Friday, March 26, 2004

Economist - The al-Sauds Resist Reform

I've always found it strange that critics of the Bush administration's middle-eastern policy have harped on the need to address the "root causes" of terrorism, while at the same time disparaging any attempts to implant liberal constitutionalism in a soil in which it supposedly can bear no fruit. If one accepts that the misrule of oppressive governments is largely to blame for terrorism, doesn't consistency demand that one support efforts to get such governments to change their ways?

With that in mind, the nascent attempts at peacefully challenging the status quo in Saudi Arabia outlined by this Economist article are well worth watching, and eminently deserving of further encouragement. Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina, and any direct attempts at regime change would provoke deep outrage from all of the world's muslims; what is more, it is also the world's largest oil producer by some distance, giving the al-Sauds a powerful chokehold on the global economy. Any change that will occur in that country will have to come from within, and if a few liberal voices are raised within its borders, we ought at least to make it known that we will not stand quietly by as they are stifled.

IF YOU thought that change was coming soon to Saudi Arabia, think again. Consider the six prominent Saudi liberals who have spent the past week in jail. Their crime is that, unlike seven colleagues arrested at the same time but freed soon afterwards, these recalcitrants refused to pledge that they will stop pestering the country's rulers to reform.

There are other countries where simply asking politely for more rights—in this case, by signing several petitions—can land you in prison. But Saudi Arabia had lately shed some of its aura of arch-autocracy. A mix of pressures—home-grown terrorism, criticism from abroad, and the general restlessness of their mostly youthful subjects—appeared to have awakened Saudi princes to the incongruity of running a large, modern state like a family ranch. The past few years have seen the start of a wide-ranging dialogue, in the press and in government-sponsored forums, to find ways to devolve at least a measure of power to commoners.

Tensions were bound to emerge, particularly in the absence of any elected assembly to air differences or frame a legislative agenda. Reform-minded citizens took to probing, to see just how far the establishment, which in Saudi Arabia means the 10,000-odd princes of the al-Saud family and their pampered traditional allies, the Wahhabi clerical hierarchy, would let them go. They soon encountered red lines.

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But a strong popular backlash against religious extremism following recent terror attacks, and the tacit backing of some senior princes, had lately encouraged the kingdom's normally quiescent liberals to further boldness. Despite warnings from the authorities, one group of them had the temerity to prepare yet another petition, demanding the right to set up a human-rights commission.

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These are the men, most of them academics, now in jail. But their fate is not the only signal that hard-line princes are losing patience. The minister of defence and second-in-line to the throne, Prince Sultan, this week dismissed any idea that the Shura Council, an appointed body that vets laws, might become an elected legislature ... For his part, the chief mufti of the kingdom, Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, declared that liberals were as much of a danger as militant religious extremists.

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Liberal reformists have not despaired yet. While one group launched yet another petition, to demand the release of their colleagues, others met Prince Nayef, the owlish interior minister, to make the request personally. Participants at the dawn meeting said that the prince assured them that royal doors would always be open to citizens' complaints but that “foreign agencies” were exploiting the reformers' platform in order to damage Saudi national unity. In other words, to call openly for domestic change is tantamount to treason.

If those who accuse Bush of negligence in failing to put more pressure on the Saudis mean what they say, here's an excellent opportunity to put him under the spotlight. The likes of Mubarak and the al-Sauds have used the excuse of Islamic extremism to perpetuate their despotisms for too, and Tony Blair's nauseating photo-opportunity appears to promise more of the same sort of nonsense from Ghaddafi's regime. Bush needs to put the lie to the accusation that the "War on Terror" is merely an excuse to shore up autocrats indefinitely.