Taufiq Al-Seif considers that domestic and foreign support for the new Saudi king, as well as a favourable economic and social situation, mean that conditions are right for the renewal of the country's political and social system. He spoke to Hassan Mustafa
The Saudi politician and controversial author
Mr Al-Seif, with the accession of King Abdallah bin al-Aziz, a new era has come about in Saudi-Arabia. Do you think one can expect political changes?
Taufiq Al-Seif: King Abdallah has made it quite clear that he intends to introduce reforms. He has also promised the Saudis that he would start with the reforms soon. So everyone is expecting the introduction of a political and social reform programme which will deal with the country's chronic problems. These include, for example, restrictions in civil liberties, the issue of equal rights for all citizens and the rule of law.
I think that the time has come for far-reaching changes. The king has received support both on the national and on the international level, and the economic situation is favourable. Together these two conditions offer an opportunity which has never been available before to renew the political and social system. On the one hand that means accepting the demands of the people, and on the other hand that means the country must live up to the internationally recognised standards of good governance.
Some people believe that Saudi society itself is one of the barriers to reform. Do you think society is ready for reforms?
Al-Seif: There are two positions in society on this matter: in the ranks of the leading figures in the government, the religious scholars and the Saudi upper class, people believe that the Saudis are not yet ready for reform.
But an overwhelming majority of the middle class—among them members of the consultative council (the Majlis ash-Shura), intellectuals, office workers, academics and all the educated women—have a different view. They hold the opinion that Saudi society has long been ready for reform, and that every delay in the reform process will lead to a crisis which would cost the country a great deal on many levels.
I'm convinced that the current discussion is a continuation of a debate about modernity which has been going on for a long time. A broad segment of the population, which includes the majority of the educated people and the younger generation, has for a long time been demanding that the endless wavering between tradition and modernity must have an end.
But people agree about one thing: preparing for modernity and providing education are essential prerequisites to make Saudi society receptive to the values of modernity. Both of these prerequisites have long been fulfilled in the kingdom. All Saudis under thirty have had a good education which meets modern requirements.
Over eighty percent of the Saudi population lives in cities. In addition, almost all Saudis have access to modern communication media, to satellite television, press and so on. Most have been abroad several times, or at least they have contacts with other countries. In other words, many young people have experience of foreign countries and know what life is like beyond their own borders.
So one can really say that the kingdom has practically speaking arrived in the modern world, with its values, its perspectives, its opportunities for self-realisation and its infrastructure. Probably those who belong to the political class are the only ones who are still caught in a traditional time warp, with its values, its tribal customs and the structures of power and domination which go along with it.
We find ourselves in a dilemma. On the one side society is pushing forward towards modernity. On the other hand, the political class and its institutions are hesitating. They take two steps forwards to take one step back. They appear undecided over whether they want to complete a definite transition into the modern world, or whether they want to remain in a epoch whose time is over and which only exists on the level of symbols.
To that extent, the demand for reform is basically a demand that the state ends its chronic indecision.
As I see it, the ruling elite has to recognise this signal and act on it by making a historic decision. That way the stability of the country and the health of its political system can be guaranteed in the long term.
The government has already taken steps in this direction. The most important was the recent local elections. Do you think they mark the beginning of real reform?
Al-Seif: The state obviously has very specific ideas as to how it wants to conduct the reform process. It should take place controlled within tight limits, defined by the political ruling class and the security apparatus. Such a decision is understandable and acceptable in the light of the current situation.
However, I fear that, while the local elections may have been a step in the right direction, they do not represent the beginning of real reforms. Looking at it realistically, these steps towards reform are rather part of a general process. They certainly aren't part of a structured and sustainable reform programme.
The aim and the objective of such steps is to weaken opposing opinions and to take the pressure out from the centre of society. At the same time, the authorities offer a signal of good will, that they are ready to fulfil international expectations.
These steps towards reform run in parallel as well as coming one after the other. By "one after the other" I mean that the local elections are in effect a preparation for further elections—for example for the Consultative Council or for governors. By "parallel" I mean that every step in the direction of reform goes together with the decision to take that step.
And those decisions mean that civil liberties—like freedom of the press, freedom of opinion or freedom of assembly—are upheld. The restrictions which are typical of the traditional epoch are lifted, like those customs which restrict the rights of the woman. More and more, the rule of law is realised in a more targeted manner and equal rights are enforced.
These movements on the political front have called forth loud protests, from which one can learn that reforms have to be carried out step by step. Each step must be clearly defined and easy to understand. Each step must build on the last, and must prepare for the next. That way the whole process will be clear, both in its objectives and in its duration.
Interviewed conducted by Hassan Mustafa
Translated from German by Michael Lawton
© Qantara 2005.de
Taufiq Al-Seif is currently completing a doctorate in political science at the University of Westminster in England. He has a Master's degree in Islamic Studies from the University of London.
Hassan Mustafa is a journalist and writer who was born in Saudi-Arabia.
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