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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before