Saudi Arabia's burgeoning reform movement presented its latest petition to King Fahad bin Abdul-Aziz, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, and the Minister of Defense Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz on September 24. Titled "In Defense of the Nation," the document was signed by 306 Saudi men and women [click here to read an English translation of the petition]. The signatories are from different regions of the country and from both Shiite and Sunni backgrounds. They include lawyers, writers, homemakers, university professors, businesswomen and men, students, journalists, physicians, government employees, novelists, poets, literary critics, artists, and social activists. In a word, the signatories represent the full rainbow of the elite class in Saudi society.
Though little known outside the Arab world, the Saudi reform movement has existed for more than ten years and is an important development in Saudi politics. The movement started in 1990 - 1991, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the launching of Operation Desert Storm to liberate that country. Thus, the movement was born within the context of a crisis of the greatest magnitude. The fate of the Saudi nation was on the line, and the fact that foreign, rather than national, forces were protecting the Kingdom created a sense of vulnerability and political failure that still lingers today. By exposing the Saudi government's inability to safeguard national security, the Gulf crisis made pressures for political reform unavoidable.
There is less clarity about the intellectual roots of the reform movement. Some analysts have suggested that the "new liberals" who compose the movement are, as Richard Dekmejian recently wrote, "the intellectual descendants of earlier non-Islamist groups." By "earlier non-Islamist groups," Dekmejian refers to intellectuals and activists affiliated with the Nasserist and Baathist regimes of the Arab world. To be sure, both the "old" and the "new" non-Islamists are secularist or have secular tendencies. But the similarities end there. The old non-Islamists were both the product and the vanguard of military and dictatorial regimes. As such, they have always been antagonistic not only to the tenets of liberalism, but also to its political or intellectual manifestations. Furthermore, the old non-Islamists' legitimacy depended on their ties to certain political parties and regimes outside Saudi Arabia, whereas the new reformists see themselves as representing the dreams and aspirations of their own people.
Unlike the old non-Islamists, the "new liberals" assume from the start that the Saudi monarchy is legitimate and reflective of the social and political reality and history of Saudi society. Thus, it provides a badly needed framework for maintaining national unity.
While they accept the monarchy, liberal reformers object to the government's insistence on ignoring the fact that social reality is not constant. Saudi society has been transformed dramatically over the last three decades and these changes need to be reflected in the political and legal institutions of the state and in the government's internal and foreign policies.
This is the main point of contention between the ruling family and the reform movement in Saudi Arabia. Reformers see the government's reluctance to respond to the social and political changes in society as a serious source of weakness. When the government responds, it does so by trying to maintain old values and institutions, such as by appeasing the most radical and narrow-minded ulama and preachers. In this sense, the threat to the Saudi state comes not only from the spread of religious radicalism, but also from the government's response to this radicalism.
The September 24 petition stresses the urgent need for the government "to recognize that holding out on reform for too long, and not allowing popular participation in decision making, are among the main factors that have contributed to the dangerous turning point at which that our country now finds itself" --a direct reference to the rising tide of religiously inspired terrorist attacks inside the Kingdom.
The petition goes on to list the most pressing reforms that the government should undertake immediately. Among these are implementing the legally binding principle of the separation of powers, turning the appointed Consultative Council (Majlis al Shura) into an elected body with full legislative and supervisory powers, reinforcing the independence of the judiciary, and legalizing civil society institutions.
These demands have a liberal slant that was completely absent from the jargon of the old non-Islamists. But they are not new. The demands were set forth in numerous petitions issued since the Gulf war, all of which have called on the Saudi leadership to start the long overdue process of political and legal reform. In the past the government's response to such petitions was hesitant and mixed, alternating between limited concessions and crackdowns. In contrast, initial indications suggest that the response to the September 24 petition is more promising, as demonstrated by the Saudi cabinet's October 13 announcement that the Kingdom will hold elections, for municipal councils, at an unspecified future date.
Khalid Al-Dakhil is professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.