Saudi Arabia's king is trying to reform his society, but his moves are painfully slow.
Saudi Arabia's king, who also serves as guardian of the birthplace of Islam, could become Islam's chief reformer. This week, for instance, King Abdullah stunned the world's Jews and Christians with a call for a conference of the three main monotheistic faiths in order "to defend humanity."
The king says he was given a green light for such a dialogue from the country's powerful Muslim clerics. If so, the clerics may want to explain why they still ban non-Muslims from practicing their faith. And so deep is intolerance of "infidels" by the country's official Muslim hierarchy that a recent proposal to ban the preachers from bigoted ridicule of other religions was shot down by a consultative council to the king.
The king's move to reach out to Christians and Jews may be one more attempt to indirectly circumvent hard-line Islamic scholars with reforms. Many of those scholars still stir up hatred of non-Muslims in their teachings and create an export of jihadists – despite efforts by the king to rein them in. Ever since the 9/11 attacks – 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia – Western pressure has increased on the House of Saud to combat these terrorist breeding camps. In fact, one rationale for the US invasion of Iraq was to wake up Middle East leaders to combat the roots of militant Islam in their societies.
King Abdullah has conducted a delicate dance with conservatives in the clerical establishment and within the ruling Saudi clan. His government still arrests many political dissidents, controls the media, and tolerates many human rights abuses. One of the worst examples was last year's court sentence to administer 200 lashes to a girl who was gang-raped but then charged with being in the company of a man not her husband. After much outrage, the king pardoned her.
His reforms are coming painfully slowly, and there are concerns that the next in line to be king, Prince Sultan, may reverse them. Still, many reforms deserve praise and support to help speed the process.
The king shouldn't need foreign pressure. His call for an interfaith meeting was driven in part by a concern for the breakdown of families and an erosion of "loyalty to humanity." About three-quarters of his 24 million people are under 30 and, despite vast oil wealth, a high number are unemployed and must prepare for a post-oil age.
His attempts to modernize are creating an economic elite that can counter radical clerics. He's begun a National Dialogue in which intellectuals are invited to offer solutions. In 2005, limited elections were first allowed for municipal councils. He's revamping the judicial system. A new law allows universities to form student unions, a form of grass-roots democracy on campuses.
The most difficult reform involves women. While they are entitled to education, their movements are highly restricted and include a ban on driving. Breaking that taboo will signal that reform has deep roots. In the meantime, many prominent women have openly defied the ban, including one who posted a video of her driving on YouTube this month to honor International Women's Day.
The world is watching these Saudi reforms, hoping they create a country that isn't just known for its oil and terrorist exports.