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Saudi Arabia Reconciles itself
to the past and to the future

For someone looking from the outside, last weeks International Conference on the reign of King Saud held in Riyadh may seem like a regular occasion. The event is far from routine. In fact, it is fraught with symbolic significance. To decode it, however, one needs to delve deeply into the recent history of Saudi Arabia.

First of all, one needs to know that King Saud, who was the second king of Saudi Arabia after the death of his late father King Abdulaziz, was actually deposed by his brother Faysal. His large compound called an-Naasriyyih situated in the middle of Riyadh, where he lived with his very large family and entourage, was neglected and left to fall into ruins. The first university in Saudi Arabia was established during his reign and was named after him: King Saud University. But after he was deposed the name was changed to University of Riyadh. It was during the reign of King Fahad, the fifth king, that the name of the university was changed back to the original one. Saud spent the last years of his life as a fugitive, first in Athens and finally in Cairo. He was ousted by his brother only to find refuge with his traditional archenemy, Nasser of Egypt!

One of king Sauds son, Sayfu l-Islam, published in 2004 a very penetrating and sensitive novel on the life of his concubine mother entitled qalbun min banqalan, Banqalan being a place in Baluchestan from where the mother originally comes. She was captured and sold as a young girl and eventually ended up as one of Sauds concubines and mother of Sayfu l-Islam.

In this novel, Sayfu l-Islam reveals many interesting details about the private life of the king and he gave some very insightful analysis of his fathers personality and his reign, as well as the trials and agonies of his last days in office. What is amazing about this novel, coming from a royal member of the AL Saud house, is its candidness and balanced appraisal of King Saud and his regime by one of his sons. Another commendable side to the novel is the liberal reform ideas the writer is advocating through the novel in a very subtle way.

After all that has been done to King Saud, why celebrate his memory now, at this particular juncture?!

Let me first point out that what happened to King Saud was exceptional and for some observers it might have had its own warranted reasons. Traditional ruling houses in the kingdoms, sultanates and chiefdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, despite what outsiders might think, are much more lenient and averse to violence and assassinations. They might be backward or inefficient, or even corrupt, but they are not as violent as the military juntas around them. They inherit diplomatic and political savvy and the skills to rule from being raised in ruling houses. It will take up too much space to go through explaining the circumstances that lead to the ouster of King Saud. The best place to find out is to go to the last two chapters of the above mentioned novel where the writer handles the subject with surgical delicacy, combining sympathy with objectivity.

The redemption of the memory of King Saud comes as part of an ambitious project envisioned by King Abdullah aimed at national reconciliation and the creation of national consensus through the encouragement of tolerance and the accommodation of diversity. The project was launched after the events of 9/11 when the King (Crown Prince then) launched the Center for National Debate where all major issues of national concern were to be discussed openly by people with different convictions and from various backgrounds. This was meant to be an educative process for people to practice debating and argumentation and the presentation of divergent points of view without getting violent or losing patience with or respect for each other. For the first time in Saudi Arabia, the Center started organizing regular sessions where shieah and sunnah, liberals and fundamentalists, men and women could sit together to discuss topics of common concern. To set a good example and to give clear indication of his good intentions and real commitment to his reform agenda, the King released all dissident prisoners as soon as he was inaugurated. He also established a commission for human rights. Last year, democratic elections were launched for the first time in Saudi Arabia, though on a very limited scale.

Since he was inaugurated, King Abdullah has been touring the country speaking to the people and pushing his program of tolerance and reconciliation as part of his reform plan for the country. In his various speeches, he made it very clear that he will not allow various factions to call each other names or throw accusations at each other or engage in character assassination of one another. He was encouraging people to live in peace despite their ideological and sectarian differences. He was more or less trying to promote the concept of citizenship based on the principle of social contract. During his tours, he clearly expressed in unequivocal terms his apologies to the people of the rural areas and remote parts of the country for all the wrongs and neglect their areas have suffered for the past decades, a very humane, down to earth gesture.

Another step taken by King Abdullah towards social and political reform was the raising of the ceiling of freedom of speech. Anyone following newspapers and magazines in Saudi Arabia these days will notice the difference. Even books, which were banned before, are now allowed into the Kingdome. Saudi TV now has a much wider choice of programs to offer its viewers. Even Saudi women are allowed to appear on national TV without the veil, something undreamed off only a few years back. These days, the minister of labor is drawing serious plans to streamline women in the working force. Also, ministry of education is overhauling and modernizing its curriculum to encourage tolerance and acceptance of others, meaning essentially people of different faiths.

These reform steps might appear rather insignificant by the standard of industrialized nations. But we have to put things in perspective. We are talking about a place, which, until the start of the 20th century, was practically living in the prehistoric age. Meaningful real reform does not come by royal decrees. Reform is a complicated long process of transformation, which takes place through trial and error. The worst and most disastrous kind of reform is the kind that is a carbon copy of an existing foreign model, although this does not rule out the benefiting from the experiences of other nations. The most important step to be taken towards reform is to come to the realization that change is necessary and to have the will to change. Saudi Arabia has taken this significant step. What is needed now is to institutionalize these reforms as a safeguard against any reversals in the future and to allow such reforms to snowball and accumulate, and thus gain the necessary momentum to keep moving forward. Reform is not just practical steps to be taken, it is also a state of mind, a dynamic and open state of mind; a state of mind that tolerates differences and does not fear change.

Saudi Arabia is slowly realizing that it is an odd place and that it must open up and start accommodating itself to the rest of the world. It cannot afford to remain behind other countries for much longer. It is true that part of this surge for reform is motivated by outside pressure from foreign countries and from international organizations, such as World Bank and World Trade Organization. Yet, there is no doubt that there is an authentic and genuine feeling across the board in Saudi Arabia that time for change has come. One of the beneficiaries of this change is the late King Saud who, by the way, happened to be quite popular in his days and was beloved by a wide spectrum of the Saudi people for his kindness, generosity and sincerity. King Abdullah shares these characteristics with his elder brother. More than that, some people think that part of King Saud demise was due to his push for reform at a time when the country was not ready for it. He was the first in the kingdom to form a council of ministers. His cabinet was mostly young educated Saudis with progressive, even leftist ideas. Now the mode has changed. Saudis think that time is ripe for change and that King Abdullah is the right person to implement it.

What is even of more relevance as an outcome of last weeks International Conference on the reign of King Saud is that the conference ties in with a Royal Decree issued less than a month ago, which is hailed as another landmark on the road of social and political reforms in Saudi Arabia. The Royal Decree institutionalizes succession to the throne through written legal procedures the implementation of which is to be entrusted to a newly established commission called the Allegiance Commission. This Decree empowers the Allegiance Commission and gives it the authority to choose the heir apparent; up till now this is the sole prerogative of the king himself. Dropping seniority and age as key factors in assuming the top position and laying stress on competence and fitness, physical and mental, for the office, as specified by the Decree, opens the door for the grandsons of Abdulaziz to assume the kingship. This means that the sons and grandsons of King Abdulaziz can campaign and compete neck to neck for the post, on equal footing and with equal rights and equal chances. The Decree expresses a realization by the sons of Abdulaziz that the era for the second generation, the grandchildren of the founder, is drawing near. To curb the possibility of friction between them, the process of succession to the throne must be institutionalized and regulated by law. As a revamp of this envisioned process and to make it workable, the house of Al Saud has to be put in order. The process will work only if there is good will on part of all members of the ruling family. The sons of King Saud must feel that a big obstacle has been removed from their way to aspire for kingship.

 







  

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