A Saudi Dissident's Agenda for Democratic Reform

by Mohammed AlMohaissen | published March 1, 2003

International Herald Tribune

From Washington to the Arab summit, there has been much discussion lately of reformism in Saudi Arabia, but few have heard from grassroots voices within the pro-democracy movement itself.

The United States has acted as though it were introducing reform notions where they previously did not exist. But the truth is that for decades there have been intellectuals and citizens within Saudi Arabia pushing tirelessly and against great odds for change.

In the first Gulf war, many on the peninsula became painfully aware of the weakness of the Saudi Arabian state, militarily and otherwise, to confront the challenges of the day. Since then, declining oil revenues, an expanding population and an increase in the corruption and rigidity of a political system incapable of dealing with pressing developmental issues, especially in terms of wealth redistribution, have brought internal voices for reform again to the surface. What is it that they are saying?

Educational reform is an important component in the movement. Few students in Saudi Arabia are prepared for the modern world. Those who graduate are channeled into an already saturated government bureaucracy. University professors are not allowed to attend academic conferences outside of the country without prior official approval. Book fairs at Saudi universities are a rarity. Internet use, especially in terms of politically oriented websites, is tightly limited.

But the strongest push is for social and political reform.

The goal is for a separation of powers, not only with an independent judiciary but also an elected legislature which can scrutinize the policies of government and its incumbents. More broadly, civil society must be fostered and rights for women should be expanded.

A culture of tolerance which is fostered by an actively protected and free speech is essential. Otherwise, a subculture of reactionary violence will only expand.

Financial frustrations of average Saudi citizens have only increased as unemployment grows above 25 percent while corruption and favoritism remains endemic in government. Many feel shame in watching regional Arab regimes, including that of Saudi Arabia, in an unwillingness or incapability to do anything to help the plight of the Palestinians. A similar sense of popular frustration is growing at the tacit involvement of Saudi Arabia in the US war on Iraq.

Internal voices for change are embattled at present, particularly as the Bush administration has attempted to justify its military plans using the slogan of political reform. War is not the precursor for democratic change, either in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. Current US military plans have only destabilized societies and strengthened the hand of reactionary forces in the region. As Washington attempts to appropriate the goals and language of our grassroots efforts, it has set us back considerably by risking the perception that ours is a movement being imposed from the outside.

The war with Iraq has nothing to do with promoting reform in the Arab world.

The United States has been active in the region since the late 1950s, becoming the primary player after the 1991 Gulf war. Yet, it has never before chosen to foster democracy or protect human rights in the area, least of all in Saudi Arabia.

The sole interest of the United States in the region is oil, and launching a war on Iraq has no other objective.

(The writer, an Arabic professor in Riyadh, is one of the main drafters of the recent pro-reform petition submitted to Crown Prince Abdallah, signed by more than 100 intellectuals and academics within Saudi Arabia. He wrote this comment in collaboration with Ian Urbina, associate editor at the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington.)

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