Normally, it's a good rule not to believe what anyone tells you about political developments here. Outsiders usually don't know what's going on within the royal family, and often insiders aren't too sure either.
But judging by public statements and private conversations with a range of Saudis here and abroad, it seems clear that a political reform movement is beginning to take shape in the oil kingdom, and that it has the tentative support of the country's ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah.
"I believe strongly that there is a drive for reform in Saudi Arabia," says Jamal Khashoggi, deputy editor of Arab News, a leading paper here. He thinks Prince Abdullah has encouraged the reformers in part to send a message to Washington: "I realize that there is a need for reform in my country, but I'd rather do it myself."
This process of change could be affected by a war in Iraq, but it has its own roots. The trigger was Sept. 11, and the subsequent introspection that went on here despite some initial stonewalling. Officials from the crown prince on down wondered how Saudi Arabia could have become a place that spawned suicide bombers, and how it could avoid being destroyed by the forces that created al Qaeda.
What's clear to everyone, princes and paupers, is that political change is ultimately coming to the kingdom. The interesting question is whether top-down reforms will come fast enough to beat the bottom-up demands for change.
The reform saga centers on two intriguing documents that surfaced this year. The first was Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal for a new "Arab Charter," which was leaked to a Saudi-owned newspaper in London on Jan. 13. It called for "internal reform and enhanced political participation in the Arab countries."
Abdullah wanted to discuss his charter at an Arab summit this month, but that plan has been delayed because of the likelihood of an Iraq war.
The second reform document is a petition signed by 104 Saudi intellectuals and presented to Abdullah on Jan. 22. The petition, which I briefly mentioned in a column a month ago, is titled "A Vision for the Present and Future of the Homeland." An English version is just now surfacing, and it's a humdinger. In essence, it calls for a Saudi constitution and bill of rights, carefully couched in the language and values of Islam.
The Saudi intellectuals proposed an elected legislature, rather than the current Shura Council, which is appointed by the king; local and regional elections; an independent judiciary; and a royal guarantee of "freedom of expression, association, assembly, the right to vote and to participate, as well as all other human rights." It urges full rights for women, but within the Islamic sharia tradition. The petition also urged the royal family to "confront financial corruption, widespread bribery and the abuse of official power."
That's heady stuff, especially in this tightly policed kingdom. Even more surprising was Abdullah's reaction. A day after receiving the petition, he invited the authors to meet with him. Though he made no specific commitments, he offered what several attendees described as a "favorable" response. The speculation in Riyadh is that local elections may be held within the next year, and at least part of the Shura Council will be elected by 2005.
One of the leading authors of the petition, Abdulaziz Dukheil, met with me yesterday to discuss the reformers' agenda. He's a former deputy minister of finance who earned a doctorate in America, but he stressed that the group of 104 covered a broad range of Saudi society -- businessmen and professors, Sunni and Shia, technocrats and moderate religious leaders. "What we have done in this document is reflect what many of the people in Saudi Arabia talk about in their houses," he said.
The reformers' basic goal, he says, is to protect Saudi society through evolution, before it's too late. "The slow process and pathetic way of dealing with political, social or economic issues is not valid anymore," says Dukheil. "As a matter of fact, it's dangerous." Unless Saudi Arabia reforms, he explains, "we will be left out of history and we will endanger the political stability the country enjoys."
Dukheil adds: "The U.S. government cannot give us liberty, freedom and democracy. They have to be made at home, out of our own material."
Is Abdullah being pushed toward reform by a young and restless Saudi population, and by a fear of what the Bush administration might try to impose on the Arab world? Of course he is. But that doesn't make the process any less real. The Arab future is arriving here, too, and the Saudi leadership, ever so carefully, seems to be preparing for change.