The sprawling governor’s complex in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, completed just eight years ago, is a marbled monument to modernity. But last week, as officials worked on their personal computers in air-conditioned offices, a ceremony from another age was taking place elsewhere in the complex. In one of its most ornate rooms, the young vice-governor, Prince Fahd ibn Salman ibn Abdul Aziz, was receiving petitions from a procession of robed men. One by one, they greeted the prince, a nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, by shaking his hand or kissing his right shoulder, then sat briefly before him and presented papers with requests for help or favors. A grizzled guard armed with a ceremonial sabre in a golden scabbard ushered each man out. The daily reception, called a majlis, or council, gives Saudis direct access to the prince and other leaders. “Anyone can come,” said Prince Fahd. “It is our type of democracy.”
Challenge: For many Saudis, the continuing importance of the majlis system provides reassurance that traditional tribal methods of consultation between leaders and ordinary people can be adapted to modem, wealthy Saudi Arabia. But 5lA months after Iraq invaded Kuwait and presented the once-reclusive kingdom with its greatest challenge ever, a growing minority of liberal Saudis say that those practices now may become severely tested.
Whatever the outcome of the war that began last week, they say, the protracted Gulf crisis has already unleashed profound forces of change in the country.
King Fahd’s momentous decision to allow a massive Western army to use his land as a base to attack another Moslem country violated many Saudi taboos and underscored the kingdom’s vulnerability. “The effects will be long-lasting,” said Khaled alMaeena, editor of the English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News. “A new era has come.” In the early stages of the crisis, evidence of that new era was abundant. Saudis who once insisted that Westerners abide by the strict
code of conduct prescribed by their Wahhabi sect of Islam relaxed many rules in the rush to shore up their defences against Iraq’s threatening armies. Female American soldiers carried rifles and drove trucks in a country that allows its women only a minimal public role. And King Fahd renewed promises of political reform. More recently, however, conservative
religious elements, upset by the impact of the foreign forces, have reasserted themselves. Based mainly in central Saudi Arabia’s Qasim district, the fundamentalists have circulated clandestine pamphlets and audiotapes criticizing some members of the government for allowing what they call “corrupting Western
influences” into the country and subverting Islamic values.
The result, Western observers say, is that the Saudi royal family, anxious to defend itself against fundamentalist criticism, may try to eradicate the liberalizing effects of the crisis as soon as it ends. In fact, the government has already taken firm steps against some attempts at change. In early November, several dozen Saudi women drove cars through the capital, Riyadh, to dramatize their demand that women should be allowed to drive—in part because they might be left helpless during a war. The protest was shortlived: several women lost their jobs as teachers on the all-female campus of King Saud University in Riyadh. And the country’s hard-line interior minister, Prince Naif ibn Abdul Aziz, banned all public demonstrations in a move that many observers interpreted as a declaration of war on liberalizing influences.
Chastise: Shortly afterward, Saudi Arabia’s so-called religious police stepped up their activities in enforcing the country’s bans against alcohol and the social mixing of men and women who are not closely related. Known as the muttawa, Arabic for volunteers (but nicknamed the “God squad” by some irreverent Westerners), its members normally patrol the streets and chastise shopkeepers who continue to do business during prayer times, which occur five times each day. 0 The muttawa also use slender
0 sticks to strike the legs of women
1 whom they judge to be immod^ estly dressed. Recently, the reli^ gious police have become more H aggressive, even entering pri| vate homes and arresting Saudis D and foreigners accused of drinking or excessive mingling with members of the opposite sex.
Some American servicewomen have also been targets of the muttawa. One woman air force major described how she and a friend, dressed in civilian clothes, were harassed in a Riyadh shopping centre when a “volunteer” decided that they had not adequately covered their arms with the black robes, called abayas,
that women must wear in public. Said the major: “It ticks you off when you’re here defending their country.”
At the same time, there have been signs of greater openness. The Saudi press has become more outspoken, and some newspapers have published photographs of American women soldiers working and driving vehicles—violating Saudi standards of propriety. And in mid-November,
King Fahd renewed a long-standing promise that the country would establish a shura, or consultative council, to provide popular participation in a state that is still almost completely dominated by the king and the 5,000 members of his family.
Skeptical: King Fahd has made similar pledges in the past. And in the early 1980s, his government built an ornate building in Riyadh, equipped with an electronic voting system, to house the assembly. The building is now empty, and the past promises have made many liberal Saudis openly skeptical about the king’s latest pledge. But, said editor Khaled alMaeena, “the time has now come to cross the great divide” and establish a ^ council.
For now, the nearest that the Sau_ dis come to popular democracy is the z majlis system. All royal family mem^ bers, including the king, conduct regular receptions similar to the one held last week by Prince Fahd in the governor’s complex in Dammam on Saudi Arabia’s Gulf coast. Many citizens go there to untangle problems with government agencies or to ask the prince to mediate in disputes. The actions of some of the petitioners underline how backward some parts of the country remain. Prince Fahd told Maclean ’s that a herdsman recently asked him to provide gas masks for his goats
and camels in case of war. “I told him we would work on it,” the prince said with a smile.
Many Western analysts dismiss the majlis as window dressing for an autocratic system that provides no real opportunity for popular participation in decision-making. But Western-educated Saudi leaders, including Prince Fahd, are
clearly aware of dangers. Most of their fellow countrymen, whose riches stemmed largely from oil, attach more importance to traditional Islamic values than to Western-style democracy. The Shah of Iran, they frequently note, attempted to westernize his country in the 1970s—only to provoke a fundamentalist backlash that swept him out of power.
Similar dangers are present in Saudi Arabia.
Armed fundamentalists occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, and the criticism of the foreign military presence demonstrates that militant anti-Western forces remain a potential threat to the government. Partly for that reason, Saudi authorities maintain that it would be disastrous to move too quickly to-
wards a system of elective democracy. “You cannot impose something on people,” said Prince Fahd. “Whatever develops here must grow from within.” Such a cautious assessment indicates that, no matter how long Western armies remain in the country, hopes for change by Saudi liberals will not soon be fulfilled.
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