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what are the prospects for reform?
Reformers in Saudi Arabia are pressing for civil rights, political freedoms and transparency in accounting for government expenditures. But a divided monarchy has been cautious about what to undertake, and how fast. Here, discussing whether meaningful political and economic change will come and the risks such change could bring, are Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal; historian Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi; attorney and activist Bassim Alim; journalist Robert Lacey; and liberal columnist Dr. Sulaiman al-Hattlan.

Prince Saud al Faisal
Saudi Foreign Minister.

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…Prince Bandar said to us that this perhaps is the only country in the world where the government is the avant-garde and the people are far behind. You agree?

Well, the government is leading the reform. This is absolutely true. And I think this is a reasonable thing to do. The government had the wherewithal to start the reform process with the advent of oil. They opened schools; they opened hospital[s]; they opened many of the services that brought modern life to citizens in Saudi Arabia for the first time. Remember, this is a country [where] in my lifetime, my mother lost six children because of inavailability of medication and hospital[s].

And you find instances like that everywhere. … And then there seemed to follow from there the process of modernization, of having a modern state of ruling by law, having laws rather than just dealing with issues on a tribal basis. And so it was a natural evolution that the government took over the role of modernizer, reformer, and it continues until today.

The current process of reform -- reform can imply problems, can imply the need for change. How would you describe what it is that you're trying to fix, if you will?

I would call it modernization. Reform is part of modernization. Reform indicates somehow that something was bad and you want to repair it, although this does not explain everything. Something may not have been bad, but you still have to change it, like changing the investment laws in Saudi Arabia.

Modernization in Saudi Arabia I think can best be explained by saying that you want to apply good governance, because after all, even democracy is a system that was applied to provide good governance. The important thing is applying good governance, not the system that applies good governance.

Plato, in The Republic, he was seeking good governance. And when they made him the philosopher-king, he did such a bad job that he was driven out of the city. But all political reforms were in pursuit of good governance, even the situation where he was asked about this. He said, "Well, democracy may be a very bad --" [I'm] not saying the right word, probably -- had it not been for the rest of it. He thought that democracy was the best way of reaching good governance.

In our part of the world, in Saudi Arabia in particular, we believe that in seeking good governance here, we have to do it in our way and the way that serves our people and the way that keeps the social cohesion of our people together, which is a most important element for the king.

You cannot bring ready-made solutions to a country that's completely different. And Saudi Arabia is not New Zealand; it is Saudi Arabia. You must develop a system to achieve good governance that is adaptable to conditions in Saudi Arabia and to the requirements of the Saudi citizens.

Robert Lacey
author of The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud.

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…It's amazing when you're with a Saudi. You've almost always got a television there, just going all the time. ... It's a curious sort of dichotomy. But it is changing the way their brains are wired, and the survival of the House of Saud will be coming to terms with that rewiring that's going on in every Saudi's brain.

But hey, they're called Saudis, these people. It's the only country in the world named after its ruling family. While we might see that in the West as something medieval, I am always impressed by what a source of pride that is to the Saudis. This is one country that this family and this group of tribes created themselves, without the help of the West, or at least the help of the West on their own terms. That's something that goes right back into the past, and they seem pretty determined to keep going into the future as well.

So are we talking about bringing in some kind of Chinese model of reform?

The problem, when it comes to reform in Saudi Arabia, is that it is a Western word, and it's associated with Iraq and Israel, George Bush and America, and the imposition of outside values. So when you talk about social change, that's what gets conjured up.

Going for economic change is a much cleverer way of getting change accomplished; it has less potential to offend. What can be wrong with everybody becoming more prosperous and pursuing prosperity in a rational way? So ... one view of the future for Saudi Arabia is for the West to stand back and stop preaching about the sort of social change that should come about. Just let ... the Arab tradition of making money work economically, and then certain changes follow that automatically.

But in the past there has been an enormous growth in wealth in Saudi Arabia, and yet at the same time a growth in fanaticism…

Terrorists and violence are by definition minorities. They have to resort to these extreme tactics because they can't accomplish them in any other way. It's very interesting that in a recent poll of Saudis, 49, 50 percent expressed appreciation or agreement with bin Laden's ideas. When these same people were asked, "OK, would you like bin Laden running the country? Would you like a second caliphate to come in Saudi Arabia?," only 4 percent said that they would actually like to live with the reality of what the terrorists are calling for. That, it seems, is the secret of the way ahead.

A British perspective on this is that we have seen in Northern Ireland the immense destructive power and ... the discouragement that can be caused by terrorism, but that at the end of the day, although the terrorists get their strength from a grievance which is held by quite a large number of people, if you can deal with the terrorists and also address the grievance in a rational way, then there is hope for progress, and the men of violence do in the end get marginalized.

Forty years ago, the young princes, Talal and his brothers, were calling for a constitutional, political reforms. What we've got now is a far feebler version of that. It seems to have gone backwards.

Forty years ago, Prince Talal and the young princes went to Egypt and called boldly for constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia, a constitutional monarchy, and their half-brother Faisal wouldn't give it to them. But what he was introducing at that time was television, was education for women, was ... a more rational distribution of wealth in the country. And those things have changed the way that Saudis think and Saudis act, and it is from that sort of change that constitutional reform will inevitably result.

And yet at the same time you have the religious establishment who are ensuring that Saudis grow up ... hard-wired, to use your phrase, in their own Islamic discourse.

The problem is that even as the majority of Saudis changed the wiring in their heads to adapt to the modern world, there is a group who go in exactly the opposite way, and they have expressed their resistance in the violence that we have seen.

I think all one can do is just take hope from the lessons of history that this violence in the end does not win out. The way to deal with this sort of violence is actually through what's going to happen with participation, with voting: Let a few Islamic extremists take control of a local council in Saudi Arabia, and let people see what it's like to live under them. There's going to be a lot of ... pain and teething troubles. But when one looks at the progress Saudi Arabia has made in the course of a century, I think one has to be optimistic for the future and not too ready to judge by Western standards.

After all, 100 years ago, women didn't have the vote in the West. Two hundred years ago, there were great republics which practiced slavery. Those things have changed. There's no reason why the same sort of problems shouldn't resolve in Saudi Arabia and why a country like this hasn't got the resources to resolve these issues itself.

bassim alim
attorney and activist for political and social reforms in Saudi Arabia.

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…And so you, as a reformer, as someone who wants to see certain civil institutions take shape, use the opening after 9/11, to push [for reforms]. How do you do this?

The word "push" is a bit difficult in Saudi Arabia. You don't really push anything. You simply petition the government. There are no means, there are no venues, there are no civil institutions through which you can do this so-called pushing -- no lobbyists, no special interest groups, nothing; no parliament, no Senate or House of Representatives, as in the States. ...

So what did you do?

We signed petitions and sent [them] to the crown prince at the time, and the crown prince did meet with a group of those who signed the petitions. He kindly received them and told them, "Yes, I believe in what you are saying, and your concerns are my concerns; your demands are my demands." And everybody went out of that meeting extremely happy. But then there was some sort of difference of opinions within the government that interrupted this plan.

Tell me.

Very simply: These words by the de facto head of state do not match with the deeds that took place later on; for instance, the jailing of the 15 reformists, and right now, the detention of the three who are in prison. ...

If you can, give me a complete explanation of what went down in that meeting.

Well, the crown prince called the group of the petitioners, I think the first 10 signatories, he called them in. They were received very kindly and gracefully by him. He sat down, listened to them and the elements of their petition. He told them that "Your demands are indeed my demands, and this is what I'm working on. And it's a matter of time. But we need time. Be patient, and rest assured that we are working on this." It was a simple, short, precise meeting. And when we had the meeting with them later on, everybody was jubilant and happy [that] finally, this is a new era.

And then?

And then, later on, there was another petition, which was also sent to the crown prince. We had a meeting with the minister of the interior, and he asked that these petitions should stop. That meeting did not go very well. There was sort of tension.

What did he say?

At that time, he told them that "You should stop these petitions. You should not write anymore. It's not going to be accepted any more." And they told him that this is our only means of doing it, and we are doing this for our good and your good. And this is the gist of the meeting. And they left.

Later on, in less than a month, some of those people were jailed in prison. It's not a secret. And then another meeting took place in which, again, the minister of the interior brought them in and was very upset and said: "You know you should not have meetings, and you should not have congregations. And we are not going to condone the whole concept of reformation the way you think it should be. We are doing it the way we think it should be done. And it's not really reformation as in fixing things; it's reformation as in natural evolution. There is nothing wrong to be fixed. It's a matter of natural evolution." ...

So what does this say to the outside world about the prospects of reform in Saudi Arabia?

I don't know how the outside world would perceive it, but to me as a Saudi, it says that it's still an idea that is not set in stone. It's an idea that has no basic elements that we can measure it by. And the basic fixture of what we call reform is yet being debated by the top people in the ruling family. I would say that some of them are perhaps pushing for some kind of reform; others are resisting it. But nothing concrete is going to be done until we have a consensus in that matter.

... But doesn't it really spell in the long term the end of the monarchy?

We don't know. That's not for me to say, but it is my own desire. This is being a little bit philosophical, [but] the so-called revolutionary mandate, which came in with King Abd al-Aziz [when] he came in on his horse and unified this country, [was that] it's time right now for this mandate to shift into a constitutional mandate. It's the same thing that happens in any country in the world where you find a revolution taking place: After a while, the revolutionary council must reform into a president and a state in the modern sense.

I think that concept should be understood by the government and by the ruling family. And if that is understood, and if that takes place where they say, "OK, we are not simply rulers who came in with a set idea; we are the rulers of the whole country," [then] the whole country [will be] engulfed in the making of this society and the making of this nation. "We are going to be the rulers of it through ... any mechanism." Then they become the constitutional rulers, who are there with a constitutional mandate.

That's a huge difference, a huge transformation. This gives them longevity for hundreds of years. There is no problem as long as there's a social contract between the people and the government.

But instead, they've arrested many of the reformers. Three of them are still in jail.

Three of them are still in jail, yes.

It doesn't make one optimistic. It can't be encouraging to you.

Unfortunately, no. It cannot be encouraging unless you say that this is hopefully a fluke, something that they did and perhaps [now] they regret it. Perhaps they're sort of stuck with their decision, and they're trying to just do away with it and not go back to the same tactics. You never know. It's possible. It possible that it was a moment of anger. But whatever it was, it was dramatically disturbing, dramatically negative for all of society. ...

Why should the family give up any of its power? Why should it devolve its power to the people? Saudi Arabia has been successful from the time of Abd al-Aziz until now.

Saudi Arabia has been successful from the time of King Abd al-Aziz up to now for different elements that no longer exist. The whole tribal mentality is being devolved. People are more educated. The world is becoming a small village. You have the satellites all over. You see what's happening all over the world around you: how people are demanding their rights, how people are asking for better livelihoods. And it's time for the government, in order to cope with these tremendous and quick changes, to actually develop a plan in which the government [belongs] with the people institutionally, [on a] long-term basis. …

One of the demands that you make in the petition that's been presented to the crown prince is to increase the role that women play in society. What are the prospects that that will happen?

Well, let me put it this way. I don't want to demand progressiveness for women. And there's a difference, because you cannot demand something from someone who is not willing to participate. It's very important to put it this way. But I demand to give women the choice to participate or not. If they want to, it's their right to vote. But if women and all society votes not to allow women to drive, it's a choice. It's their choice. But at least make it be a consensus in society, something that has to do with votes and [is] not based upon a religious edict.

So maybe one day down the road, in the next year or the next five years or the next 10 years, another vote will come through and say, "Well, now we think women should drive." And women say, "Yes, actually, we want to drive now." I don't know. It's their choice, you see?

Allow women to become whatever they want to become -- airline pilots, engineers, whatever they want to become. If they don't want to go into an engineering college, it's her choice. It's just the matter is giving the choice, is not pushing her to do something. You see, you can't push a society to do something. You have to [give it] the freedom to examine what is going and to have its own direction.

Dr. Sulamain al-Hattlan
Liberal columnist for the newspaper Al Watan.

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…Which way is public sentiment moving in your country?

We really want to believe what we hear, which is calls for reform especially in the educational system. And I personally I think the crown prince is really genuine in his calls [for reform]. Now it's really time for us to translate the promises of reform into actions. We have had enough long three years of promises. I think now we are expecting to see results. Not only in the educational arena but also in the political arena and, as we say, the role of woman in the society, [and] tolerance towards diversity of ideas. And again a change is not, or cannot come by only political decision. But the political decision, we believe, is an important factor to open the door for the society to really transform itself, to adopt new ways of lifestyles and to be exposed to different ideas. So definitely we rely on the political decision to open doors for a change.

But you're worried?

I'm worried … My fear -- and I really mean the term fear -- my fear of social censorship is by far greater than my fear of the official or governmental censorship. I mean with the government it's really easy to go and explain my case. Regardless of whatever critical attitude we have towards certain groups in the government, still it's much easier to explain your case. We have established a trust that even when we criticize the government we mean good for the society and the leadership.

But the thing that is extremely difficult [is] to explain to millions of people [that] you really mean well to the society when the society is suspicious about your writings and about your attitudes and about your beliefs. It's [an] extremely difficult mission for writer and intellectuals in Saudi Arabia to voice their ideas unless they [are] guarantee[d] a sort of protection. I think the responsibility of the government is to protect all voices in the society.

The election process [for municipal councils] that's taking place now, what does it represent for the society? It seems a small step for you?

It's a small step but it is a step.

[But the turnout is] very low: People aren't coming out to register in great numbers?

But look at the introduction of new vocabularies we are using nowadays in terms of the election. Participate in the "decision making." Even the term. Yes it's not enough, I know, but at least this is a step. And many of us, including myself, feel perhaps some anger that woman was not really included in the local elections. Nevertheless that doesn't mean, "Okay we don't have elections before we give woman equal right to vote." Yes hopefully in the near future we will. No, again, in my opinion this is a positive step and hopefully we will develop the system in the near future to make it [a] bigger step.

What would King Abd al-Aziz, the founder of your country, think of Saudi Arabia today?

I think, to have a generation like mine who have been exposed to all kinds of experiences and who are confident to ask critical questions is really something to be proud of. And I'm not talking only about King Abd al-Aziz, but I talk about his generation. It took us only three generations to really have all these complications we are dealing with now. Yet I think we should look also at the positive result of almost the past 100 years in Saudi Arabia.

But does that generation express its pride in the developments? What is the mindset of that generation? Or it's the second generation now that's running the country: amongst them Sultan, Nayef. What is the mindset of that generation?

…My father's generation grew up in a total poverty, and whatever they got from the government was almost taken as a great gift from the government. It took only one generation to have somebody like me [to] try in a polite way but in a progressive way to question things and to ask critical questions and to direct the questions to members of the government as well…

Dealing with this generation, my generation and the coming generation has to be different from dealing with my father's generation. My father's generation was happy with whatever the government was saying. My generation is critical of almost everything the government is doing, which is, again, a positive thing to have for the society.

Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi
Historian and activist for women's rights.

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…[We are moving] in the direction of reform. It's just that it's not coming smoothly. Every time they are coming forward, they are going backward … some more steps. So the direction towards reform is not straightforward.

I think that there are many sectors of society who are not willing to reform or think that reform is against Islam, for example, or maybe it's because it takes part of their power [away] that they will keep on antagonizing it. On the other hand, you have also the different wings in the House of Saud who want to have proper reform or want to have [a] superficial one, and who are conflicting between each other, but of course [secretly].

They don't like to argue in public?

No, not at all. Not at all. Everything should be all right in front of the public. But I don't think that it's easy for them to give up their power or part of their power to the people. Yet they have to do something about sharing, give part [of the power] to the people.

On the economic front, they had to because of the debt, the deficit that the Saudis have -- over $700 billion. They had to sell some of the companies that they own. So here, OK, we're starting to have some sharing. But it's not proper, really, because they are still holding a lot of authority on it.

But people are asking for political participation, for participation in knowing where money goes.

They want accountability.

Accountability. Accountability doesn't exist, and neither [does] transparency. So this is what the people want. And so that's why with reform, they are very reluctant.

You don't really know what people want in this country. You don't know whether most people are conservative or most people want liberal reform or power sharing. Why not?

There are no studies. Very [few] studies are done. And most of the studies -- if, for example, the ministry wants a study to be done on what the people want or not want, at the end it will be classified. It will not be accessed except by certain people. So we don't know what is really happening.

But if you live in Riyadh, you'll see a different society and different population than when you go to Jeddah or the south or east or north. It's a vast country, and different people think differently [in] different parts, especially regarding reform.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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