Is Saudi Arabia Moving Toward Democracy?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," February 11, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: A small step towards democracy in Saudi Arabia (search). Thousands of men, and only men, are voting in municipal elections for the first time. It's historic, but is it important?

Joining me now from Washington, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Wyche Fowler. Ambassador, the big question: so will these Saudi elections lead to what we would call an actual democracy there?

WYCHE FOWLER, FORMER AMBASSADOR TO SAUDI ARABIA: Well, I think that once you go down, once you allow people to vote and to express themselves and then to participate in government after they are elected is very difficult to go back.

I think the Saudis considered this for a long time, meaning many, many years, watching voting beginning in Bahrain and Kuwait (search) and Jordan and other places around the Gulf. They saw that it wasn't the end of the world, that people were helped by participating in their government and exercising a franchise.

So I do think this is a first step that will lead to a second step with women and further into franchise.

GIBSON: So, what do you think is going on in Saudi Arabia when they look next door in Iraq and see this election just go and women voted and eight million people came out and they voted for a national assembly, which is going to make a constitution? Essentially, in this case Saudi men are being allowed to vote for the people who are going to pick up the garbage and change the streetlights.

FOWLER: Well, again, I think that we ought to, rather than criticize — they are two very different places, Iraq and Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia, as most traveled societies, are governed by consensus. And that's very different than throwing things open and having 51 percent of the people win and 49 percent of the people lose in an election.

So they're being cautious, yes. They're being careful, yes. But as the First Lady said today, "You know, it took 120 years for women to vote in our country, not until the 1920s. And then up until 1965, when African- Americans in our country were given full enfranchisement privileges."

So, I think we ought to encourage this as a first step. Encourage them on and I think you're going to see, slowly but surely a democratic state come into being in Saudi Arabia.

GIBSON: OK. Do you, from your experience with Saudi Arabia, are you convinced that the Royal family is there for good? And that in a democracy would sort of, lead to some sort of constitutional monarchy like Britain has, for instance?

FOWLER: Well see, this is the great experiment and this is the great risk. You don't know who is going to be elected. I think the government is going to have some surprises when we see who these people are, these seven that were elected in Riyadh yesterday.

I think they're not going to be all liberal reformers. I think some of them are probably going to be Islamists and some of them are going to be people who, yes, want to push towards a different system, preserve the monarchy. But probably in the sense that you describe, maybe a constitutional monarchy, more similar to Great Britain.

GIBSON: Do you think that if there was a true free and fair election held today in Saudi Arabia for everything, that Usama Bin Laden would win and be running the place?

FOWLER: No, I honestly do not. I think that first of all, the Royal family has far more support than we acknowledge on this side of the ocean.

Secondly, once bin Laden started, and his terrorists started, fighting the Saudis and bombing innocent women and children who were Muslims and Arabs in these housing compounds, in their own homes, there's been a tremendous shift in support for the government in joining us in fighting terrorists, certainly in Saudi Arabia.

And the last thing, if I may add quickly, is that Bin Laden has no program. He has no alternative. He doesn't say, "Come with me and we'll do this."

So, I think you'd be very surprised at the support.

GIBSON: Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Wyche Fowler. Ambassador Fowler, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

FOWLER: Thank you very much, John. Thank you.

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