Understanding the Saudis

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — In only 48 brief hours here last week, I witnessed history in the making with not just one, but several life-changing events.

There was the country’s first international conference on human rights; the first public demonstration attended by hundreds of Saudis; the first noticeable presence by Saudi women at both the conference and demonstration; the first-ever announcement of free democratic elections; and the opening of Kingdom Centre, the largest commercial facility of its kind in the world, including the world’s highest mosque. That is a long list of firsts for this notably conservative 70-year-old Middle East monarchy.

Yet Saudi officials claim to have practiced democracy and to have held free elections for generations in their tribal-based society, pointing out that the chief of each tribe is always elected, as is the leader of the country’s Tribal Council of Chiefs.

They also believe that it will take a long time for the West to understand them, which is why they were so welcoming to a visiting committee of four Canadian MPs who landed in Riyadh just as I was leaving.

Why was I there in the first place? I was attending one of those history-making events — the conference for Human Rights in Peace and War, organized by the Saudi Red Crescent Society and featuring international academicians, social justice experts, and NGO activists.

A keynote paper there was presented by a women, Dr. Rifaat Hassan, a prominent law professor at the University of Louisville. The Pakistani-born American human rights activist held the rapt attention of the entire conference, whose participants included some 200 males from a dozen countries and, more significantly, two dozen Saudi women representing academia and Saudi NGOs. Another key paper was given by another woman; Princess Hosa Ben Salman, the daughter of the Governor of the Province of Riyadh a Western educated academic.

Yet this ground-breaking gathering received mainly negative coverage from Western media. One source reported that a conference on human rights was being held in Saudi Arabia, despite it being widely regarded in the West as "one of the world’s most repressive regimes."

But tough questions were both voiced and discussed, as well as being reported in local media. For example, the establishment of independent human rights-focused NGOs to insure the implementation of International Humanitarian Law was urged. Prince Naif, the Saudi Minister of the Interior, also promised a speedy conclusion to the ongoing investigation of a tragic prison fire which took the lives of both inmates and guards in the summer of 2002.

When I asked about the case of recently released prisoner William Sampson, which is uppermost on Canadians’ minds whenever Saudi Arabia is mentioned these days, an official confirmed to me that his government will investigate any allegation of torture, if and when Mr. Sampson files a formal request via the Canadian government.

I proposed that the huge gap between theory and practice in both the developed and developing nations (especially after 9/11) should be the theme of a future follow-up conference. Most Saudi academics and NGO representatives agreed.

During the second day of the conference, state police took "all necessary security measures" to break up what was officially termed an "illegal gathering" by hundreds of young Saudis, both male and female. The demonstration attracted a few hundred more onlookers who watched in the event in disbelief. Why? because, unlike public activity in most of North America and Europe, such things do not happen in Saudi Arabia. Barely a week before the conference, the Interior Minister warned that "demonstrations in the Kingdom are illegal."

But the most exciting news of all from Riyadh — and I still do not know if it was coincidental, or planned — was the announcement during the human rights conference that in 2004 the first-ever democratic elections will be held for the country’s 14 municipal councils.

The councils will not be completely chosen by vote, however. Only half of the members will be elected, while the other half will be appointed by provincial governors. I was told that the reason behind electing only half the members at this stage is to ensure that the councils will not be dominated by the rich and powerful.

By appointing the remaining council members, governors will insure that minority tribes, especially those who cannot afford the high cost of pre-election campaign advertising, would still be fairly represented. This explanation made perfect sense to me, not only as a first step toward democratic reforms, but perhaps heralding an even fairer system of representation, suited to the local cultural and political context.

And Saudis are now looking beyond this imminent reform to the application of a similar 50/50 elected/appointed system for the 120 members of the leading consultative Shoura Council, who until now have always been appointed by the king. But even the current Council, formed in 1993, can act much like a federal parliament and question the performance of ministers, including those from the Saudi Royal Family. That, to me, spells a quantum step toward a democratic national parliament.

Where is the momentum for change coming from? In truth, it has been there for quite a while, but behind-the-scenes to Western observers. Crown Prince Abdullah has led a quiet, albeit slow, reformation movement for the past decade, fostering the aspirations of many Saudi liberals who’ve been calling for such major changes as an independent judiciary, constitutional reform, free elections at all levels of government, inclusive freedom of expression, and the creation of more arm’s-length civil and social institutions.

But every step must be precisely measured and monitored, whether relating to political or economic reform. If not, sweeping and rapid reforms could backfire catastrophically, negatively affecting the lives of all Saudis. This is what both the Saudi leadership and citizenry believe. So I hope the four Canadian MPs who are visiting this still-mysterious Kingdom will learn to understand it in on its own terms.