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Reform of Saudi Government and Society a Slow Process

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. If the Islamic world reaches some accommodation with the West, it may not happen through revolutions or wars. If it happens at all, it may be affected by the kinds of small debates we'll hear about next.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has a cautious reform agenda. Last year, the first ever municipal elections were held. And, more recently, women were permitted to run for positions on some boards and commissions. Many Saudis say they would like to see more reforms. But news from elsewhere in the world makes that harder and gives ammunition to Islamic Fundamentalists.

Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON reporting:

Reform advocates have any number of terms for Saudi progress toward a more open society: glacial and cosmetic are among the milder criticisms. But as far as Nash Wattar(ph) is concerned, change is beginning to come to Jetta.

A small woman, dressed in traditional black, wearing a scarf, but leaving her face uncovered, Taher(ph), shows a visitor around the restaurant complex she and her husband are building. She says the ground floor will be a delicatessen to sell the gourmet food products she imports from Italy.

Ms. TAHER (Delicatessen & Restaurant Owner): ...and then we have a seafood restaurant; we have an Italian restaurant; we have three terraces; and we have a bachelor club and an executive lounge.

KENYON: Taher's success in a male-dominated kingdom is a reflection of what some hope will be the new face of Saudi Arabia: more open, more modern, still a defender of Islamic values, but no longer allowing those values to be defined exclusively by hard-line, Wahabist clerics. Taher is among those who say these changes can't be rushed. And she also says recent events in the West, such as the Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet Mohammed, are slowing things further.

She's disappointed to see the uproar breathing new life into the argument that the Muslim world and the West are engaged in a clash of civilizations.

Ms. TAHER: Of course, politics can affect business because, as you said, the cartoons and what happened and we have abandoned products coming from Denmark. Do you think it's only affected Denmark? It affected also the people, the businessmen who are working here and they're, importing there.

(Soundbite of overhead PA announcement)

KENYON: At a supermarket in Jetta's fashionable Hamrah(ph) District, there are gaps on the shelves, where packed butter, blue cheese and other Danish products used to be. Arla, the farmer's cooperative, that is Europe's second largest dairy company, recently reported that the Mid-East boycott that began here in Saudi Arabia has cost it nearly $65 million.

Business writer and Analyst Omar Bagur(ph) says he too found the cartoons offensive. But what struck is that of all the urgent national issues facing Saudis, it was the Danish cartoons that sparked a highly organized campaign, with the names of Danish products showing up on shoppers' mobile phone screens.

Mr. OMAR BAGUR (Business Writer and Analyst): For the first time, we see thousands and receive thousands of messages via mobile phones encouraging us to boycott Danish products. I think it was orchestrated by the Fundamentalists religions in Saudi Arabia.

More issues of this nature will be encountered in the future. There is an urgent need for a positive intervention by the government to at least balance out the differing and opposing positions on such issues.

KENYON: On social issues, Saudis see the Islamists acting even more aggressively. With what many consider the silent approval of the government. Halad Al-Batarfi(ph), editor of the Al-Madina newspaper, says religious fundamentalism was most recently on display at the Rijad International Book Fair. The final days of the fair were family days when women were allowed to attend. And Batarfi says the religious enforcers who regularly patrol the streets of Rijad caused a number of disruptions.

Mr. HALAD AL-BATARFI (Editor, Al-Madina Newspaper): These people went in and saw that women were not covering their faces. Husbands were holding the hands of their wives. They were shocked. I understand that. I think we have to take a stand. We have to say to these people, thank you very much. You can advise, you can announce what you think of us, but you don't have to write to insult or to enforce your conviction on us.

KENYON: But the disturbances caused by the Fundamentalists hardly obscured the fact that this book fair was noticeably more open than its predecessors. Books that had long been banned in Rijad were suddenly available.

Editor Khaled Al-Maeena, at the English language Arab News, says that although change is happening too slowly to suit him, it is happening.

Mr. Khaled Al-Maeena (Editor, Arab News): But for years, the pulpit, the media, other forms of expression--were dominated by a certain segment. And these are very strong, very vocal. Now we people are coming and saying okay, if you don't want to do these things, don't do them--but allow us to do them. Islam is not monitored.

KENYON: Others, however, see the Saudi glass as nowhere near half-full. Veteran reformers, some of whom are no longer allowed to speak to the media, say the government is floating along on a cushion of $60 a barrel oil which allows it to conduct what critics call cement reform--new schools, new roads, new hospitals without addressing the underlying societal flaws.

By western standards these are hardly radical reformers. They say Kuwait's elected legislature, for example, is too much for Saudis to handle right now. They'd be happy with a council that's half elected and half appointed. But they say as long as Saudis can be mollified with more public spending and as long as terrorists keep rattling the public with attacks like last month's failed bombing of a major oil facility, real change in unlikely.

To further complicate things, Saudi reform advocates say every time they look to the United States for assistance or to set an example, they find the rug pulled out from under them. Businessman Yesin Al-Arazzah(ph) says watching the Bush administration try to undermine the Palestinian Hamas leadership after it won some of the freest elections in the region was bad enough, but he says he was most depressed by the American frenzy over a Dubai company taking over management of certain U.S. ports because that, he says, gave the extremists exactly the argument they were looking for.

Mr. YESIN AL-ARAZZAH (Saudi Businessman): It's made matter worse. Now it's, you know, the anti-Western elements will say okay, these people are against us because we are Arabs and Muslim and they don't want to do business with us so why the hell should we do business with them.

(Soundbite of children playing)

KENYON: In the historic section of downtown Jetta, barefooted boys chase a soccer ball around a courtyard. The narrow streets are less crowded than usual because the immigration police have been out on raids. Thousands of Indians, Filipinos and other visa over-stayers are being rounded up.

Shop owner Mondu Al-Hathi(ph) says everywhere he looks, things seem to be pushing people apart--dividing them by race, by religion, by ideology. Business may be good, he says, but the thing he likes about retail work--meeting new people--is missing since September 11, and it hasn't come back.

Mr. MONDU AL-HATHI (Shop Owner, Jetta, Saudi Arabia): I'm here downtown where a lot of foreigners, they come from Europe, from the States. Sometimes when a customer come to my place and he buys something and I would ask him to go for a coffee or something to get, exchange knowledge and culture. I used to have a lot of friends but now they are, like, uh, they don't want to mix with Saudis. They feel fear, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: As the call to evening prayer is sounded, all the shop owners close for prayers. Jetta is a more relaxed city than Rijad or Mecca, but Islam is still a powerful force here and at the moment anti-western feelings are strong. It doesn't feel like those feelings are boiling over, but in a country where 70 percent of the population is under 25 and some 30 percent are unemployed, many wonder where the kingdom will head when the oil revenues run out. Peter Kenyon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.