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Saudi Arabia dares to hope for reform
Toronto Globe and Mail


August 05, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - As Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb watched his new king pledge to pursue "righteousness and justice" and his fellow countrymen swear their allegiance, he hoped the man who ascended to the throne will remember, and keep, the promises he's made.

Al-Mugaiteeb said in 2003 that a group of 40 social and political activists, as well as religious leaders, personally delivered a petition to then-Crown Prince Abdullah, asking that he implement political reforms to move Saudi Arabia from being an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

The petition called for a parliament elected by both men and women, and for a prime minister to oversee the day-to-day running of the country's affairs. In effect, what the reformers wanted was a complete overhaul of the way the country has been run since it was founded in 1932 by King Abdullah's father, King Abdul Aziz.

"He said, 'Your reform requests are my agenda,' " al-Mugaiteeb recalled. "That's great. The question now is, how much can he deliver on that?"

The record to date isn't good. Two of the authors of that petition - Dr. Matrouk al-Saleh and Dr. Abdullah al-Hamed - are now in jail, sentenced to six- and seven-year prison terms for making their reform demands public and organizing meetings with other political activists. Al-Mugaiteeb himself was interrogated and had his passport confiscated because of an interview he gave to the Al-Jazeera television network calling for accelerated political reforms in Saudi Arabia.

Despite such setbacks, al-Mugaiteeb, who founded Saudi Arabia's original human-rights group, Human Rights First, was still daring to hope this week. When Abdullah received the petitioners, and when the prison terms were later handed down, he was the acting ruler during the illness of his half-brother King Fahd, but still only the Crown Prince, and some of his relatives are believed to have questioned his authority to make drastic changes. Now the newly minted monarch, who became king on Monday when Fahd died after a 23-year rule, will have a chance to prove he meant what he said when he promised reform.

In a country where more than half the population is under the age of 18, Saudi Arabia's repressive political system, as well as a rising tide of youth unemployment, are blamed in some circles for creating a pool of angry young men who are easy recruits for militant Islamic groups. The al Qaeda network, headed by the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, has vowed to violently overthrow the royal family.

Although he dismisses the idea of linking the country's political system to its problems with Islamic extremism, King Abdullah has already pushed through some limited political and economic reforms. Earlier this year, in his position as de facto ruler, he oversaw the country's first experiment with democracy, holding nationwide elections to municipal councils.

Critics, however, dismissed the vote, in which only men were allowed to cast ballots, as a purely cosmetic reform designed to please Saudi Arabia's key ally, the United States. They note that four months on, none of the municipal councils are functioning yet.

Western diplomats caution that the royal family rules by consensus and that King Abdullah can go only as far as some of his more conservative brothers and half-brothers will let him. But in a family often accused of being distant from the people it rules, al-Mugaiteeb said the king may be able to push ahead with changes because of his genuine popularity with the people.

"This guy has been trying, for the past three or four years, to do something, but there are a lot of obstacles. Still, King Abdullah is very much liked by the people. Everyone I talk to - Shiites, Sunnis, leftists, women, even extremists - they all like Abdullah. They think he's genuine."



Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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