Saudi prince calls for steps to open door to democracy

Increasing freedoms would help fight growing discontent, he says

November 28, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - A prominent member of Saudi Arabia's royal family called for a transformation yesterday that would bring elections, "the faster the better," to a kingdom in which the only bow to democracy has been setting up an appointed advisory council.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire investor, said during an interview here that he was addressing the politically taboo subject to augment what he called intensive discussions within the royal family about what Saudi Arabia could be doing better to address domestic discontent - particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 in the United States, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

"If people speak more freely and get involved more in the political process, you can really contain them and make them part of the process," Alwaleed said.

The remarks were unusually candid in a kingdom that almost always maintains a guarded public face, particularly on questions of internal decisions and any kind of political liberalization.

They echoed loud but private calls by Saudi liberals, who have begun to speculate that the extensive Saudi participation in the terrorist attacks was at least in part a consequence of a closed political system that allows little room for political expression.

For most of his career, Alwaleed, 47, has shunned a political role, but he waded into contention last month when he offered $10 million to New York for victims of the World Trade Center attacks but also issued a news release saying American policy in the Middle East had helped create extremism.

The suggestion inflamed anger among some Americans, including New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who rejected Prince Alwaleed's gift.

In the interview, Alwaleed defended Saudi Arabia's monarchy as popular and resilient, and said that long before Sept. 11, he had quietly favored an eventual shift toward democracy. But he also made clear his view that terrorism and its roots remained a subject of concern within the ruling Saud family.

In calling for change, Alwaleed made clear that what he had in mind was limited. He said the 120-member council should be chosen in elections that would be open, at least at first, to men only. The approach would be similar to the one in place in Kuwait, which has had an elected Parliament since 1961.

Two of Saudi Arabia's other neighbors, Bahrain and Qatar, also have promised to hold elections by the end of next year. It is a sign of growing democratic experimentation in the Persian Gulf region, in which almost all power still lies in the hands of kings, emirs, sheiks and sultans.

But Alwaleed's remarks were bold by the standards of Saudi Arabia, where criticism of the royal family is prohibited.

Advocates of greater openness have argued that it would force Saudi Arabia to deal more quickly with internal problems, including a high rate of unemployment, while allowing moderates to drown out extremist voices like those of Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, which they say thrive in a closed society.

Alwaleed said the idea of moving toward limited democracy was being "openly discussed" within the royal family, though it was almost never mentioned in Saudi Arabia's government-owned or monitored newspapers and television.

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