Tuesday, January 06, 2004

DEBKAfile`s special report

January 6, 2004, 12:05 PM (GMT+02:00)

They got a harsh response from Prince Nayef, the interior minister who leads the war against al-Qaeda. “The weak can’t challenge the mighty. We are not a regime that wants people to be satisfied with us. We are here in Saudi Arabia in order to rule,” he declared last weekend during two stormy meetings with two separate reformist delegations, which included notables, intellectuals, academics, and senior business figures.

In response to Nayef’s remarks, one participant remarked “We should understand from what you are saying that you are a regime that is working against the people.” DEBKAfile sources report that this sharp exchange, which occurred at the beginning of the meeting, was later followed by a climactic outburst by a leading businessman who got up and said, “We haven’t gone down this whole road (of reform efforts) in order to regress now because of the way you are talking. If you want to throw us into prison, do it now before we leave this meeting.”

Such straight talking has not been heard before at meetings between members of the royal house and influential citizens. The royal family now faces double pressure: the war against al-Qaeda and a fast growing domestic demand for reform. The absence of essential reforms, and the refusal of members of the royal family even to discuss these reforms, is causing ever larger sections of the Saudi population to distance their support and themselves from the royal house. In such an atmosphere, young Saudis find themselves encouraged to join radical and militant opposition movements, such as al-Qaeda.

This is bad news (if this DEBKAfile report is correct) for gradual reform in Saudi Arabia on a number of counts. We are here in Saudi Arabia in order to rule? This hardly indicates a government willing to be voted out of power. Less obviously, "We" are the rulers, they do not consider themselves of the people.

For the United States the conundrum is harder still. The balance of the evidence indicates that a popular government would not be friendly to the United States. And a conference like this does not indicate a stable strongman either. A democratic government must be willing to accept the popular will - and an authoritarian one cannot stay in power unless people are afraid to speak out against it. I don't think a government can sustain free speech without democracy, or people are free to gather support for a revolution.

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