In the Saudi political annals, 2003 was the year of reform par excellence. 2003 witnessed not only a growth of literature on reform unprecedented in size and boldness, but also the government's announcement of several reforms, the most significant of which is the holding of municipal elections. Though no date has been set, such elections would be the first in the Kingdom since the early 1960s.
The year began with a petition, signed by 106 Saudi citizens, calling for extensive reforms, and closed with three noteworthy developments: an expansion of the powers of the appointed Majlis Ash-Shura, or Shura Council; the creation of a ministerial position for consultative affairs; and the holding of the second meeting of the National Dialogue, with participants from different religious and intellectual schools.
During the year, many unprecedented events took place. For the first time, women's names appeared among the signatories on reform petitions. The notion of reform became a subject of conversation and debate with, and among, the highest echelons of the Saudi government. In November a large pro-reform demonstration—in which women participated—was held in Riyadh. The demonstration took place on the occasion of an international conference on human rights held in the Saudi capital—another unprecedented event.
In October, the minister of defense, Prince Sultan Abdulaziz, told three representatives of the reform movement that the government intended to implement reforms beyond municipal elections. Such reforms, he said, would include empowering the Shura council to supervise the budget and transforming the Shura and municipal councils into elected bodies, beginning by electing 30 percent of the Shura council's members.
In 2003, reform became the issue of the day, inside and outside the government, for those who are for it, and for those who are against it. In other words, the concept and extent of reform became recognized as a legitimate question of contention. The government for the first time recognized the necessity of reform and the legitimacy of public demands for it. It eased media censorship and was more receptive to reform petitions, in contrast to its hostile attitude a decade ago. Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was the first high-ranking official to adopt the expression "expanding political participation," stating in an address to the Shura council that "municipal elections will be the beginning of the Saudi citizens' participation in the political system." The Foreign Minister, prince Saud Al-Faisal, similarly remarked that Saudi Arabia "has reached a stage in our development that requires expanding political participation." Such vocabulary used to be anathema to the ruling family.
Clearly, the year 2003 saw new political dynamics taking shape in Saudi society. Although demands for reform were voiced in the early 1990s, the government did not respond positively until after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and the May and November 2003 terrorist attacks in the Kingdom. The rise of terrorism seems the most influential factor in forcing the new reaction. It is too early to tell if these new dynamics signify the beginning of a new political pattern, or merely a momentary impulse forced by the ramifications of these events. What is expected now is for the government to fill the new reform context with real substance.
Five factors are important with regard to substance and implementation. First, although the government has committed itself to reform, it has not yet laid out a vision for reform, the goals it will achieve, or how it will be implemented. Second, despite the fact that the petitions presented to the government concern political reform, most of the literature published in the Saudi press on reform was carefully steered away from the political. Third, those who stand for reform are mostly intellectuals and academics, the weakest political forces in society. The business community, although verbally supportive of reform, is not willing to get involved in the reform movement, largely because it is dependent on the government. Fourth, although the reform movement recognizes the legitimacy of the system, it has not managed to win the trust of the government. This is one reason for the government's hesitant position on reform. Fifth and most significant, the Saudi leadership is apparently split over the question of reform.
Despite these questions surrounding the implementation of reform, 2003 should still be remembered in the political history of Saudi Arabia as the year when the foundation for reform was built.
Khalid Al-Dakhil is an assistant professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, and a columnist for Al-Ittihad, an Abu Dhabi newspaper.