A prominent human rights campaigner in Saudi Arabia told western journalists last month that the government plans to hold national elections in three years’ time.
Mohammed Said Tayeb told the BBC and other news organizations that he had been told by Saudi defence minister Prince Sultan that national elections for a third of the seats on the kingdom’s consultative council would be the culmination of a three-year process of political liberalization which would begin with elections for 14 municipal councils next year. This would be followed by elections at the city level, the following year, and then national elections for the majlis-e shura the year after that.
Only the first phase of this process, the municipal elections, has been officially announced, when the government said on October 13 that half the members of municipal councils would be elected next year. However, government insiders are reported to have confirmed the main thrust of the plan as related by Tayeb. However, no details on who will be permitted to vote, how the voting will be administered, and what powers the elected bodies will have yet been made public.
The unprecedented moves towards political liberalization, however limited they may be, are in response to massive political pressure being put on the Saudi government from several sides simultaneously. Domestically there is growing dissent and dissatisfaction, most of it aimed at government corruption and subservience to the US in regional affairs, particularly its inability to take an independent line on issues such as Iraq and Palestine. This dissent is channelled through a number of groups, ranging from militant supporters of Usama bin Ladin, through a range of other Islamic groups of various shades, to western-style liberal groups.
There is also pressure from the US to reform the kingdom’s politics, on the assumption that the Saudi kingdom’s Islamic pretensions have contributed to the rise of political Islamic movements and opinion opposed to the US. The US, however, wants to have its cake and eat it: it wants the government to be more open and liberal politically, while suppressing all signs of political Islam and not permitting any hint of opposition to US policies or interests.
For the US, this means the establishment of the kind of facade democracy that we presently see in countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait, where power is tightly concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite, while some of the institutions through which they operate are designed to give the impression of popular participation and democracy.
The contradictions which arise in trying to pursue such a policy were demonstrated on October 13, when the country’s first conference on human rights opened in Riyadh. Usually, the words ‘human rights’ are taboo in the kingdom, and liable to bring the wrath of the government down on anyone who dares utter them. It was surprising, therefore, to see a massive banner about the conference hanging from one of Riyadh’s main building.
However, far from representing any popular demand for rights, the conference was in fact organized by the government itself, and tightly controlled. An estimated 150 people were arrested near the city’s landmark Kingdom Tower when they tried to take advantage of the conference to demand political rights. Anti-riot police surrounded the square where the demonstration was due to take place, preventing people from reaching it and chasing and arresting those who did try to get there.
The demonstration had been called by the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), run by the London-based dissident Dr Saad al-Faqih, who broke away from the better-known Campaign for Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) some years ago, and publicised through MIRA’s radio station, Islah.
MIRA also called for more protests against the Saudi government a week later, apparently trying to take advantage of the publicity it received, and the unusual focus on Saudi political affairs. These demonstrations, on October 22 and 23, were also suppressed by the authorities.
At the same time, Saudi authorities, urged on by the US, are also cracking down on Islamic opposition to the regime. Since activists allegedly linked to Usama bin Ladin and Al-Qa’ida bombed three Western residential compunds in May, the Saudis authorities have pursued a harsh crackdown on all those suspected of Islamic political tendencies.
While encouraging political liberalization and talking about human rights, Western governments have praised this crackdown, even though those arrested have no rights whatsoever and are often subjected to appalling treatment. Significantly, one of the demands of protestors in Riyadh on October 21 was that political prisoners and all those held without trial should be released; clearly there is popular disquiet about the regime’s crackdown on Islamic activists.
The problem facing both the Saudis and the West is how to open politics up in order to absorb and disarm political disquiet, without giving any assistance whatsoever to Islamic movements. In Egypt and other countries, this is partially achieved by encouraging secular and liberal elites and intellectuals who are as anti-Islam as the regimes, and often are as anxious as the regimes to see Islamic movements suppressed. Whether there are significant numbers of such people in Saudi Arabia, a country which has been more insulated from Western influence, and where Islamic values are more deeply ingrained in society generally, remains to be seen.
Certainly the West and the Saudis could have some trouble imposing the facade democracy formula in the heartland of Islam.