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Consumer Reports

Saudi mirage is now nation in deep turmoil | (KRT) RIYADH, Saudi Arabia Baking in the sun, its highways bursting with legions of luxury cars and its malls stocked with only the best, Saudi Arabia is a mirage.

Rather than an orderly, quiet desert kingdom as it likes to portray itself, it's a nation in deep turmoil. The fatal attacks last week on foreign housing compounds and an office complex in Riyadh are just one measure of the turmoil.

Many Saudis are saying things not heard before, and the din from all the voices calling for a different future can be confusing as well as worrisome.

Self-styled religious reformers want to reduce the powers of the nation's Ulema, or Islamic leaders. They also denounce the lack of democracy and failure to share the nation's vast oil wealth.

Moderates, many of them Western-educated members of Saudi's business elite, want a less austere way of life as dictated by religious conservatives, and as enforced by tough-minded religious police.

Religious conservatives, on the other hand, want fewer Western influences and an end to the consumerism that has turned poverty-stricken, hard-working Bedouins into card-carrying members of the class of the idle rich.

Business people want laws to clean up a system riddled with corruption and cronyism. Women want a slew of rights and privileges, beginning with the right to drive a car and to sit in the same office as men.

Families want an education system geared more to modern careers rather than Islamic studies and schooling that leans more toward an open-minded thinking.

More broadly, a yearning for simply speaking one's mind runs from journalists terrified to tell the truth to average Saudis, who unhappily live at the whim of a slow-moving, tradition-bound bureaucracy.

Amid all their own frustrations, the Saudis feel put upon by the Americans, by some of their Arab neighbors and by dissidents, who plot from far away, among them the home-grown terrorists who joined Osama bin Laden in condemning the House of Saud, the nation's ruling family.

There was sympathy toward the U.S. after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but an anti-American mood has since taken hold. Triggered by the crackdown on Saudis in the U.S., and criticism of Saudi Arabia as a breeding ground for terrorism - since 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis - many Saudis feel betrayed by the U.S.

Anger toward the U.S. was red hot at the height of the invasion of Iraq, and it filled most Saudi newspapers despite the government's efforts to cool it. Unlike most of the Arab world, however, there were no anti-U.S. demonstrations, because the government would not allow them.

Conspiracy theories about the Americans' intentions for the Middle East abound, and many Saudis are convinced, as they say, that Iraq was the appetizer and Saudi Arabia will be the entree for ambitious American policy-makers.

Adding to the Saudis' dismay is a fear that their oil-fired economy might implode one day.

Faced with a high birth rate, high jobless rate and soaring government expenses, Saudis have seen their annual per capita income shrink from about $18,000 in 1980 to about $7,000 today, according to Saudi economists.

These problems have come at an inconvenient time for the Saudi leadership.

Since King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995, Crown Prince Abdullah has been the de facto day-to-day ruler. Without a strong ruler free of family rivalries, Saudi Arabia cannot make any major changes, a Middle East diplomat here suggested recently.

David E. Long, a retired U.S. diplomat and expert on Saudi Arabia, said recently, "Things are drifting, and this is possibly the worst time for them to be drifting."

Hearing U.S. leaders promote the need for reform in Saudi Arabia, some Saudis who believe in such things have also begun to lower their own voices. Now is not the time, they say, to buckle under to foreign pressure.

So, too, Saudi officials insist that their country has been changing. But they say it has been changing in ways not easily visible to passing visitors. Progress without change is a typical motto of some Saudi officials.

"We happen to believe in evolution, not revolution," said Prince Torki M. Saud, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, in a recent interview in Riyadh.

Citing a recent willingness to question some tenets of Wahabism, the puritanical form of Islam embraced by the Saudis, Ghazi Algosaibi, a former ambassador to Britain and current minister of water, insisted that Saudi Arabia is an "evolving society."

"This is a complex society, and each reaction creates a counter-reaction," declared Algosaibi, a prolific author whose works have often angered ultra-conservative religious leaders.

"There are some people who think I am the demon," he added with a small, tight smile.

To Loay Nazer, a Jeddah businessman from a prominent family, Saudi Arabia does not have the option of slowly changing its ways.

"There's no clear vision where the economy is headed," he said. "Unless somebody steps forward and takes action, Saudi Arabia will go from being a very rich country to a very poor country."

Raid Qusti, 28, a columnist for the Arab News, a popular English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia, says his country will not change itself until it wipes away some basic practices.

One of these, he recently wrote, is the ban, based on tradition, on saying a woman's name in public.

"If we cannot utter a woman's name, how can we expect them to drive or to find work?" he asked.

Yet some Saudis have felt a loosening of government controls and are encouraged. During the Iraq invasion, Mohsen Awajy, 42, sensed less pressure on dissidents and took advantage of the "golden chance" to talk out.

The last time he did so, he lost his job as a professor of agronomy at a Saudi university and was dumped into a dark, lonely cell where worried guards put him on a suicide watch. He was set free in 1998 after serving four years of a 15-year term for signing a petition calling for government reforms.

Nowadays he talks about contacts with underground militants and Saudis who went to fight the "jihad" against the U.S. in Iraq_sensitive topics. He carefully disavows violence but doesn't disavow calls for democracy and an independent judiciary in Saudi Arabia.

"If the government knew what's in my file here, they could do what they did before," he said with a smile as he tapped a computer disk in his shirt pocket.

The file, as he coyly explained, involves a "new project."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services