Suddenly the Saudis are interested in reform

Monday, April 28, 2003

LONDON Britain plans to organize a conference on reform in Saudi Arabia in apparent response to a new interest in the topic following the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he had detected a heightened interest in reform as he traveled to Saudia Arabia and Egypt.

"When I go round the region I talk particularly to the leaders of Egypt and of Saudi Arabia," Straw said. "They are interested in reform, they know they have quite a long way to go, these two countries are different in any case Egypt and Saudi Arabia but in their separate ways both recognize the need to make progress, to be more representative and over time more democratic systems."

British officials said the conference is part of a dialogue between London and Riyad on reform in the kingdom's economic and human rights policies. They said one such meeting was held earlier this month and additional sessions are planned, Middle East Newsline reported.

Straw's remarks, in a call-in program by the British Broadcasting Corp., marked the first time that a senior Western official reported on Saudi plans for reform. Saudi officials said the kingdom could reshuffle the Cabinet as early as next week.

Straw said the Saudi reform conference would be held in London. He did not say provide a date, but said the kingdom has agreed to institute changes.

"One of the things we're discussing is whether we, ourselves in the United Kingdom, jointly sponsor a conference here in London about the reform program in Saudi Arabia," Straw said. "There is an understanding of the need for change and improvement and part of the pressure for that is actually not coming from external forces but from demography from the emergence of a more articulate middle class in Saudi Arabia."

The British secretary said London is trying to help Egypt implement reform. He said the Egyptian effort would differ from that of Saudi Arabia.

British officials said London and the United States have pressed Saudi Arabia to launch a series of reforms that would reduce the influence of clerics linked to Al Qaida and improve human rights and religious freedom.

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