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King Fahd's Low-Risk Reforms in Saudi Arabia

TWO days before 1993 ended, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia ended the uncertainty surrounding his reforms by inaugurating a long-awaited consultative council, or majlis al-shura, in Riyadh. He thus took the desert kingdom another step toward participatory government.

The monarch had moved closer to this crucial act some four months earlier by announcing the members of the council after keeping the nation, the world's largest exporter of petroleum, waiting for quite a while.

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The delay in defining and implementing a political scheme indicates the king thought long and hard about democratic reforms in a more or less cloistered system practiced by desert tribes of Arabia down the ages.

It is unclear how far this progressive measure will erode the absolute power enjoyed by the monarchy or the currently ruling House of Saud. But no immediate conflict is foreseen by political observers between the government and the legislature.

This is partly because the council includes prominent citizens, businessmen, and tribal leaders loyal to the throne. The new reforms do give ordinary people a role - but only via carefully chosen representatives that keep basic power structures intact.

In the current turbulent Middle East, the move toward liberalization (by Gulf standards) may even be seen as a step by the strictly religious regime to also confront an increasingly militant fundamentalist challenge.

The appointment of the council members last fall to a 60-member majlis al-shura came after a wait dating back to March 1992, when the council's framework was outlined. Though its composition was promised within six months, as of September 1992 only the speaker of the central council had been appointed. Some speculated that the reform bandwagon had hit a snag. The full assembly, which will serve mainly as an advisory body but whose scope has been much widened under the new measures, takes shape in the wake of strong socio-political and economic stirrings.

Recent months have seen the emergence of a vocal ``human rights'' lobby in Saudi Arabia; some arrests were reported last year in hard-line academic and intellectual circles. Fundamentalists opposed to Western influences as well as concentration of power, are said to be gaining sympathy through radical propaganda. Taped speeches and other material have been proliferating in cities.

This is the background for the majlis al-shura. Its members, the monarch says, ``will be from among the best citizens.'' He added, ``They will look into matters that need study and wisdom'' - a reference to Islam.

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Since most influential families and citizens are tied to the establishment, their inclusion, even in a reformed council, is only of academic merit. Unconventional liberal or radical ideas will surely be neutralized by this lobby.

But King Fahd, who has been walking a tightrope in trying to maintain political stability while balancing a deficit-laden budget, is seriously attempting to reconcile the modern era, the aspirations of Western-educated Saudis, the dictates of religious scholars on both sides of the divide, and the response of his own administration. One major result of his effort was the liberalization blueprint unveiled in March 1992.

From a Western democratic point of view, King Fahd's package of political and administrative reforms amounts to only a cosmetic change in the system of governance dating back 62 years. But for Saudi Arabia, it represents a historic constitutional and political transition. In effect, it gives the country its first written statute in the form of a ``basic law.'' For the first time, representatives of the Saudi people have a say in the running of the kingdom. That itself represents, in many eyes, a quantum leap forward.

The basic law sets up the majlis al-shura with powers to question government actions; it provides guarantees for personal freedoms. Under it, ``the state ensures security for all its citizens and residents,'' and ``no person can be arrested, jailed, or have his actions restricted except as under the law.'' It enshrines the sanctity of the home.

The system of monarchy continues. The king remains the prime minister and commander in chief of the armed forces, and can appoint and sack ministers and the consultative council. But the provision to associate representatives of Saudi citizens with the decisionmaking process marks a broadening of the base of power.

King Fahd had presented his three-tier charter of reforms in a nationally televised address - creating a constitutional framework, streamlining the provincial legislative and administrative structure, and setting up a virtual electoral college of princes to choose the next king. New rules of succession stipulate that the sons and grandsons of the late King Abdel Aziz al-Saud, who founded the Saudi state in 1932, should be consulted.

The package was based, King Fahd told his subjects, on ``a domestic policy that values the citizen's security and stability and a balanced foreign policy keen on establishing relations with other nations and contributing to the pace of the world.''

A ring of change was unmistakable in the royal statement. It can be variously regarded as linked to the 1991 Gulf crisis sparked by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and to Western military and diplomatic help in meeting that challenge. It is no secret that the Western allies, notably the United States, have pressed their Gulf partners to introduce reforms.

The Saudi move is a response to these developments and to the general change that has taken place in regional and global arenas. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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