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Saudi reformers say have little faith in US help

By Staff
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RIYADH, Feb 24 (Reuters) Saudi liberals have said they had abandoned hope that the United States would pressure the government to reform the absolute monarchy given to the country's status as an oil supplier and key ally.

The liberals yesterday said that while they were not expecting Washington publicly to press for reform or to rally to their cause, it now appeared clear that the US was not even putting private pressure on the government to promote change.

''All Saudi liberals have lost faith in the United States. Now no one is expecting any support from them,'' rights activist and newspaper columnist Abdullah Bakheet said. ''America has an agenda which is decked out with talk of democracy and freedom.'' He was speaking a day after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met government officials in Riyadh on a West Asia tour to press Arab allies to isolate Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Iran over its nuclear energy programme.

During a stopover in Cairo, she met liberals and advised them to speak with a ''concerted voice'' to achieve political reforms.

But in Riyadh, where she had her fifth meeting with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in six months, there was no time for meetings with newspaper editors, let alone opposition figures.

Reformers in Saudi Arabia, which has no elected parliament, said they doubted Washington had much concern for democracy in the kingdom as long as the government was fighting al Qaeda militants and pumping oil to world markets at near capacity.

They said that while public association with the pro-Israel administration of US President George W. Bush could be the ''kiss of death'' for reformers, some pressure in private would help.

''The American view on reform in Saudi Arabia is not clear at all,'' said a lawyer previously detained for his reformist stances who preferred not to be named. ''They have pressured the government in the past on some other issues and they have pressured many others on reforms.'' Power in the conservative kingdom is dominated by the Saudi royal family and hardline clerics, originating in the Najd heartland around Riyadh where the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam reigns supreme.

''They (Americans) say one thing in public and something completely different when they meet officials in private,'' said reformer Sulaiman Rushoudi, who has also been detained.

Other Saudis from more liberal traditions say they feel marginalised and resent the rigid rules of public morality, which keep men and women segregated in many public places. They are pinning hope on new King Abdullah for change.

Washington says it wants to promote democracy in the Arab world but has watched with alarm as Hamas, the nemesis of its ally Israel, won in Palestinian polls and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood made significant gains in Egyptian elections.

REUTERS TM SSC1049

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