In Saudi Arabia, Political Ferment Bubbles Quietly

Article excerpt

RIFFLING through the papers on his mahogany desk, one of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest businessmen reaches for some pages that require neither his signature nor any decision. He reads them, though, as avidly as any commercial document.

They are the previous week's clippings of US press stories about Saudi Arabia, faxed to him by a friend in Washington DC.

In fact, in the wake of the Gulf war, such news and views from far and near are feeding an increasingly active debate about the kingdom's political future. "The genie is out of the bottle," says one Western diplomat. "There is as free a political discourse as there has ever been - in sitting rooms, on fax networks, in religious pamphlets. The debate is happening, and the government doesn't see an easy way to stop it."

Most of the speculation and controversy is focused on whether King Fahd is about to honor a decades-old promise to name a majlis al shura, or consultative council, as a step toward more representative government.

But, both liberals, seeking to modernize Saudi Arabia's political and social system, and fundamentalist Muslims, urging even stricter adherence to Islamic precepts, are seizing the opportunity to argue over other aspects of life - ranging from banking practices to the size of the military.

Above ground there is little sign of this ferment: Pages are still ripped out of imported magazines if they are deemed to contain offensive articles, and running a newspaper in Saudi Arabia "is like trying to dance the lambada without moving your hips," in the words of one editor.

It is over private fax machines, on cassette tapes circulated in the mosques, and in discussions among family and friends, that the debate takes place. Saudis on both sides of the divide say that liberals and fundamentalists are engaging in ever-sharper competition to influence King Fahd and his advisers.

Two weeks ago, the king was presented with an 11-point petition signed by scores of Muslim clergymen and religious scholars and approved by Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Abdullah Bin Baz. It set out a number of what they dared to call "demands."

In what one critic sees as "an evident and almost public challenge to the government's authority," the signatories clandestinely circulated copies of their letter, which urged the creation of the majlis, advocated more equal distribution of the country's wealth, called for a drive against government corruption, and proposed a stronger military.

The letter also demanded that banks stop charging interest, which is forbidden by the Koran, and that all laws be revised to ensure they conform with Islamic tradition.

The religious leaders' growing boldness has prompted alarm in some quarters. "The pressures from the fundamentalists are more evident than the pressures from the other side, and what is surprising people is that so far they have been allowed to get away with it," says a businessman fiercely opposed to the fundamentalists. Role of the clergy

In a society as deeply religious as Saudi Arabia, where the king is referred to as the "Guardian of the two Holy Mosques" at Mecca and Medina, the clergy effectively legitimize the regime, says a local political analyst.

"They are also very well organized, the only organized group outside the Army," he adds.

To many Saudis, the clergy's inclusion of demands that are more usually identified with the liberals, such as fairer distribution of wealth, is an overtly political move to garner more popular support.

"They are taking advantage of the Gulf crisis to embarrass the government and appear as the guardians of the people, while in fact they are seeking power," argues Abdullah Kabaa, a professor at King Saud University.

"Putting things in that they don't believe in or talk about in the mosques, like corruption, is a bid to win public approval," says a senior royal family member. …