- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

As Saudi Arabia prepares for its first election ever under the Saudi monarchy, an adviser to the royal family delivered a thinly veiled criticism of President Bush’s plan for political reform in the Arab world.

Referring to Mr. Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative, Osama bin Mohammed Al-Kurdi, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Majlis Al-Shura (consultative council), said:

“It is not for others to come in and decide to do mass reforms for the Middle East. Somehow I don’t think mass reforms will work.”

One of the most important things about reform is that “it has to come from the people,” Mr. Al-Kurdi said at a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia is to hold its first elections in November to fill half the seats on 178 municipal councils. The royal family will appoint the other half.

The elections are being seen as a first tentative step toward political reform in a kingdom — an absolute monarchy — that has never had elections since its creation in 1932.

“Give us the opportunity to do things at our own pace. … We will change whatever we think is necessary for us to change,” Mr. Al-Kurdi said. “We don’t think we have to follow a certain model [of democracy] for it to be acceptable to others.”

Facing Islamic militants at home and increasing Western pressure for political reform, Saudi Arabia has acknowledged the need to reform.

Thomas Lippman, adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, said it is also crucial that Crown Prince Abdullah settle the succession issue and “let the Saudi people know that someone whom they trust, admire, respect and are willing to follow is waiting in line [to lead].”

F. Gregory Gause III, associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont, said a move toward national elections would be “counterproductive from the point of view of both reform and stability [in Saudi Arabia].”

The most important thing the Saudis must do is improve their internal security situation, Mr. Gause said. “You can’t have anything approaching democracy if you don’t have internal security. The one is a prerequisite of the other.”

Earlier this week, the State Department included the predominantly Sunni Muslim kingdom on a list of “countries of particular concern” for its lack of religious freedom, putting it in the company of North Korea, Iran and Sudan.

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