News your connection to The Boston Globe

Vote near, Saudis push to modernize

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Even as Saudi Arabia struggles internally with violent extremists and externally with its image as the country that produced most of the attackers of Sept. 11, 2001, the desert kingdom's rulers are moving on multiple fronts to modernize and moderate their nation.

Partial local elections are scheduled, starting in October, for the first time in the kingdom's history.

A series of highly publicized national dialogues is opening public discussion on religious and social topics, ranging from the sensitive to the previously taboo.

Women are increasingly outspoken in asserting their rights to participate in society, both economically and politically.

And the rigid religious hierarchy that a few years ago was sending morality police into the streets to enforce an extremely strict version of Islam is seeing its powers erode.

None of this means irrevocable change has occurred toward moderation or liberalism in Saudi Arabia, the world's most austere Muslim nation. Critics say that the pace is far too slow and that change is coming not because it is seen as good for the average citizen but because since Sept. 11, the United States is demanding it. Others say the changes are occurring because Saudi Arabia itself has become a target of deadly Al Qaeda-linked terror attacks that have killed more than 50 people, most of them Saudis, in recent months.

But there is broad agreement that the momentum for change has not been this strong since 1979, when a radically different set of regional and international circumstances pushed Saudi rulers into what would prove a disastrous adventure with Islamic extremists.

Back then, the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the seizure by fundamentalists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca put unprecedented pressure on the House of Saud, which since the 18th century had derived legitimacy from its claim to work on behalf of Islam and from its close alliance with the familial and religious descendants of Muhammed bin Abdul Wahab, founder of the strain of Islamic fundamentalism that dominates the Arabian Peninsula.

The Sauds reacted by pumping billions of dollars into conservative Muslim institutions, putting their regime into greater compliance with Wahhabism, which adheres closely to the Koran, and opening the way for tens of thousands of passionately religious young Saudis to leave the country to wage jihad, or holy war, against the communist invaders of Afghanistan. But after the communists were defeated, the holy warriors turned their weapons on their US and Saudi patrons.

''The state has a choice," said Khalil Al-Khalil, who is a professor of political science at Imam University in Riyadh and a member of the national board of education. ''It has to give up Wahhabism, or it must modify it. It can't continue as it is. . . .

''You have to respond to world issues," Khalil said. ''You have to be connected to Muslims all over the world. . . . Some of our young people won't listen to these rigid ideas. [The rigidity] creates problems for modernization, for the government, and for the society."

On the surface, Saudi Arabia hardly looks like a nation in distress. Large American cars, especially Ford Crown Victorias and GMC sport utility vehicles, jockey for space on the crowded streets with top-shelf European and Japanese models. The workday is six hours long, with two full days off weekly for many workers. The latest addition to the royal palace complex looks like a melding of architecture from the Vatican and Versailles.

For all the emphasis on conservative tradition, women are readily observable without their full black coverings in glitzy shopping malls, which seem to be everywhere, and fashionable roads like Tahliah Street in Riyadh are accented every so often with daring decor such as that at the restaurant Tao, whose silvered central pillar is cast in the shape of a woman's calf.

Maryam Faris, a popular young Lebanese entertainer, gyrates through her pop videos in far less clothing than would be accepted on the streets of the kingdom, her performance beamed in on satellite television channels that are owned by Saudi citizens and operated from outside the country.

''Media now is like a bad smell," said Sheik Mussa Saud al Regeeb, head of one of 15 stations in Riyadh of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the once-dreaded religious police. ''We close the doors and windows and still it comes in. . . . People have to take this in a calm way and tolerate it."

When he became a morality enforcer 20 years ago, ''people were not like they are now," Regeeb said. ''Old people were many, and young people were few. Now the young are the majority" -- 70 percent of Saudis are younger than 25 -- ''and they have Internet and many television channels."

The youthfulness of the country, a steep decline in per capita income since the oil boom of the 1980s, and high unemployment are creating economic as well as social pressure for modernization and openness to the world.

There is an opportunity to act on all these problems because of soaring oil prices, said Osama A. Elkhereiji, a certified public accountant and member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. Record-high prices will produce an unexpected $15 billion budget surplus this year, according to latest estimates, and investment is flooding into the country as funds that had been invested abroad are brought home by Saudis alarmed at hostile attitudes toward their country in the West, especially in the United States.

Investment is flowing primarily into stocks, real estate, and the oil industry, Elkhereiji said, and Saudi business transactions that would have taken place abroad in years past are happening at home now.

But these seemingly rosy economic developments are exacerbating frictions between modernizers and traditionalists, who have contradictory attitudes about banks and banking.

Modernizers, who generally think religious scripture should be interpreted in the context of current conditions, say participation in international banking practices is something Saudis can and should do. Religious fundamentalists, who dominate jurisprudence in this country where the Koran is the constitution, say the holy book's prohibition on usury forbids any transaction involving payment of interest, virtually every substantial deal.

The government tries to have it both ways, permitting Western-style banks to operate openly, but consulting the religious opponents of such practices and supporting them financially.

The House of Saud has used that strategy repeatedly in the half-century since its highly tribal and traditional subjects were none too willingly thrust into the modern world, but modernizers, including some in the royal family, say a very different approach is needed now because the vast, young, underemployed workforce needs not only jobs but also a sense of identity that makes them feel Saudi, Muslim, and moderate. Otherwise, modernizers warn, today's young people could give rise to a new generation of violent extremists.

Unemployment estimates range from 15 percent to as much as 40 percent in some areas. Businessmen warn that the lack of reliable statistics about such important issues is a big problem. ''It's dangerous," said a Jeddah businessman who insisted his name not be published because he feared official retribution. ''You don't have data to build decisions on."

There is widespread sentiment that the tens of billions of dollars the country received as a result of the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel in the 1970s was not invested well. That contributed to the current lack of skilled high-technology workers and to an abundance of extremists, highly educated in religious studies, who resist modernization at every turn.

Changes have been made recently in educational curricula to try to curb what reform advocates say is an overemphasis on religious studies to the detriment of teaching students the skills their country needs. So far, critics say, the changes are too small and are being made for the wrong reason.

''Yes, there were changes last year in the curriculum," said Hasan Al-Malki, a scholar of religious history and a longtime critic of what Wahhabis call pure Islam. ''It's like you're in a room with 50 bombs, and now you've taken away five bombs. These changes were made only because of American demands. They just want to take out everything about jihad and about Muslim attitudes toward non-Muslims. . . . It would be better to have America say, 'Give people their rights,' and then people can make the changes they want."

Yet many moderates say the small steps being taken are classic examples of the House of Saud's basic approach to governance. They note that in the 1960s, after much debate and in the face of fierce opposition, the government ruled flatly that schools for girls would be opened. It backed its resolve with National Guard troops until people became accustomed to the idea. Creation of radio and television broadcasting outlets similarly met initial, fierce opposition based on asserted religious principles, but after a time the monarchy simply insisted.

''The government does not have a problem with giving women the vote and opening up the country," said Arwa Yousef Al-Aama, an assistant professor of computer science and information technology consultant for Savola, a major Saudi food-industry conglomerate. ''But we do have people who are extremely opposed to such steps. The leaders throw out an idea; they start everything gradually, and once the idea has sunk in, then they impose the new order."

A more recent example of this approach is the Saudization program, aimed at reducing the country's extreme reliance on foreign labor and soaking up some of the domestic unemployment, she said.

''In shopping centers and grocery stores five to 10 years ago, there were no Saudi employees," Aama said. ''Now all the cashiers are Saudi. Now girls who are college graduates are working for $650 a month."

The latest illustration of the Saudi approach to social issues and modernization takes the form of an ongoing series of national dialogues convened by the rulers. The first session was held in secret and included no women. The second -- on moderation and extremism -- was public, and 10 of the 60 participants were women. In the third session, on women's issues, 35 men and 35 women participated.

''The reform direction in Saudi Arabia is not in doubt, but the question is at what rate," said a prince of the ruling family, who spoke on condition that his name not be published. ''The extremists are smart people, and they move on every front.

''Saudi Arabia is the target of every Tom, Dick, and Zawahri who wants to do something religiously in the Middle East," the prince said, jokingly invoking the name of Osama bin Laden's Egyptian-born strategist, Ayman al-Zawahri. ''If you want to launch an environmental movement, you go to Vermont. If you want to launch an Islamist platform, you come to Saudi Arabia."

Charles A. Radin can be reached at 

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months