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Saudi Arabia Debates Reform, Confronts Social, Religious Challenges - 2004-01-06


Since the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, Saudi Arabia has faced unwelcome scrutiny for its suspected links to terrorism. That has forced the country's rulers to speed up long-promised political, economic and social reforms. The effort has spawned a debate that dominates newspaper columns and social gatherings. Correspondent Laurie Kassman recently visited Saudi Arabia for a first-hand look at the status of the reforms. In a series of reports this week, she examines the social, religious and economic challenges ahead.

Saudi Arabia is a tribal society, governed by strict traditional and Islamic law. The royal family links legitimacy to its role as custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines.

But that ultra-conservative society is facing the consequences of its own oil wealth, which has opened up the country to forces of globalization beyond its control. Saudi Arabia's ruling royal family is being pressed to speed up political, economic and social reforms to transform a once largely Bedouin society into a 21st century state.

That campaign is opposed by many conservative religious and tribal leaders who see their authority threatened. But, the global terrorist threat and Saudi links to it have increased the pressure to change.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers who, in 2001, flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington and crashed a planeload of innocent civilians into a field in Pennsylvania. Now, as it struggles to implement Western-style reforms, Saudi Arabia has become a terrorist target itself. A series of bombings in Riyadh in recent months claimed dozens of lives.

Mohammed al Hulwah is a member of Saudi Arabia's parliament, the Majlis ash Shura. He says the Riyadh bombings were a wake-up call. "Now, we started to re-examine our culture in the society, whether the mosque or in schools, and we look at some extremist statements, and try to modify it or remove it, if it's too extreme. When you see TV and read newspapers, the government is taking serious steps to re-educate the people about the terrorist phenomena," he says.

The education of Saudi Arabia's next generation is undergoing an overhaul, too. The country has been accused of breeding extremists, and failing to prepare young Saudis for the workplace.

The government has started removing radical Muslim clerics from government-controlled mosques, and re-educating others to purge their extremist views.

Social worker Norah Sowayan echoes a general feeling of relief over a newfound willingness to confront deep-seated problems. "We just heard the religious opinion before. Now, we are hearing other opinions these days so the people are starting to think. Now, I think is the right time to change," he says.

Debate about the direction of political and economic reform flourishes in cafes and in Saudi family gatherings. Newspaper editors write more openly about accountability and empowerment, although editors still risk sanction or removal for criticizing the royal family or government.

The Majlis ash Shura, an appointed consultative council of 120 men, is slowly expanding its role in the political stream. The Majlis can now propose new laws, and amend legislation, without first seeking permission from the King.

The Majlis has called for municipal elections, although no date has been set.

Majlis member Abdulmuhsin al Akkas says setting a date is not as important as establishing the culture for democratic reform. "If we don't create the institutions that guarantee this sort of thing and create the culture, the practices, then we might find ourselves jumping in the dark. As people were saying, people are excited about elections. Elections are part of democracy, but they are the end result of democracy, not the beginning of democracy," he says.

Young, well-educated Saudis, many of whom studied abroad, complain the pace of reform is too slow.

Government efforts to prepare young Saudis for the world marketplace are not keeping pace with rising unemployment. And Saudi women still describe their push for empowerment as just tapping away at a brick wall.

Abdulrahman al Zamil says nation-building takes time, vision and compromise. Mr. al Zamil is former deputy minister of commerce and a member of the Majlis ash Shura. "And you have to realize you are dealing with different forces: tribal, religious, social. So, you have to do it little by little," he says.

Reform-minded Saudis say part of the problem is that their country has quickly acquired all the visual trappings of a modern state, skyscrapers, wide highways and elegant villas, but not yet all the institutions, or open culture to support it.

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