From the February 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 2)

Trouble in the House of Saud

Creating Saudi Civil Society: An Insider's View

Mohammed Ibrahim al-Helwa, Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Saudi-owned), London, England, Dec. 9, 2003

Lately, there has been a great deal of talk in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia about civil society....It seems that all this strongly linked to the project of political modernization announced by the Saudi leadership in recent months. Within elite Saudi circles, debate grew as to whether political modernization had to come before setting up civil society, or whether it was possible to leap directly to civil society and the beginning of political participation through general elections....

In Arab and Islamic states, we hear about general elections and read about the diversity of political parties. But at the same time, we hear about a journalist arrested or detained because he published an article contradicting the government’s position, and about another citizen whose money has been confiscated and who has been imprisoned with his family after being accused of taking a position that diverged from that of the party or government. Why is this so? Because we have jumped straight to the civil society stage and have ignored the simple facts of political modernization....

In his study of the Algerian experiment, “The Problem of Legality in Arab Political Regimes,” Khamees Wali concluded, “Any change to achieve democracy has to take into account its intrinsic link with the nature of the state, its level of growth, and the degree of its preparation....The problem is that the nature  of the state in the Arab world cannot yet sustain democratic  diversity, as entrenched partisan factions have not yet been absorbed into the melting pot of the modern state and society.”

What will bind these factions to the modern Arab state, eliminate the causes of strife in Arab society, and transform various Arab groupings into a cohesive society is the rise of civil society....Passing over the demands of civil society could lead to our falling into the abyss of political crisis....The Saudi citizen, more than anything else, needs to have his basic rights and freedom of expression guaranteed. He wants a more profound membership in the state and his role in social and political participation strengthened, so he can feel part of an inclusive order, not a state of alienation. Summarizing the harmful results of this [alienation], Ahmed Saleh wrote: “It leads some into seclusion, and others into rebellion, crime, and excessive religiosity, which in fact means withdrawing from life, rejecting it entirely, and taking hope from the afterlife.”

The author is a member of the Saudi Shura Council, a national advisory chamber empowered late last year to propose legislation.

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