This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.

One recent correspondence that I received about Saudi Arabia made me go: "hmmm". As it so happens, this bunch of guys apparently got together and raised a petition to the King asking for reform. Typically, they were immediately rounded up and thrown into jail. Well, we know that at least some were, but no concrete information is available, as the magic kingdom, for some reason, doesn't allow free flow of information. Amnesty International got on the case, but overall, the debate fizzled out. One month after the original petition was launched; the matter seems to have quietly died. Flash in the pan! Nobody cares; nobody knows what happened; it's as dead as the Norwegian Blue Parrot or the dodo.


However, remember what chaos theory says, the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Chile can produce a typhoon in China. Will this petition for change in Saudi Arabia possibly be a small step in the very long pilgrimage to getting that magic kingdom join reality?


First, the recent petition. It wasn't lacking for ambition, asking for reforms in the economic, social and political spheres. This can be looked at in two ways. One way would be to read it and wonder, how in the name of all the turtles in the world, do these petitioners think that this would be accepted? Haven't they heard of being focused? Nobody loves a messiah, (if you excuse the pun!) but asking for so many things to be changed in one petition leads one to think perhaps they are theoretical, immature or even childish.


On the other hand, the fact that a reform petition had to be launched on such a broad front leads to the question of why Saudi Arabia would be faced with such a broad based petition. The petitioners are not stupid; they are smart, intelligent and well educated. What are they really asking for? They want a parliament, which means that the current appointed Shura Council isn't doing that well. They want laws to reduce inequality and a just distribution of resources, which means that there is dramatic inequality and some people think that several people have a disproportionate share of national resources. They want freedom of opinion, freedom of expression and freedom of association, which means that these freedoms are not readily available.


Linked to the freedom of association request is the request to legitimise the formation of NGOs, which means that associations such as unions, etc. cannot be formed. The petition requested some other administrative reforms such as reforming the Interior Ministry, Public and Government Audit Office, creation of an independent High Court of Justice, etc. One might wonder, as we hear these kinds of demands pretty much all over the world in some shape or form - what's the big deal? Well, it is a big deal when we are talking about Saudi Arabia, a country that is quite important.

A pet extremely scientific and quantitative theory of mine goes something like this: and is based upon the theory that we only know the value of somebody/something when we no longer have it. To judge the importance of a country, empty out the country of its population. And then think, will the rest of the world really miss the population? Be brutal. Then assume you have actually cut out the country like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Is it a crucial piece or a piece whose removal (while detracting from the whole) can be lived without? In this particular case, I am afraid Saudi Arabia, by dint of three main factors, (oil, its geopolitical location and the presence of Mecca/Medina) gives it a significant importance. Once you add back the Saudi populace and leadership to the mix, the importance of the country to the world becomes clear.


So, what did the Saudi Regime do when it received the petition? It bunged ten of the signatories into jail, accusing them of offences ranging from being terrorist supporters to being terrorist ideologues to being thoroughly bad eggs. A whole host of worthies (Arab Committee for Human Rights, the Al-Karma Association for Defending Human Rights, the World Justice Organization, Human Rights First, Amnesty International etc.) complained vociferously about the Saudis being bad, sad and worse. Out of the total 99 signatories, when 10 of the highest profile signatories were thrown into jail, you can very well imagine what happened to the rest. Mind you, some of the people arrested were also previously arrested for signing another reform petition in 2004. Some people never learn, eh?


But, as Sherlock Holmes aficionados would remember in the case of the dog which didn't bark, it is not who shouted, but rather who didn't shout which is interesting. (In the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze", by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes was able to deduce that the killer was the owner of the stable dog, as the only person at whom the stable dog would not bark warnings at  was the dog's owner. Hence, the dog's silence indicated that the only one who could have entered the stable and killed the horse was the dog's owner. Since then, the metaphor of the "dog that didn't bark" characterises any conspicuous silence.)


None of the governments, whether Arab or Western, did or said anything much. The Saudi Government of course wouldn't do anything silly like actually engage in a debate. All it said was: "thanks for the petition, you have been bad boys, off to jail with some of you, the rest of you shut up, as the time for change isn't here yet". Look at what happened with the local council elections. Has it made a difference? Nope! Are the elected members able to change anything? Nope! Does the local bureaucracy report to the elected member council? Nope! So what is it for? A sop!


Which leads one to question, why didn't the western governments say anything? This is where their moral bankruptcy shines through. You see, the sheer hypocrisy comes through everywhere. As was attributed to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who said "he's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch", which was based on another quote by Thaddeus Stevens who one day came late to a discussion of which of two office-seekers should be appointed. He asked which one was best and an aide said that they were "both damned rascals". "Well," said Stevens, "which one is OUR damned rascal?"


Here's a digression. People of all ilk's are all upset that China is helping pretty insalubrious regimes in Africa such as the Sudanese government. The fact that western powers are busy helping other African regimes to steal, murder, betray and generally commit havoc doesn't really matter but when China does it, the sky falls in. In this particular Saudi case, the word terrorism trumped the reformist petition. Just because one or two of the signatories were involved in praising and calling for jihad against the US soldiers in Iraq, the entire petition was junked. It didn't happen. It's dead as the Norwegian blue parrot from the Monty Python sketch.


However, before you think that this was just a mickey taking exercise against western powers and the Saudi regime, let us take a look at what the respondents actually mean. Parliament, inequality reduction laws, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of association, independent high court of justice, etc. Please do not think that all these words mean that the petitioners were asking for a secular liberal democracy. Far from it, it would not be secular, it certainly would not be liberal and well, the word democracy is a fig leaf.


So, effectively, what these respondents are complaining about isn't what you and I would understand as reform. A better word would be replacement. They want a replacement of the current regime and current rules with another regime and a slightly different set of rules. As someone said, be careful of what you wish for, as you might get it. For example, freedom of association does not mean that the expatriate labourers can form a union and demand better working conditions. Freedom of opinion does not mean that Shia missionaries or atheists can talk and speak about what they want. Parliament does not mean that any party can be formed and campaign. Also, justice is not what you and I know as justice based upon a precedent setting, open rule and law based justice system, it's a different justice system (more on this in a later column!).


So, while one might support a reform process, one might also question just what is the replacement that is being proposed. To answer the original question, this IS a small step in the long path for Saudi Arabia, but this path is full of extremely knotty existential and convoluted questions. No question, democracy is the only solution, after all, to quote Winston Churchill: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."


All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!


PS: and now that Saudi Arabia has arrested 170 suspects, some of whom were accused of wanting to do a 9/11 using airplanes, reform will again be paused or stuck up on a shelf.