|MADINAH, Saudi Arabia Last year, I directed the first independent poll in Saudi Arabia. We conducted our survey - with the help of 75 researchers - in all of the kingdom's 13 provinces between July and November of 2003. The results, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, are based on a total of 15,452 responses, 62 percent men and 38 percent women. We were interested in Saudi perspectives on political reform, the religious establishment, women's empowerment and terrorism.
Several months after Sept. 11, a survey taken by Gallup asked many questions about Saudi perceptions of America and terrorism, but it was closely monitored by the Saudi government and sensitive topics were avoided. In contrast, we were given absolute freedom in creating our survey. In fact, even the most controversial questions were asked, including: "Would you support Osama bin Laden as leader of the Arabian Peninsula?" Sixteen other questions spanned the most pressing issues currently facing Saudi Arabia.
While only 4.7 percent of respondents supported a bin Laden presidency, 48.7 percent had a positive opinion of his rhetoric. How do we reconcile these contradictory responses? As one interviewee from a conservative southern province told our team, "When we hear bin Laden railing against the West, pointing out the corruption and incompetence of the Arab governments and the suffering of the Palestinians, it is like being transported to a dream." But he went on, "when we see the images of innocent people murdered for this ideology, it's as if we've entered a nightmare."
Bin Laden's rhetoric seems to touch a chord, especially when he highlights U.S. bias toward Israel and what is seen as Western encroachment on Islamic lands. However, the great bulk of Saudis clearly do not believe his bloody ends justify the means.
In addition, clumsy U.S. policies in Iraq, images of torture at Abu Ghraib, and the constant if biased coverage of Al Jazeera - often called the "bin Laden channel" - also garner sympathy for bin Laden's cause. But as the poll clearly shows, that support quickly evaporates when Al Qaeda follows through on their rhetoric with action. Our poll was taken after three deadly attacks in Riyadh last year but before those in 2004 which killed a large number of Muslims and Saudis, and so we expect his support to have dwindled even further.
Another of the surprising results is the support for political reform in the kingdom. Nearly 85 percent of those polled thought that political reform would be beneficial for the country. Over 90 percent wanted to grant women more rights, and 63 percent thought they should be allowed to drive. It's important to note that while these changes have a social component - Saudi women have proven themselves in academic and professional spheres in the past decades - it's also a reflection of economic realities. The drive to rely less on foreign workers, coupled with a sinking per capita income, has made barring Saudi women from the workforce more and more untenable.
Another interesting point that our poll uncovered is the level of confidence that Saudis place in the government-appointed religious establishment, or ulema. Less than 59 percent supported it. An observation from a woman in Jidda stated that while she was not actively hostile to the ulema, she felt they were out of touch with the problems she and her family faced.
A whopping 79.6 percent consider unemployment their most pressing concern. No other issue - corruption, political reform, education, or religious extremism - broke 10 percent. In fact, even terrorism was cited as a primary concern by only 0.7 percent. Clearly, Saudis - like most people around the world - want first and foremost a decent job, a steady if not rising standard of living, and sound employment focuses on issuing obscure religious edicts seems to have led to a loss of confidence in their ability to improve the lives of average Saudis.
A final point is worth discussing - the relatively low approval rating of "liberal reformers" Only 11.8 percent had a positive view of them. This seems to contradict the high approval for political reform. The discrepancy makes more sense by realizing that liberal reformers have very little name recognition in the kingdom. Another explanation could be that the current leadership itself has embarked on a wide-ranging reform effort. So while Saudis support the notion of reform, they seem to want it shepherded by the current leadership. An outspoken respondent in Jidda summed up the mood by stating, "I do have many criticisms of the royal family. But that doesn't mean I want them toppled."
Saudi Arabia remains a deeply traditional society, but this poll reveals that a growing number of its citizens want to move into the 21st century. Of course, they also want to retain their culture and remain sensitive to that fact that as the birthplace of Islam, the kingdom has a responsibility to move slowly and embrace reform cautiously. However, the fact that this poll was conducted at all shows that the senior leadership is serious about bringing a new openness to society, and the responses of the more than 15,000 people show that the population is ready for that.
Nawaf Obaid is managing director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project.