Saudis reportedly move toward democratic reform


WASHINGTON - Saudi Arabia's leaders have made far-reaching decisions to prepare for an era of military disengagement from the United States, to enact what Saudi officials call the first significant democratic reforms at home, and to rein in the conservative clergy that has shared power in the kingdom.

Senior members of the royal family say that the decisions, reached in the past month, are the result of a continuing debate over Saudi Arabia's future and that they have not been publicly announced.

But these princes say Crown Prince Abdullah will ask President Bush to withdraw all U.S. armed forces from the kingdom as soon as any campaign to disarm Iraq is over.

A spokesman for the royal family said he could not comment.

Pentagon not told

When asked about the Saudi thinking, Pentagon officials said they had not heard of any plan so specific as a complete U.S. withdrawal.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, U.S. Congress members have urged broad reform in the conservative kingdom.

The presence of foreign - especially American - forces in Saudi Arabia since the Persian Gulf war of 1991 has been a contentious issue there. It has spurred the terrorism of Osama bin Laden, the disowned scion of one of the kingdom's wealthiest families, and his al-Qaida followers.

U.S. pullout before vote

Saudi officials said the departure of American soldiers would set the stage for an announcement that Saudis - probably not including women, at least at first - would begin electing representatives to provincial assemblies and then to a national assembly.

The debate over the need for reform is described by royal family members as part of the post-Sept. 11 reckoning to stave off foreign and domestic pressures that threaten the royal family and its dominion over the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.

The debate, according to one participant, has taken place in an atmosphere of opposition from senior princes, including Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the minister of interior, and to a lesser extent, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the minister of defense.

If Abdullah issues the decrees, he will have to contend with religious authorities who will resist a change in the fundamentalist contract that has empowered a clergy who practice one of Islam's most conservative interpretations, Wahhabism.

Whether Abdullah can push through the changes is unclear. The decision by some family members to air the debate seemed in part designed to nudge the Saudi leader forward.

"Doing political reform in Saudi Arabia is like publishing the Kama Sutra in the Victorian Age," said one royal family member. But, he said, "The changes that Abdullah is doing show that he is willing to proceed with only a slim majority of religious support" and a significant amount of opposition.

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