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Saudi solutions for political reform

, Chicago Tribune  |   5 Aug 2004

Although you wouldn't know it from their smiling faces in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," Saudi Arabia's rulers are going through one of the most trying times in their history.

The Saudi regime is caught between a U.S. ally angry at its perceived complacency with Islamic extremism and a local population increasingly resentful of its perceived subservience to Washington. It must address internal and external pressures for social reform--such as modernizing its education system and curbing intolerance--without alienating the conservative religious leadership on which its legitimacy depends.

Rising unemployment, an ill-adapted educational system and anachronistic economic structures, especially when contrasted with the profligate lifestyles of thousands of princes, are undermining the regime's support base. And all this, mind you, before a country that sits atop a quarter of the world's oil reserves awoke to the emergence of an armed militant group within its borders.

Under such circumstances, the regime might be tempted to conclude that the safest approach is to crack down on the more violent militants while clinging to the political status quo. Security forces have encountered some success, arresting hundreds of suspected extremists, killing many others, and confiscating weapons and bombmaking material. Contrary to the ominous forecasts of some, the regime is not on the brink of collapse nor the country on the verge of civil war. Why then, one might ask, take the risk of changes that threaten to alienate religious conservatives and, to the extent they open up the political system, threaten to give them greater influence?

The answer is straightforward: The rise of radical Islamism in Saudi Arabia has many complex causes--most recently U.S. policies in the region, such as the invasion of Iraq and neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The closed nature of Saudi Arabia's political system and skewed resource distributions to its citizens also remain a problem.

The militants did not appear in a vacuum. Their roots run deep in Saudi history and in an environment that has stifled pluralism, prevented the organization of social and political interests and nurtured intolerance.

That groups engaged in terrorist violence have little interest in free elections, or greater political participation for Saudi citizens, is perfectly self-evident. But just as surely, they capitalize on the erosion of the regime's legitimacy to recruit new volunteers.

There have been some signs that some in the royal family understand this. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., in which Saudi militants were heavily involved, triggered an intense internal debate.

In response, the Saudi government has acknowledged the need for political, social and educational reform and has taken limited steps in that direction. So far, however, many of its actions have belied its words, as reformers have been arrested and harassed, public debate limited and initiatives the regime does not control blocked.

But a stand-still strategy would be short-sighted. Security measures to curb extremist militancy are the first line of defense, but dealing with longer-term challenges and keeping violent opposition marginal require repair to a legitimacy that has been severely battered by the closed and arbitrary nature of the political system, the concentrated power and wealth of the royal family, and the record of financial corruption and profligacy of many of its members. Recent violent attacks ought not be used as a pretext to deviate from reform but as an imperative reason to accelerate it.

Not any reform will do, and it most likely will not resemble what many have clamored for in the often uninformed frenzy of Saudi-bashing that took place in the United States after Sept. 11. Saudi Arabia has to tread carefully to marginalize the violent forces without alienating the broader conservative constituency. Some reforms--curbs on the power of Wahhabi clerics, major changes in the status of women--most urgently desired by the West are most likely to inflame passions and therefore are least liable to be carried out soon. That this is largely a problem of the regime's own making--the product of decades of accommodation to ultraconservative views--is beyond dispute. But it is a problem nonetheless, and to ignore it would be to underestimate how thoroughly a puritanical brand of Islam has permeated society.

Instead, emphasis should be on reform issues that garner the greatest consensus: broadening civic and political participation, empowering state institutions, gradually disassociating the royal family from the responsibility of day-to-day government, and curbing regime abuses and corruption. An informal lobby of liberals, Shiites and, importantly, progressive Islamists has rallied around these themes, offering a vision that is a non-violent alternative, consistent with Islam, homegrown and respectful of the ruling family's unifying role.

Indeed, while violent Islamists have grabbed the most headlines, a more promising phenomenon has gone widely unnoticed, namely the emergence of moderate and enlightened Islamists as the driving forces pushing for political reform.

There are serious doubts about whether an aging leadership facing an impending succession is, in fact, capable of formulating the necessary vision, let alone implementing it. Fearful of change and attached to a status quo in which it enjoys unchecked power and enormous privileges, the ruling family may consider such changes a risk not worth taking. The irony is that political reform offers the most likely path to stability, and the greatest risk would come from doing nothing at all.

Robert Malley, a former Middle East adviser to President Bill Clinton, now heads the Middle East and North African program at the International Crisis Group, an independent, non-profit, multinational organization that seeks to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts.

 
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