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
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
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
"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. …