SAUDI ARABIA: The quiet Saudi revolution
Edward S. Walker

There is a quiet revolution going on in Saudi Arabia. No one knows its depth, its breadth, or its ultimate impact, but the reform effort is very real and is probably unstoppable.

Government and business people alike have an air of caution about them. On a recent trip to the kingdom, the fate of King Faisal, whose reform effort ended with his assassination in 1975, was clearly preying on thoughtful minds.

In a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, I was left in no doubt that this was a man determined to avoid a fate similar to that faced by reformers in Kuwait, where the government was forced to back away from proposed reforms in the face of parliamentary opposition. Abdullah’s approach is one step at a time – and always forward, never back.

The core of any reform effort in the Saudi kingdom lies in the royal family’s united effort to define Islam, and delegitimize its more extreme elements. Indeed King Fahd himself recently called on an elite of Islamic religious scholars to “highlight the dangers that extremism poses to the Muslim faith and conduct,” calling on them to join hands to “correct the flaws in the thinking of some Muslims, through dialogue, seminars, conferences, and the media.”

The king stressed that “deviant thinking” had brought “terror” to the kingdom, saying that terms such as “jihad” urgently needed to be given a clear meaning. And he called on the scholars to devise religious arguments to annul what he called “aberrant fatwas [decrees]” that legitimized militancy and suicide bombings.

Anyone of these statements were extraordinary, throwing down the gauntlet to those who advocate an extreme form of Islam, including Al Qaeda. Perhaps still more noteworthy, the king’s address appeared to have the united backing of the royal family – and much of the population.

And it is not just words. On the ground, these words are being supported by action. Over 2,000 imams whose preaching advocated militancy have been removed from the pulpit. A further 1,500 have been sent for reeducation, or jailed.

In December, two prominent imams publicly recanted fatwas in which they had called for militancy.

At the same time, there has been renewed vigor in tracking down militants and in cooperating with US authorities in the ‘war on terror.’

According to some Saudi businessmen, the role of the religious police has also been curtailed – there are fewer on the streets, and their behavior is less aggressive.

Along with the positive gloss, however, it is nonetheless important to note some damaging side-effects of these latest tactics. Since edicts were introduced to track funding through charitable institutions in an effort to stem the flow of cash to terrorist organizations, there has been a lamentable decline in all charitable giving. The government is reported to have removed poor boxes from the streets in front of mosques, and individual giving has declined precipitously in the face of new controls, and fears of funds being diverted or misdirected.

Many observers maintain that the crown prince has been mulling over the ongoing reform program for some time. But the real thrust of the initiative seems to have come after a spate of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia last year. These attacks, and particularly one against a predominantly-Muslim residential compound in the fall, brought the royal family, businessmen, and the average Saudi citizen together in opposition to a clear threat to the state.

In late June the crown prince declared a reform initiative calling for political participation through “national dialogue.” The crown prince told me the effort sought to include all elements of Saudi society, including Shias and other Islamic sects. He called this a “process of the intellect,” to bring people together behind proposed reforms, rather than a political process that risked dividing people along ideological lines.

A first step was to grant the Majlis Al Shura, or consultative council, the right to propose and debate, but not pass, new bills or proposed amendments to existing laws, without the permission of the king. That was followed by an announcement in October that the Saudi authorities were to prepare for elections for half the members of each municipal council within one year.

Human rights have also received some attention – albeit not since May 2002, when the king approved an independent human rights organization.

A criminal procedure law was also introduced in 2002 guaranteeing the rights of suspects – although a rising terrorist threat and noticeably absent pressure from the US, whose record on the issue is mixed, to say the least – may have short-circuited implementation of these reforms.

On the economic front, reforms have received a boost from high unemployment in the kingdom, and a desire to join the World Trade Organization. Negotiations with the Europeans have led to new WTO-compliant intellectual property laws, although negotiations with the United States and several other countries are still pending.

But of all the problems the Saudis face, the most challenging is the question of religion in schools. Only limited steps have been taken to address this issue: girls’ education is no longer under the control of the religious authorities. Textbooks have been reviewed and egregious statements excised. The curricula are being updated and modernized. A woman has been appointed, for the first time, to a senior academic position in the Arab Open University in Jeddah. Student councils are being set up in public schools to begin educating young Saudis about civic responsibility and participatory governance. But the basic question of methodology – memorization and authoritarian teaching practices – and the extensive number of hours devoted in early education to Islamic studies, remain untouched.

So what lies on the road ahead? Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go – as most Saudis freely admit. But they have been encouraged by the direction the crown prince is taking and by the growing unity within the House of Saud in favor of reform.

The assassination of King Faisal, who organized the first major reform effort, and the subsequent take-over of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by radicals, still haunt the Saudi leadership. They fear that a misstep will bring chaos. And they fear that in chaos, the forces of change would favor the radical Islamists – not modernization or moderation.

The fear of radical reaction will moderate the pace of reform in Saudi Arabia. But what has been started will be very difficult to turn back – short of the violent overthrow of the House of Saud. And for now, overthrow looks unlikely.

Edward S. Walker is president of the Middle East Institute. He is a former ambassador and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs