The Saudi rulers are about to undergo, for the first time, the humiliating experience of a public drubbing by a fully paid-up member of the desert kingdom’s inner elite. In a book to be published in London in November, the son of former oil minister Shaikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani takes them to task over how the country is misgoverned- - raising several highly sensitive issues hitherto only broached by dissident Islamic activists.
Hani Ahmad Zaki Yamani, 36, calls for direct elections to a Saudi assembly, an end to corruption and the presence of foreign troops in the country, defence pacts with Muslim States to reduce reliance on the west as well as the crushing burden of weapons purchases, and better treatment for women.
An Oxford graduate, millionaire business man and a ‘liberal’, Hani is no mujahid and, unlike Osama Ben Laden and Dr Muhammad al-Masa’ri, does not of course attack the royal rulers themselves or their western protectors directly. On the contrary his book, To Be A Saudi (to be published by Janus publishing) is peppered with expressions of loyalty to the king and the House of Saud, and endorses the Saudi version of Islamic rule once famously dubbed ‘American Islam.’
But his criticism of government policy is robust enough to cause great political embarrassment to the regime and its western backers and lends credibility, in the eyes of Saudi ‘moderates,’ to similar charges made by Masa’ri and Ben Laden, which the Saudi authorities and media try to dismiss as false claims by ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists.’
The Saudi rulers are sensitive to criticism from any quarter at anytime, but Hani’s comes at a moment when Al Saud are feeling particularly vulnerable because of king Fahd’s failing health and damaging struggle for succession in which rival wings of the dynasty are reportedly locked in.
Hani’s call for direct elections is certainly a new and daring departure as far as members of the elite are concerned. At present, the kingdom has a toothless consultatives council (Shura) without any independent powers whatsoever. All its 90 male members are appointed by the king.
‘The next step would be to have the members of the Shura elected directly by the population, enabling them to truly represent the feelings of the majority in an advisory role and in an independent non-partisan manner’, argues Hani.
He further argues that the Shura must have well-defined powers and functions to increase communication between government and people - adding that the system must be extended to cover local government and municipalities.
This may not be as revolutionary as calling for the establishment of an Islamic system of government or a secular republic but it strikes directly at the king’s power of patronage, which the Al Saud use ruthlessly to buy support. It also lends credibility, even if only indirectly, to calls for reform by such radical reformers as Dr al-Masa’ri.
Hani also attacks another Saudi sacred cow: the presence of foreign troops in the kingdom - also an indirect criticism of the Americans, who dominate such presence and use it to raid Saudi coffers. He asserts that the presence of those troops is unnecessary and the cost of maintaining them too prohibitive. The huge cost partially explains the fact that the Saudi budget has been in deficit since the 1991 Gulf war, which was used as a pretext for the virtual occupation of the kingdom by US forces.
The unlikely critic of Saudi profligacy contends that Muslim troops can easily and should replace the foreign forces. The kingdom should sign defence pacts not only with the west but with Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey for the protection of the holy cities of Makkah and Medina, he says - adding that Saudi men should also be subject to conscription. This he believes would cut the crushing cost of weapons purchases, which the country may never need, anyway.
Admittedly, all the Muslim countries Hani names are firmly secularist and pro-west. But his criticism that the country’s holy shrines should not be defended by kufr troops (although he does not use the phase), and that the huge arms purchases may not after all be needed, echoes similar charges made by Islamic activists and is bound to sting.
The charge becomes even more caustic and damaging when it is linked to his discussion of the ‘threat of corruption,’ which he calls ‘a growing phenomenon’ but unconvincingly attributes to ‘a few weak souls in government.’
The reason is that it is common knowledge in Saudi Arabia that the huge weapons purchases are made, not because the country needs them, but because the Al Saud covet the enormous commissions and kickbacks involved, which they shared, up to a point, with favoured commoners before the era of budget deficits and austerity programmes.
The relative famine in petro-dollars began in the late 1980s when the oil boom of earlier years was already becoming just a memory. The kingdom started the decade with annual oil revenue of $102 billion. By 1989, it had dropped to $18 billion.
The political cost of the ansterity programmes has been considerable. The ordinary Saudis resent the severe cut-back of the welfare system, while the elite mourns the vanishing of the fortunes lavished on them to buy their allegiance.
But despite their resentment, the members of the inner elite prefer to voice their grievances in private, believing the House of Saud to be the best bulwark against an Islamic revolution. That is why they leave any criticism of the system to Islamic activists. That is why also Hani’s public attack is interesting - and damaging, despite his protestations of loyalty to the king.
Unlike Osama ben Laden, he will not call for a revolt against the House of Saud or a jihad against the US presence in the kingdom - or, indeed, elsewhere. That is why the Americans will not hunt him down and Riyadh will not withdraw his Saudi nationality - at least not yet.
But his ‘defection’ will rankle and is likely to prove damaging simply by setting a precedent for a vital group of supporters whose loyalty Al Saud have considered beyond question.
Muslimedia - September 16-30, 1997