Saudis step tentatively towards reform: King Fahd has named members of the long-promised consultative council. Charles Richards looks at how the body will function

THE ANNOUNCEMENT at the weekend that King Fahd had formed a 60-man consultative council is the first tentative step towards reforms in Saudi Arabia for so long promised and so often deferred.

It was in March 1992, as a direct consequence of the 1991 Gulf war, that King Fahd said he would appoint a 60-member Majlis al-Shura, or consultative council, within six months. The aim in part was to deflect criticism, from both outside and inside Saudi Arabia, about the absolute nature of the Saudi regime.

The months came and went. It took a year for the King to appoint a speaker of the council, Mohammad Bin Jobair, a religious scholar and former judge. It was another few months before he nominated the deputy speaker, Abdullah Naseef, an academic and university administrator. And finally, he has named the 60 men who have been elevated to this body. There are no women, nor any of the 5,000 princes and members of the royal family.

The selection has taken liberal, modernising Saudis pleasantly by surprise. A fair number of the nominees have doctorates. None appears to represent the other reforming wing within Saudi society which desires more, not less, of a rigid interpretation of puritanical Islam, and who would rather see the establishment of rule by Islamic scholars.

The functions of the council are limited. There is no sense that Saudi Arabia is seeking to introduce free elections or Western-style democracy. Indeed, there is little desire for such a system among Saudis. Yet officials point out that the council will not merely rubber-stamp legislation. It will act more like the House of Lords or Privy Council - unelected bodies which can reject laws submitted for approval, but otherwise merely advise the monarch. All decisions on major policy - defence, foreign affairs, security, and the budget - will continue to be taken by the King, or by princes to whom he delegates specific powers.

Yet the council's members, since they are appointed by the King, can also be sacked by him. For the King believes his rule is benign by the standards of regimes of other states in the region, some of the most repressive police-states in the world. Saudi Arabia does not habitually lock up its political opponents, although several of the hardline Islamists who formed the misleadingly called Council for the Defence of Legitimate Rights have been detained.

Indeed, monarchs since the modern kingdom was established by Abdel Aziz ibn Saud in 1932 have seen their role as balancing the different tribal, political and regional forces - those pressing for greater liberalisation and reform, as against those who believe that the kingdom has already liberalised too much.

The King has shown no desire to increase the level of public participation in the decision-making process. But the Shura council, if it functions with teeth, will act as a form of control to which the cabinet will be accountable. Already over the years power has been diffused somewhat through the evolution within society of a larger technocratic base. The freedom of corrupt princes to demand huge commissions has been in part circumscribed by promotion of technocrats to responsible positions in companies and the civil service.