Saudi Winds of Change

March 09, 1992

The changes that King Fahd has decreed for Saudi Arabia do not compare with those of the French Revolution, or the Gorbachev era in Russia or the current ferment in South Africa. Yet all of them have similarities: the reforms appear to be too little and they seem designed to forestall more fundamental transformation. Yet it is possible that the Saudi shifts, like the first moves of perestroika, could open up the country to deeper alterations than King Fahd ever contemplated.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and threat to Saudi Arabia in 1990 and King Fahd's request for non-Muslim help from the United States have shaken the desert oil kingdom. These developments have prompted two constituencies within Saudi Arabia to voice profound criticism, however muted.

One consists of Saudi officials, businessmen, intellectuals, soldiers and well-born women who have been educated in Europe or America and imbibed values forbidden at home. These privileged people are pressing for liberalization and greater participation in national decisions, just as did the 18th century French aristocracy. The other consists of Muslim fundamentalists whom the regime supports and appeases to a degree but also circumscribes. Many of them find the law insufficiently based on Islamic law and monarchism to be wrong.

The change of royal Saudi thinking since the gulf war has been profound in foreign relations. A U.S. military presence remains. Subsidies to fundamentalist and Palestinian groups subversive of other regimes dried up. Foreign aid and obligations to useful nations grew until Saudi Arabia, wealthy as it is, went deeply into deficit spending, hocking future oil royalties and committing itself to increased oil production. Without recognizing Israel, Saudi influence helped bring about negotiations between Israel and Arab neighbors.

King Fahd's decree is a domestic counterpoint. He is establishing a national council and regional advisory groups. He has published what amounts to a constitution and promised rights that Americans would recognize from the Bill of Rights. Of course, he is appointing the advisers, and what he grants he may rescind. He offers nothing to the foreign-born Arab workers not accorded citizenship.

But to King Fahd and a few thousand of his nearest relatives, this is profoundly innovative. Who knows? Perhaps the right of women to drive automobiles is coming after all. And after that, there's no telling.

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