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Speculations on the Reformative Discourse in Saudi Arabia
20/08/2004 - 12:51 am

Introduction:
 The reform path in Saudi Arabia interacted with the pace of internal and external political development that the Kingdom went through and which can be noted through following up the public discourse that shows the anticipations of reformists. This discourse was highly admired among reformist elites who were supported by the society; and many of their demands coincided with the governments' initiatives. However, it is obvious that the reformative draft was subjected to many failures that exposed it to a state of decline and provisional retreat.

 This article reviews the progress of the reformative work in Saudi Arabia through showing the significant petitions and memorandums presented by reformists; which are "A Vision for the Nation's: Present and Future", "Partners in One Nation" and "Constitutional Reform First". It, also, shows the conditions of preparing them and marks the official and social responses.

Petitions and Memorandums; the Available Tools
 Although the channels for expressing opinions in a free way in Saudi Arabia are limited, the ability for communicating with decision makers and meeting them directly are what distinguish the political system in Saudi Arabia. This traditional approach is so familiar among Gulf societies and the Saudi in particular for exchanging viewpoints in various issues. Saudi reformists utilized this approach to reach their goals through preparing petitions and memorandums presented to senior officials within the political leaderships and the royal family.

The Document of "A Vision for the Nation's: Present and Future" (January 2003)
 This document was prepared in October 2002 and was sent to the Saudi Crown Prince in January 2003 after it was signed by 104 political and social figures who represent diverse groups and regions of Saudi Arabia. It expressed the demands of the signed reformists in five issues; establishing constitutional institutions, addressing economic problems, promoting the interaction between the society and its leaderships, making reformative initiatives and calling for holding an open national conference. These points, also, included demanding equality between citizens, abolition of censorship, releasing political prisoners, abolition of travel ban for political reasons, setting public freedoms, conducting judicial reforms and developing public services for citizens. In January 22nd, 2003, the Crown Prince met with some of the figures who signed the document and discussed several issues that were mentioned in their petition. He asserted that their demands will be considered and indicated that the State currently needs more time to implement their demands.

 Signatories considered that document the base for their reformative work, and made it accord with the common political environment. However, some religious parties; especially the Salafis criticized it because of the sovereignty of the liberal trend as well as the call for releasing public freedoms without any constraints.

 The document was the national forum for various reformative groups and intellectual elites which missed the cooperation, and its signatories considered it the appropriate opportunity for expressing their viewpoints and declaring their reformative programs.

The Document of "Partners in One Nation" (April 2003)
 This document was signed by 450 saudi Shiite figures from different regions; among them were twenty-four women as well as religious scholars, academics and businessmen. It was handed over to the Crown Prince in April 30th, 2003, within a meeting attended by eighteen Saudi Shiite figures. It stated the demands and anticipations of Shiite citizens in Saudi Arabia that are related to their equality with other citizens, suppressing discrimination and giving them the opportunity to benefit from the various state facilities. It, also, demanded a fair representation in the Kingdom through participating in attaining senior public positions in the state such as in the Council of Ministers.

 The document adopted the reformative demands which already had been declared by intellectual elites in the previous petition i.e. The Vision and emerged from the base of national unity. It did not include any sectarian or factional tendencies but it presented the discrimination issues as national ones that affects all social groups. "Partners in One Nation" Document was able of achieving a state of solidarity among Shiites and clearing the legality of Shiite's political rights of participation within the State's establishments.

 Although the document's common goals and national demands are transparent, some claimed that it does not show the national reformative demands and it is limited on factional issues. Moreover, Sheikh Safar Alhawali, one of the Salafist figures, expressed his condemnation to Shiite demands within a statement which was characterized with sharpness and unobjectivity entitled with "When Minorities Controls Majorities". However, the document was officially accepted from various authorities and even there are few positive actions taken over some of the mentioned demands.

The Document of "Constitutional Reform First" (December 2003)
 Basically, this document was prepared by Islamic figures in order to set up the reformative demands which were previously called for in the Vision document. It was signed by 116 figures; most of them belong to Islamic trends in various Saudi regions. It focused on the legality of these reformative demands, and was sent to the Crown Prince and officials in December 16th, 2003. The document included a clear conviction to violence which prevailed in the Kingdom due to the absence of popular participation. It concentrated on five main issues; the recognition of public freedoms, electing parliamentary councils, separating the three powers, promoting the dependency of judiciary and allowing the formation of civil and private gatherings. Within the document a part named "Call to the Nation" in which it invited citizens to interact effectively with the reformative draft. The responses of officials were unwelcoming; especially to the "Constitutional Monarchy", and on regard to which the Minister of Interior met the prominent signers, discussed with them this issue and urged them to not continue promoting this petition.

 As for the intellectual elites and reformative parties, they had a clear state of hesitation because of the high- requested demands in this petition as well as the nature of the document which was overwhelmed with Islamic terms that may lead to confusing explanations in the future.

A Sustainable Stream of Petitions
 Besides those three significant documents, Saudi activists and reformists cooperated in preparing various petitions documents to reinforce their presence in the political scene and activate the social status.

 One of those issued documents entitled "Call of Saudi Intellectuals to the United States President" in March 2003, in which they condemned  the invasion on Iraq. Another one is "In Defending the Nation" in June 2003 which contained demands of implementing political reforms, and "Together on the Way of Reform" document which issued in March 2004 and in which it affirmed on the same reformative principles, beside "The Saudi Women" document in which demands for reinforcing Saudi women's role in various available fields were required.

 Moreover, the Salafist trends issued a set of various document over political and religious issues as responses to the claims that were raised against those trends by the Western media in regards to educational curricula or political stands over war on Iraq or women conditions.

A Pause for Review
 Through the previous review, it is clear that there is a political and social movement in Saudi Arabia in this period, and there is a willingness of interacting and developing it in order to serve the reformative draft. It is important to mention that there are some reformative accomplishments such as enforcing partial municipal council elections, holding national meetings for intellectual dialogue and approving the establishment of some professional associations.

 Nevertheless, there are several hanged-up issues in the structure of the reformative draft which needs to be reviewed. The following are the most noted ones:

1. The reformative parties were not able of overstepping the elites and deal effectively with the society. This is significant to make the draft connects with the basic and daily needs of the society.
2. Reformists belong to different trends and diverse groups, and they did not have the chance to overcome the existing differences through open and free meetings. Therefore, they still have alternate fears in regards to any new project, and this is why many believe in the importance of interior dialogue among reformists.
3. Security measures and political conditions, also, contributed in restraining movement and activities of reform; especially after many terrorists' attacks and bombings.
4. The reformative movement was not able of setting common programs that aims to forming proposals, facilitating cooperation among its parties and involving more social groups within the reformative draft.
5. The reformists lack for a plan that reinforce the culture of reform in the society and which lay the basis of cultural and intellectual reform, and show their necessity as well as obstacles that confront them.
6. The reformists did not benefit from previous experiences.
7. Reformists' activity is limited on writing petitions and memorandums without developing them to include the rest of peaceful means for expressing opinions or the proper mechanisms that can be activated in this field.

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