phones with cameras were banned at first because they could be used to distribute pictures of unveiled women at schools and weddings. The Internet is strictly policed but many young people manage to get round the state's proxy server.

The government got the clerics on its side in its propaganda war against Islamist militants who launched a campaign in 2003 to bring down the U.S.-allied monarchy, the world's biggest oil producer. The mini-insurgency has largely run out of steam.

"Abdullah really does think the country has fallen behind. The atmosphere has lightened up and people are talking about things in a way they didn't do before," said one Western diplomat, describing the system of government as "18th century."

"But senior members of the Saudi family are very frightened about losing their base (among clerics)," he added.

The media have come alive with a reform debate suppressed for the past three years -- nervous editors purged liberal voices in the media after clerics became alarmed by reformers' outspokenness in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.

"There is a Saudi awakening now," pro-reform television presenter Hussein Shobokshi recently wrote in a Saudi newspaper. "We are discovering a sense of belonging to a country and an identity which involves rights as well as obligations."

Observers point to a generational shift in attitudes. Sultan, a 30-year-old journalist, told Reuters: "I'm optimistic about the future now. The economy is set to grow in an unprecedented way and people are happy with the king. There is a bit of freedom of expression, and the papers are a bit more daring."


Faisal, 37, a civil servant, said: "Everything has changed since the new king came to power. The king doesn't mind openness, but we are a closed society in general, so we have to progress slowly.

"The religious police have lightened up over the last seven months. Before, if you were male, you couldn't go out with long hair, now you see lots of people going around like that."

Hassan bin Issa al-Mulla, head of the government-controlled National Lawyers Committee, said moves were under way to give Saudi Arabia an independent bar association, which could curtail political influence and lead to codifying the legal system.

"There is (currently) no basis on which to appeal to a higher court without having a codified law, especially in civil laws, criminal laws and family laws," he said.

Entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December is expected to open the booming economy to the outside world, despite clerics' fears of the consequences. The government wants to encourage foreign investment to diversify its oil-based economy.

"There is a desire to open up the market to foreign investors," one American banker said. "Even coming into the country at the airport, the word seems to have gone out: don't give the Westerners a hard time."

A young Saudi novelist recently provoked public debate over Saudi Arabia's strict moral code with "Girls of Riyadh" -- an expose of the minefield of religiously-sanctioned rules on sex, marriage and social caste that deprive many women of happiness.

Saudi Arabia requires women to be fully covered and accompanied by a male relative in public. Mixing of unmarried men and women is forbidden and women are banned from driving.

"We have to talk about these things. The exaggerated segregation is not natural, and sooner or later it will dissolve by itself," said writer Turki al-Hamad. "It has begun to break down, in fact, and this novel and others are the proof."