Saudi Arabia: Authentic Politics

The Middle East, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Saudi Arabia: Authentic Politics


The kingdom's Consultative Council has now been working for three months. The government is keen to stress that it represents less a radical departure than an "authentication" of traditional practice. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is seeking to inject new life into the GCC's moribund plans for ensuring Gulf security.

THE URGENCY of appointing the requisite 60 members of the Consultative Council authorised in March 1992 was becoming ever more pressing by the time King Fahd announced the make-up of the majlis al shura last August. The king described the proposal to establish a council as no more than an "authentication of something which is already in existence" -- implying that the new institution should not be considered a radical departure from the established way of doing business. It is simply that the traditional way of achieving a political consensus has had to be adapted to meet the demands of a modern state.

As it stands, the Consultative Council is no more than a formal arena for consultation which will take the place of the traditional majlis, whereby the king gives open access to his subjects to hear their views and discuss their grievances. In that the Consultative Council has no powers other than to express opinion, its establishment marks little constitutional change. However, it may well become a vehicle for gradual extension of political responsibility.

According to the rules under which it was set up, the function of the Consultative Council will be simply to "express its views on state policies referred to it by the prime minister "|King Fahd~". Official statements have underlined the continuing validity of unlimited access to the ruler and his subordinates as the true basis for consultation, however impractical this may be today. The Consultative Council can debate the provisions of the Five Year Development Plan, express its views on laws, regulations and treaties and make appropriate proposals, and discuss the annual reports submitted by ministries and other government agencies.

But it cannot initiate discussions and can only deal with matters which are referred to it by the government. There is no requirement that its recommendations need be adopted by the government and its advice may only be heeded if the collective opinion of the Council of Ministers concurs with its views. The regime also stresses privately that the majlis al shura does not represent a step towards representative democracy (all members are appointed by the king). Legislation and public finances will remain entirely a royal prerogative.

However, the membership of the Consultative Council as announced last August is an intriguing indicator that the government is cautiously taking a modernising path. There had been much speculation about who would be appointed to the council, and the long delay in announcing membership points to lengthy deliberation by the regime. In the event, it included no members of the ruling family or of the government, and relatively few representatives of the religious establishment. This implies that the king genuinely wants an independent advisory body which will be separate from the existing institutions of the regime. Tribal and regional affiliations also seem to have played little part in determining eligibility to serve in the council.

Instead, most of the council is made up of professionals, many of them relatively young, who represent a fairly reasonable cross-section of the kingdom's commercial, legal, academic and government establishments. Mohammed Ibrahim al Jubair, the Speaker of the council, is a former minister of justice. His deputy, Abdullah bin Omar Nasif, is the ex-chief of the Muslim World League. Of the 60 members, 32 have gained advanced degrees at Western universities. They appear to be pre-eminently qualified to undertake the task of reviewing government policy and its operations, and special committees (where most of the council's work will be done) have been formed. …

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