Saudi Monarchy Confronts Bolder Pressure for Change

December 01, 1991|By PETER W. WILSON

Saudi monarch King Fahd's fears have been realized the past few months, as his normally docile citizens have grown more and more insistent that the ruling family's absolute powers be checked.

Emboldened by the events in Kuwait, where the emir is being pressured by his subjects and the United States to make democratic concessions, two groups of Saudi notables recently presented petitions to Fahd, demanding a greater voice in the country's management. And to insure that their demands were not brushed aside, both groups took the highly unusual step of leaking them to the Egyptian press, which readily published them. It was action guaranteed to put the House of Saud on the defensive, especially as Saudi society frowns on any public display of discord.

Although the Saudi ruling family is safely in control, the surprising audaciousness of their critics -- on both the Saudi left and right -- must be disconcerting.

Neither liberals, largely among the kingdom's merchant families, nor right-wing fundamentalists based in the clergy, are advocating what could be called radical measures, such as the abolition of the monarchy or a tremendous reduction in the powers of the king. Instead, both groups contented themselves with calling on Fahd and the royal family to fulfill previous commitments concerning a consultative assembly and a constitution.

The consultative assembly or "majlis al-shura" has been promised by the House of Saud for more than thirty years, starting with King Saud in the late 1950s, when he was in the midst of a dynastic squabble with his half-brother. As soon as he emerged victorious, Saud conveniently forgot his promise. It is a pattern that has been repeated by every subsequent Saudi monarch, the last time by Fahd in 1990, a few days after the Iraqi incursion in Kuwait.

Not even a legislature, the assembly would instead advise the royal family on such matters as finance and social policies and would have no veto powers. Nor would it be elected; instead it would be appointed by the king from a list of presumably "safe" candidates. But even an emasculated assembly is viewed as too dangerous by Fahd and his brothers, who have consistently refused to countenance its existence despite the fact that more than a billion dollars was spent on the construction of an assembly building several years ago, a short walk from Fahd's newest palace in Riyadh.

The royal family has been no more accommodating concerning the promulgation of a constitution with a bill of rights or the creation of a codified legal system. Again, promises for reform have been circulating for decades. In the past, the House of Saud sidestepped the issue by claiming that the Koran was the country's unofficial constitution.

However, the discrepancies between the Koran's 17th-centur vantage point and the complexities of modern legal issues have grown more glaring. Just as importantly, the laws that exist -- the vestiges of tribal customs and old Ottoman commercial edicts -- are unevenly applied. Irregularities abound, and members of the ruling house and their friends are often held above the law, beyond reproach and penalty.

Their special status has been more and more difficult to bear, especially as the royal family continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, with more than 12,000 of the kingdom's five million native population classified as royal. And not content with absolute political power, many members of the royal family have begun extending their influence into commerce and business, moves bitterly resented by the country's large merchant class. Corruption and pay-offs -- always a problem in the kingdom -- have become more glaring, and resentment against the ruling house has grown.

Part of the princes' inaction stems from their objective of protecting their own privileged positions. However, it is also linked to their desire to maintain the country's fragile unity, between the more progressive Western and Eastern Provinces, and the Central Province, power base of the fundamentalists.

Although both groups have called for changes in the Saudi state, their aims dramatically differ. Saudi liberals envision a secular, pro-Western state, and one in which the powers of the clergy would be limited. Under the liberals, women would be allowed to drive and enter the job market as has been done in Jordan, Egypt and most of the Persian Gulf countries.

By contrast, the fundamentalists support the creation of an insular, theocratic state where the strictures of the Koran would be taken literally and where ties and oil sales to the West would be severely curtailed.

Leery of offending either clique, Fahd, who is seen by most as a weak king, has temporized and devoted his time building new palaces while his critics have grown more vocal. Hopes for significant changes were --ed in August when Fahd reshuffled his cabinet, making only minor adjustments. The change, rightly regarded as cosmetic, added further fuel to the fire.

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