- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

(Second of two parts)

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Prince Abdullah, a Saudi reformist, took over the day-to-day running of the government in 1995, when his half-brother, King Fahd, suffered a stroke.

A simple, emotional man known for speaking his mind and for shunning indulgence, Prince Abdullah has supported moves toward greater privatization and diversification of the economy away from oil.

He has also spoken of the need to make ordinary citizens less dependent on the state. In his first government shake-up, he appointed 15 new members to the Cabinet of 29, to make better use, as he put it, of “Saudi expertise.”

But Prince Abdullah is in a minority among the upper echelons of the royal family, most of whose senior members — unlike him, full brothers of the king — are closely aligned with the kingdom’s religious establishment.

While King Fahd remains alive, Prince Abdullah does not have sufficient authority and support to carry through a reform program.

According to senior princes, regional elections and a radical overhaul of the education curriculum had been edging closer before the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

After the attacks, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal conceded that he found 5 percent of the content of the kingdom’s school books “abhorrent.” But to delete the offensive passages then was impossible, because the government would have laid itself open to charges that it was acting under pressure from a “Zionist-inspired” campaign.

Education reform opposed

This month, Islamists again warned in a signed petition against modifying the education system in response to pressure from the United States.

Sami Angawi, a self-described Sufi leader of the Hijaz who criticized Wahhabism and the Saudi royal family at a Jidda lecture during Ramadan last December, and other anti-Wahhabi Saudis have been accused by hard-liners of having a pro-American agenda.

They have been condemned on Islamist Web sites as infidels, and self-appointed Wahhabi religious leaders have issued religious fatwas against them.

However, the domestic-reform debate was not extinguished after September 11.

A visit by Prince Abdullah to a slum in a Riyadh suburb early last year, broadcast live on Saudi television, focused public attention on deprivation and inequality as never before.

The impromptu visit was organized after Prince Abdullah tired of advisers telling him, whenever he inquired about social conditions, that everything in the kingdom was “perfect.”

The day after Prince Abdullah’s visit, all newspapers used a front-page picture of an elderly man in his shabby house, his finger pointing at Prince Abdullah’s face as he lectures the leader on the hardship suffered by hundreds of thousands of Saudis.

This image has come to define a new era, in which social issues are openly debated. Not since the days of King Abdul Aziz has a Saudi leader seemed so at ease among his people, and so willing to listen.

From the time of King Abdul Aziz, the Saudi state has been characterized by a system of patronage and subsidies: first to tribal and religious leaders, then in the form of a generous welfare state.

In the two decades after the 1973 oil embargo, the kingdom’s infrastructure, health and social indicators improved faster than in any other developing country. Saudis enjoyed at no cost, and took for granted, ever-improving levels of social welfare.

However, most Saudis who came of age in the 1990s can no longer look to the state for support because the government can no longer afford to provide it. Per-capita annual income is now $8,000, compared with $24,000 in the 1980s, and Saudi Arabia has one of the highest population-growth rates in the world, nearly 4 percent per year.

Joblessness soars

Newspapers are full of stories about substandard medical care. Unemployment is as high as 30 percent. And there are places for only 30,000 high school graduates in the six universities each year, though as many as 300,000 may have the qualifying grades.

While the outside world is analyzing how September 11 challenged the 60-year-old U.S.-Saudi “special relationship,” it has remained largely unaware of the extent to which it also increased the pressures on those fragile internal alliances — religious, tribal and regional — already threatened by economic hardship.

By the beginning of 2003, the word “reform” was again on everybody’s lips.

A wide range of interest groups, from the most Western to the most traditional Islamic, sensed the time was right to push for change, as did Islamic radicals committed to overthrowing the royal family.

They included Hijazis like Mr. Angawi in the western Hijaz, persecuted Shi’ites in the Eastern Province, emboldened Sunni Islamists, and businessmen, journalists and academics suffocating under bureaucratic constraints and censorship.

It was Prince Abdullah who, once again, took the initiative, this time by accepting a petition signed by 104 prominent Saudi businessmen, intellectuals, academics and moderate Islamists.

It called for a new social contract based on the ideals of Islamic democracy and, eventually, constitutional rule. In August, Prince Abdullah announced the establishment of the first official Saudi think tank, which aims to encourage debate on tolerance and national unity.

Dozens of pro-reform articles have appeared in local newspapers, including a front-page editorial in the government-guided Okaz titled, “Yes to Reforms.” The government has since announced plans for elected local-government councils, which are to advise the ruling family — a move hailed by some as a welcome experiment in democracy.

Yet there are other signs that many leaders still oppose reforms. An edition of the pan-Arab, Saudi-funded al-Hayat daily appeared with an in-house advertisement instead of a planned article on the reform agenda.

Ministry spikes article

“It was killed by the Ministry of Information,” said Dawood al-Shirian, al-Hayat’s Riyadh-based Gulf bureau chief.

Khalid al-Dakhil, a Riyadh university professor and one of the petition’s signatories, said the reformists had a tacit understanding with Prince Abdullah that they would not raise too noisy a public debate.

“There is fear of a backlash from the Islamists,” he said, adding that the crown prince agreed that change was needed, but that he could not bring it about on his own.

This month, Prince Abdullah again called for patience as he was handed yet another list of recommendations drawn up by the latest “national dialogue” forum.

“I believe the authorities are encouraging the silent majority to come out and speak out in defense of reform,” said Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to the Saudi ambassador to Britain.

Yet it would be hard to imagine a country in which the leaders are more out of touch with the people.

Up to 60 percent of the population is under 21, while all its leaders are over 70. Those leaders had at least been able to enjoy beyond their borders the respect that oil wealth can buy, but that too changed after September 11.

The Saudis suffered a devastating loss of status on the world stage. Young Saudis studying and living outside the kingdom returned home complaining of the hatred and discrimination they had experienced as a result of the bin Laden connection, especially in the United States.

After September 11, with rising resentment among ordinary Saudis at what they saw as a campaign against Islam in the Western media, the House of Saud found itself caught between a rock and a hard place — between maintaining its ties with America and pacifying an increasingly unstable and anti-American domestic constituency.

The inherent contradiction in the al-Saud dual pact in the 1940s, with the Wahhabis on one side and the United States on the other, had finally come home to roost.

• John R. Bradley, formerly managing editor of the Jidda-based Arab News, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers and Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom.”

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