Friday, August 19, 2005

Saudi King Abdullah promised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a series of reforms that could give the desert kingdom an elected government within 10 to 15 years, says a senior U.S. official who was present when the two met in June.

“He professed to transform his country and talked about having a representative government within a decade or a decade and a half,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

The 82-year-old king made the pledge during a June 20 visit by Miss Rice to the capital, Riyadh, when he was still crown prince and the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

It is thought to be the first time a Saudi ruler has attached a timeline to moving toward a democratic process.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to attempts to verify the U.S. official’s account.

King Abdullah took over one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies after his brother, King Fahd, who suffered a debilitating stroke a decade ago, died on Aug. 1.

When Miss Rice visited Riyadh, she and the future king agreed to maintain a “strategic dialogue” in four main areas: regional security; counterterrorism; the economy, including energy; and bilateral issues, including political reforms.

Pressing the Saudis on democracy, as well as the overall U.S. relationship with the oil-rich kingdom, has been one of the biggest challenges for the Bush administration since the September 11 terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi.

The administration often has argued that freedom and democracy in the Middle East will result in fewer people turning to extremism to achieve their political goals.

Miss Rice arrived in Riyadh hours after delivering a speech in Cairo in which she criticized the 60-year-old U.S. policy of pursuing “stability at the expense of democracy.”

Late that night, at a press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, she added, “There is no way in which the United States wishes to impose its own system or its will on others, but rather to help others in their efforts to choose freely.”

The secretary also called for “further progress on the rights of women,” although she declined to encourage Saudis to allow women to drive.

“It’s just a line I’ve not wanted to cross, and I think it’s important that we do have some boundaries about what it is we are trying to achieve,” she told reporters on her plane on June 21.

The Saudis have taken a step toward democracy by holding elections for municipal advisory councils.

The senior U.S. official who was at Miss Rice’s dinner with King Abdullah acknowledged the diplomatic challenge for Washington in promoting democracy in Saudi Arabia without appearing too pushy and demanding.

“It requires us to make awkward choices,” he said. “We can offer sensitive advice, but they will have to do the changes.”

He and other officials said developments in the Middle East have created an “opening” that must not be squandered.

“The expectations from Saudi Arabia are high,” a State Department official said yesterday. “The people are seeing reforms around the region and want to be part of the trend, and leaders cannot afford to ignore that.”

He said some of King Abdullah’s actions since ascending to the throne, particularly his pardon of five imprisoned reform activists last week, “signal a response to popular demand.”

“We applaud this decision,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said after the Aug. 8 announcement. “President Bush has said that Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of the Saudi people.”

In a step toward opening to the world, the Saudi government said this week that it would liberalize its strict entry visa regime next year by ending discrimination against non-Muslims. The kingdom is attempting to qualify for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Still, Muslim women visiting the country would need to be traveling with a legal companion, while non-Muslim women would need only a sponsor, the Arab News daily reported.

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