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Saudi Arabia sees glimmer of reform
Just before a winter midnight, the sound of hundreds of ardent young men stirred deep in a tangle of pitch-black alleys.
It was no chorus of voices, but a sound utterly unto itself: the heavy, steady thump of hands against chests, the hollow pulse of men beating their hearts in anguished devotion to the 7th Century Shiite martyr Imam Hussein. They continued for hours, as in Shiite enclaves for miles around, inching through the streets, bellowing his name--"O, Hussein!"--and glorying in the return of a ritual long denied them.
Until three years ago, the Sunni-led government of Saudi Arabia barred its 2 million Shiites from publicly staging rituals like this February's Ashoura march, driving them into illegal meeting halls and mosques under a long-held policy of stifling non-Sunni expression. But after decades of being sidelined by the state and denounced by powerful clerics, Saudi Shiites are savoring a glimmer of tolerance and, this month, a first-ever local election that is likely to be their greatest step yet into the political mainstream.
"Right now, we are looking for our basic rights as human beings," said Shiite prayer leader Sheik Hassan al-Nemer.
What is happening here is part of a much broader change.
The story of how marginalized Saudi Shiites have found the chance to vote for local leaders--and the audacity to criticize the government--reflects a fragile drive for democratic change gathering strength across the Middle East two years after the U.S. toppled the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein.
But with "democracy" and "freedom" the new buzzwords of today's Mideast--embraced not only by President Bush but also by authoritarian Arab leaders and the dissidents they imprison--what is the push for democratization actually producing? Who is fighting for and against it, and how much does reality match the Western vision of a liberal, democratic Middle East?
There are few places more important to finding answers than Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to the world's most valuable oil resources. Here, the struggle over reform is pushing the country into awkward contradictions: There is unmistakable new space to speak and worship more freely, but professors and poets who push too far are imprisoned; the royal family is holding first-ever nationwide elections yet bans women from participating.
In invading Iraq, the Bush administration shook the region's political order. But according to dissidents, diplomats and officials, U.S. policy is not the most powerful force driving Saudi Arabia to change, and the forces the invasion helped unleash are now well outside American control.
A violent Islamist insurgency, inspired partly by hard-line Saudi clerics, is spurring the government to rein in rhetoric in the mosques. A huge generation of young people, tied to the world through the Internet and cell phones, is debating its future in a new, more critical light. Abrupt leadership changes in the Palestinian territories and Iraq have fueled questions about the Saudi future, as powerful princes jockey for whose vision of the country will prevail after this generation of leaders.
Crown Prince Abdullah has run the country since his elder half-brother King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995. The crown prince, believed to be about 81 years old, advocates a greater role for women in society and permits moderate press criticism of the government. But other senior royals, particularly Interior Minister Prince Nayef, do not favor such rapid reforms. It is not yet clear who--and what school of thought--will succeed the crown prince.
The one thing on which all sides agree is that a struggle has begun in Saudi Arabia to define the future of the kingdom.
"The world has changed," said Akl al-Bahli, 53, a Riyadh businessman and reform activist. "The leaders are changing. You see newspapers and satellite [television] every day. If you stop the books at the airport, people can get them from the Internet. The leaders know this."
A kingdom divided
The Bani Asem tribe worries about a growing problem at its weddings, but it may have a solution: All grooms from this tribe in the western city of Taif are required to give their tribal chief a security deposit of 5,000 riyals, or about $1,300. The grooms lose the cash if their guests use their cell phone cameras to snap pictures in the wedding hall, photos that could let outsiders get a glimpse of female guests without black robes covering their gowns.
Such is life in a schizophrenic kingdom. In less than a lifetime, this land has been transformed from the barren domain of camel herders and warring tribes, with less than half a million literate adults, to the world's dominant oil empire. Today, the nation of 20 million citizens and 5.5 million foreign workers is a jumble of sandstone ziggurats and mirrored skyscrapers, muddled by technology, information, violence, wealth and religion.
Cartier and Armani boutiques in the capital teem with rich women, their faces and bodies shrouded by black robes. Religious police troll the malls looking for violations--an unrelated man and woman sitting together, say, or a woman's uncovered head--but teenage boys in luxury sedans sidestep the rules by rolling down their windows and shouting their cell phone numbers to crowds of giggling young women.
"We have modernization, but no modernization of civil society," said Turki al-Hamad, a newspaper columnist and former political science professor. "It is like a modern home with a tent in the middle."
It is a nation of red states and blue states. As in the U.S., most of the country is red: a vast heartland that is, by and large, more conservative than the coasts and wary of influences that challenge its traditional values. The Saudi coastline is blue country, where people are less orthodox and more critical of the regime.
The heart of that divide is the state's marriage to Wahhabism, a puritanical branch of Islam. The alliance dates to the birth of the country, when the Al Saud family unified the country that now bears its name thanks to the armed support of followers of 18th Century preacher Muhammad ibn Abdel-Wahhab.
The union thrived, but the government forever owed its power to the clerics known as Wahhabis, who call for Muslims to return to the true Islam practiced by the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th Century. Today, Wahhabi clerics and their supporters see an urgent need to set distinct limits on the growth of democracy.
"We can't have a Western democracy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because that is based on the people, and for us, the first word is the Koran," said Abdullah al-Uthaimin, a conservative member of the Shura council that advises the crown prince. "There can be democracy in the sense that people are elected, but there are red lines, and you can't extend them beyond religion."
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. shook the kingdom. When 15 of 19 hijackers proved to be Saudis, the government under pressure from the U.S. warily began removing intolerant rhetoric from its educational system and clamping down on charities that support terrorism.
But real reform did not begin in earnest until violence hit home: In May 2003, Saudi rebels attacked housing complexes in downtown Riyadh, killing 35 people, an event Saudis call their 9/11. Attacks have continued, causing the deaths of more than 100 Saudi and foreign civilians.
U.S. and European diplomats say that insurgency forced Saudi leaders to acknowledge that their failure to address mounting social problems and to permit orderly dissent was threatening their survival. Faced with soaring unemployment and a huge youth population, the elderly princes concluded that modest democratic reforms could channel public anger.
"The impact of the attacks was awareness that you can't leave major issues unaddressed," said Nawaf Obaid, a security adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador in London.
Liberal dissidents, journalists and moderate Islamists seized the opportunity, drafting petitions in coffeehouses and offices and forwarding them to Saudi leaders. On television and in newspapers, reform-minded citizens issued unprecedented calls for an end to government corruption, the right to vote and form associations, and expanded rights for women.
Crown Prince Abdullah soon announced that local elections would be held for the first time for 178 municipal councils across the country. In a rare gesture of religious tolerance, he convened a religious conference he called a National Dialogue, which was designed to send a symbolically dramatic message: Shiites and other minorities were permitted to sit down with the Sunni establishment. It was a heady time for reformers.
"What happened in the last two years is more important [for democratization] than anything that has happened in the last 40 years," said al-Bahli, the activist. "Now the people were talking directly to the leaders."
But by the middle of 2004, momentum began to wane. With oil revenue soaring and security forces racking up some high-profile successes against militants, pressure had eased on the government to make decisive changes. In March 2004, police had abruptly arrested 13 prominent reform activists, including several who had met with Abdullah during his flirtation with openness.
The move was widely interpreted as more-conservative princes striking back against the crown prince's reforms. The royal family could not hide that it was divided. The war over change had begun.
Demands for change
On a cloudless February morning outside the High Court of Riyadh, two dozen mostly middle-age men and women chatted nervously in the shadow of the 12-story modern stone courthouse. A row of lightly armed police officers stood between them and the building, and one by one the men and women stepped forward across the cobblestones to make their way inside the court and were turned back by police.
It was a far cry from the Gdansk shipyard, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement in Poland, but in Saudi Arabia, even this constituted modest civil disobedience.
"Before, nobody would have been here," said al-Bahli, standing in the shade of a palm tree. "But you see today people are willing to be here."
The men and women were there for the latest hearing in Saudi Arabia's most high-profile free-speech trial, an emerging test case for how much dissent the Saudi government is prepared to permit--and how hard it may strike back against its embryonic civil society.
The defendants--Ali al-Dimeeni, a poet and former Marxist; Abdullah al-Hamed, an Islamist human-rights activist fired from his university post for his political views; and Matrouk al-Faleh, a politics professor at King Saud University who earned his doctorate from the University of Kansas--are accused of sowing dissent, undermining the authority of the king and breeding instability.
They were arrested a year ago after circulating a petition appealing to the royal family to create an independent judiciary, permit parliamentary elections and create a constitutional monarchy. Ten other reformers arrested with them were released after they signed a pledge to stop asking for reforms or speaking to the press. The remaining three refused to sign.
The three men are hardly the first Saudi dissidents to be tried for speaking out, but this case is unusual: The government has permitted snippets of the trial to be public, and local activists have gone further than ever before in voicing support for the defendants.
"When we talk about Ali's trial," Fawzi al-Ouni said of her husband, al-Dimeeni, "we shouldn't talk about it singularly. It is the trial of reform in Saudi Arabia."
Authorities initially opened the proceedings to the public. But when the crowd at the second hearing overflowed the courtroom, the judge postponed proceedings and closed the rest of the trial. Defense attorneys denounced the decision and took the unprecedented step of beginning to build their case on the most provocative question of all: What gives Al Saud family members the right to rule? On Nov. 6, one of the lawyers, Abdel Rahman Lahem, was arrested as well.
Lahem's attorney, Khaled al-Mutairi, said he believes Lahem was arrested for criticizing the government to foreign journalists, though no public charges have been filed. Al-Mutairi, who is asking the government to set a trial date or free his client, concedes that he, too, risks arrest for talking about the case.
"I am representing Abdel Rahman because he gave an opinion, and that is all. As a lawyer, I should stand up for him," he said one afternoon over coffee in Riyadh. "At a time when violence is happening in the country, you have a group of people trying to get reform in a peaceful way. They should be allowed."
At the recent hearing, while supporters were kept at bay by the police outside, the three defendants refused to speak as long as the courtroom remained closed. The judge gave up and postponed the hearing and sent the defendants back to jail, lawyers said. To al-Dimeeni's wife, that was an incremental success.
"For the first time, imprisonment is bringing dividends because a lot of political principles were absent [from public debate] before," she said. "But now people are talking about them, about a constitution, about elections."
While reformists are enjoying a sliver of greater openness, Saudi Arabia's human-rights record remains "poor," according to the U.S. State Department. In its most recent human-rights report, released Feb. 28, the U.S. faulted the kingdom for cases of torture, arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention.
There is no reliable estimate of the number of political prisoners. Illegal demonstrations can draw a sentence of whipping or other corporal punishment, as in the case of 15 anti-government protesters sentenced last month to be flogged after mounting a public demonstration in Jiddah, according to Human Rights Watch.
"Violence and discrimination against women, violence against children, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and strict limitations on worker rights continued," the State Department reported.
Those who draw attention to these issues face retribution. Ibrahim al-Mugaitib, 51, a former journalist and political activist, has tried unsuccessfully for several years to register his group, Human Rights First, as a non-governmental organization, but the government has not given him a license. He is banned from traveling outside the country.
"Democracy is not just the process of elections," he said. "Why don't you allow rights groups? Or women's groups? Or Shiite groups? They are not allowing society to develop and at the same time they are not allowing people to express their frustration."
Academic and press freedoms are tightly controlled. In October, the regime decreed that any government employee who circulates petitions or criticizes the government in the press could be fired or arrested. Professors routinely describe receiving official rebukes for sensitive things they say in their classrooms.
Nevertheless, restrictions on the press have eased. Until two years ago, Saudi writers say, even using the word "Wahhabi" in print could draw an official rebuke. Wahhabis reject the term because it suggests that they represent an offshoot of mainline Islam. Now, the taboo has been lifted, and writers routinely criticize the power of Wahhabi clerics.
But the centerpiece of the government's reform efforts is the kingdom's first nationwide municipal election, unfolding in stages from February to April. The experiment is far short of full democracy--women are banned from running or voting, and half the seats are appointed by the royal family. But that hasn't stopped many Saudis from embracing the race as a route to political participation.
Ballot box redemption
Sheik Hassan al-Nemer buried his left hand in the folds of his brown and gray robes and withdrew a bright-blue plastic card: his freshly printed voter registration. Surrounded by a dozen Shiite followers in his small meeting hall, he raised it before him for emphasis.
"I am sending a message by voting" al-Nemer said. "We don't believe in receiving power by force, but with one finger--by voting."
Shiites, who make up about 10 percent of the 20 million Saudis, are staking out a new place in society. Separated from Sunnis in a 7th Century dispute over the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad, Shiites have long been denounced by the Wahhabi establishment as non-Muslims, encouraging a pattern of discrimination in jobs, education and religious expression, according to Shiite activists.
The state strictly limits the construction of Shiite mosques and bans most Shiite books and magazines. Activists are arrested and held for long periods without charges, according to the U.S. State Department. Shiites have held one ambassadorship, they have no Cabinet seats and few places in senior military or corporate ranks.
In the early 1980s, Saudi Shiites inspired by the Iranian revolution staged uprisings that were put down by the government. But today Shiite leaders are looking instead to the ballot box. Registration for the March 3 election in the Eastern Province exceeded 40 percent, more than double the level in the capital, with some 150 candidates vying for 10 seats.
In the days before the vote, young men at the campaign headquarters of candidate Jaafar al-Shayeb punched the keys of six computers, reading Web sites, managing finances and burning CDs with clips of al-Shayeb's television interviews. Their campaign was being conducted as much online as in the flesh, and they vigilantly promoted their candidate in popular online Shiite forums.
"Three years ago, elections were banned in this country and considered un-Islamic among other issues," al-Shayeb said. "So I read it as a development in the right direction, and it has to be expanded to really include other participants, including women as well."
Al-Shayeb's campaigning paid off. When votes were tallied after the March 3 election, he was one of the Shiites who swept the race in Qatif. They also won five of six seats in the mixed Sunni-Shiite area of Hasa.
The Shiite ascendancy in Iraq, from long-repressed majority to new power brokers, has echoed loudly here. In April 2003, some 450 Shiites presented an unprecedented petition to Crown Prince Abdullah titled "Partners in One Nation," calling for end to discrimination and arbitrary arrests, better representation in government, and an official recognition of their right to worship and publish freely.
The government hasn't accepted the demands, but it has noticeably loosened its grip. Even before the Iraq invasion, the government had gradually begun permitting more-public Shiite rituals, such as Ashoura. The same month that the Shiite petition was submitted, the nation's senior religious leader, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheik, decreed that accusing Shiites of being non-believers was not permitted. The government later assembled a national convention of religious leaders, which issued a statement recognizing that diversity within Islam is "natural."
The state is particularly keen to appease Shiite pressure here in the east, the capital of the oil industry that is the kingdom's economic bedrock. Jordan's King Abdullah II and other Arab leaders warn darkly of a "crescent" of Shiite power stretching from Iran through Iraq and Lebanon. Privately, Saudi officials say they don't fear a Shiite government in Iraq, but they worry about tensions between Sunnis and Shiites across the region.
"The only thing that is of great concern to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is that we never heard about Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds under Saddam Hussein," one senior official said. "We only started to hear about these divisions under the Americans' [occupation of Iraq]."
To 26-year-old Hussein Abdelkarim al-Nemer, these flashes of openness hold a far more personal note of promise: His father, longtime Shiite activist Abdelkarim al-Nemer, has been imprisoned for more than five years without charges. Al-Nemer says that as he continues to lobby for his father's release, he is eagerly embracing the chance to vote.
"His experience taught me that when you have a chance to express your voice, you have to take it," he said.
Just how much impact votes like that cast by al-Nemer will have in shaping the country's future will be a measure of how far these tentative steps toward democratization may go. But ultimately the elections and efforts of dissidents are only a limited part of the equation.
A major but uncertain ingredient is U.S. pressure. In his State of the Union address last month, Bush called on Saudi Arabia to "demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future." Many Saudi reformers say blunt demands like that hamper their work, because Bush's lack of credibility in the Muslim world and the U.S. failure to bring peace in Iraq taint local reformers' talk of democracy.
"The neocons are using words like `security' and `democracy,' but their policy is founded on war," said Khalid Al-Dakhil, a sociology professor at King Saud University and a frequent critic of the Saudi government. "Can you imagine someone like me putting my hand in the hand of Donald Rumsfeld?"
But others counter that Saudi Arabia's moves toward greater political participation would never have happened without U.S. pressure on leaders and the public.
"The West plays a very important role because it gives hope to people," said Shiite activist Isa Ahmed al-Muzel. "Even among those who hate the West, they feel like there is someone outside supporting their demands."
The other major ingredient is the royal family's willingness to make fundamental changes to the system it created. Just taking Saudi law as an example, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. Revising those rules would require a sea change at high levels of government.
Realistically, reformers say, the next major change they hope to see is a direct election for the Shura council that advises the crown prince. In that case, the reformers could find themselves in position to bring real pressure on the regime. But for now, even discussing that too strongly can be an intimidating prospect.
"Whoever is going to be elected by the people has the legitimacy nobody else has, not even the king, believe it or not," said a reformer in Qatif.
He paused and then added: "It would be wise if you don't quote the statement about the king."