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At a Crossroads, Saudi King Tests the Winds of Reform

(By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)

"It's significant for a Saudi politician to say that. We don't think he meant it literally speaking, that he agreed with every single line. But it is significant that he was sympathetic. He was sympathetic, he was understanding, he was accommodating and he was willing to open lines of communication," said Dakhil, the liberal critic. "He did not rebuff them."

They pressed ahead, and in March 2004, 13 were arrested, including some who met with Abdullah. A few weeks later, a delegation met with Nayef to plead for their release. Over a dinner of chicken, lamb, rice and broccoli, Nayef bluntly told them to stay out of politics, one participant said. "You're playing a game that's not yours," the participant quoted Nayef as saying. "You're getting into the business of the state, in which you don't belong."

"It became clear to us that he did not come to listen," the participant said. "He came to deliver a message."

Those kinds of stories have led many, including some in the family, to hope that Abdullah chooses Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh and the founder's 26th son, or another prince to become second deputy prime minister. Given Nayef's power as interior minister, that would be difficult. In the parlor game of Saudi politics, many say Abdullah's best choice may be to simply leave the position vacant for the first time in 40 years, in the hope that death or court politics will create a better option.

If Nayef is appointed deputy prime minister, it's "game over," said Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to Prince Turki. "But if you leave it open, and that's what everybody is hoping for, then a younger generation will have an opportunity."

Gradual Reform

Ibrahim Ribidi's campaign posters for the municipal council of Buraydah still lie stacked up in the foyer of his modest home. Though he won the vote four months ago, there is no hurry to move from campaigning to governance. The councils have yet to hold a single meeting, and none has been scheduled.

"Maybe after school starts," Ribidi speculated, punching his cell phone, whose ring tone was set to the opening lines of the Muslim call to prayer. Meantime, he had decided to take a vacation to Brazil.

"There is some progress," Ribidi said. In Saudi Arabia, even "meeting a foreigner like you and talking about these subjects -- that's something new."

The languorous, unfinished municipal experiment is typical of the slow pace of reforms. At every turn, potential backlash looms, and debates still rage, often stoked by traditionalist scholars and preachers -- over whether women should be allowed to drive, whether insurance is prohibited under Islamic law, whether physical education should be introduced in girls' schools.

A restive farming region that has recently been the site of deadly gun battles between Saudi security forces and al Qaeda militants, Qaseem has produced many of the country's most influential and conservative religious scholars. "None has the right to be worshipped but God," declares a billboard in the city center, not far from the local McDonald's. It is a strictly religious declaration, but it encapsulates Qaseem's attitude toward the royal family: loyal, sometimes grudgingly so, but adamant that only Islamic law can be the basis for politics.

Alim, the democratic activist, also calls himself an Islamic conservative. He said Abdullah's record to date contains ample reason for skepticism that reforms will unfold quickly. "Maybe now the king will free himself" and pursue serious change, Alim said. "That's a possibility. But it's a possibility attached to an 82- or 83-year-old person. His face is tired. Why didn't Abdullah act sooner than this?"

By contrast, the liberal activist Dakhil is confident and hopeful, suggesting Abdullah will open the way for elections for the Shura Council in 2009 and possibly endorse constitutional protections for freedom of expression and organization.

"At some point, the state needs to change its contract with society," he said. "In the 21st century, the religious establishment cannot claim by any means that it represents society. You have to change this contract to allow the society to be represented in the main. The first thing is for the state to recognize that those changes have taken place."

He paused, as if contemplating the breadth of change he was endorsing.

"I'm being optimistic here," he said, grinning.

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