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Progress Watch

In Saudi Arabia, a quiet tide of reform

Declining the revolutionary model that Egypt established in overthrowing Mubarak, Saudi reformers are working for a shift in mind-sets as well as policies – and making headway.

By Staff writer / May 30, 2012

MODERN CITYSCAPE: The Kingdom Tower stands illuminated at night on King Fahad Road in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Quiet change is under way in this conservative Muslim country.

Waseem Obaidi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

When Mohammad al-Qahtani moved back to his native Saudi Arabia after a decade in the United States, his 3-year-old daughter, Norah, was not pleased. "Daddy, let's go home," she said at the time. "This is not a nice place."

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As one of the kingdom's most outspoken human rights activists, Mr. Qahtani can sympathize. But he has refused to flee.

During an intense two months of interrogations this spring, the Ministry of the Interior tried to intimidate him, on one occasion bringing a stack of printouts of his text messages. When the intimidation didn't work, the ministry tried to buy him off with a position in Washington, he says. He refused them, just as he had his daughter, who is now 13 and – like her mother and three siblings – supports his campaign for establishing a stronger rule of law.

"I take it as a moral responsibility," says Qahtani, who says he has received "credible" tips that he will soon lose his job as an economics professor at the state-run Institute of Diplomatic Studies. "It's a very difficult time…. But believe me, we can weather it.

"Maybe in 10, 20 years we can look in the eyes of our kids and say, look, we tried," he adds.

Though Saudi Arabia barely stirred when the Arab Spring erupted last year, it would be a mistake to interpret that silence as satisfaction with the status quo.

Qahtani is one of a small but growing number of Saudi reformers who are patiently working for change within the boundaries of the deeply conservative Saudi society – and making surprising progress. While few support the revolutionary model of Tunisia or Egypt, they are benefiting from an Arab Spring tail wind.

"The revolution that took place around us was a wake-up call," says Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, speaking recently to a US media delegation in his plush 66th-floor offices in Riyadh's Kingdom Tower. "No one will say it, but it was the catalyst."

Among the signs of reform:

•A new YouTube satire show, La Yekthar ("Put a lid on it"), is pushing the boundaries of free speech; the most popular program so far, which mocks the government's anticorruption commission, received 3.3 million views.

•Police stations, which once turned away battered women with an admonition to obey their husbands, now have special units to tackle domestic violence; the campaign has been led by pediatrician Maha Almuneef (see her quote at lower right).

•Next year, women like Dr. Almuneef will become voting members of the Shura Council, which often summons top officials for questioning and fiercely debates proposed laws.

Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, a Salafi sheikh long popular among hard-liners, including Osama bin Laden, is now preaching the compatibility of democracy and Islam and getting serious traction (see his quote at right).

•Some 150,000 Saudi students are currently studying abroad on the King Abdullah scholarship, cultivating a generation fluent in English and at ease with Western society.

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