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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.

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Voices of resistance as well

To be sure, strong forces resist change in Saudi Arabia, where religion, tradition, and tribalism run as deep as the oil wells that turned this desert kingdom into a global power overnight.

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Social strictures have eased at times since the modern state was founded in 1932. In the late 1970s, an extremist attack on Mecca, the Iranian Revolution, and the call for jihad against the godless Soviet Union in Afghanistan deepened Saudi support for hard-line Islamists, who shored up the royal family's legitimacy. But after 9/11 – in which 15 of 19 hijackers were Saudi – deep soul-searching caused the pendulum to swing back, though Saudi society today is still more conservative than in the 1970s.

The conservatism is not purely Islamic, however; the variety of pilgrims who flock to Mecca and Medina serve as a reminder of the wide spectrum of social norms in the Muslim world.

"Every day, all day in Saudi Arabia is a debate about where that needle should rest," says Thomas Lippman of the Middle East Institute in Washington. "The king's job is to manage that debate."

King Abdullah is widely seen as a genuine reformer who has put into motion inexorable change, which the more conservative Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud – heir to the throne – may be able to slow but not reverse.

Political scientist F. Gregory Gause III of the University of Vermont says he could see an elected legislature on the model of Kuwait within a decade. "When all the Arab Spring stuff shakes out, it will be harder and harder to make arguments of political legitimacy if you don't have some kind of democratic element to your system," he says.

But in a country where consensus is prized, change must be a collective transformation.

"When it comes at a slow pace, it's more stable. You can't go back. When [women] try to drive, it backfires," says Samra Alkuwaiz, a businesswoman who recently cofounded a youth soccer program for girls in Riyadh. "I think the key is to change the mind-set."

One factor that has stymied reform in Saudi Arabia is what Asaad al-Shamlan of the Institute for Diplomatic Studies calls the "right to exit." If liberals don't like Saudi social restrictions, they go to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. If they don't like public school, they can go to private school.

"It seems like a liberty, but effectively it has derailed the momentum and shrunk the base that demands reform," Professor Shamlan says.

Qahtani is one person who could have opted out. But in a country he compares to apartheid-era South Africa, Qahtani and his colleagues at the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association have drawn inspiration from the example of Nelson Mandela, who, toward the end of his 27-year prison term, worked with the apartheid regime to establish a democracy.

"Our goal is to reach a situation where the regime is bound by its own law," Qahtani says. But he also sees a need to redeem the "bankruptcy" of the people, who have failed to demand their rights. "It's a duty incumbent on us," he says, "to educate people and push them forward." •

•Christa Case Bryant went to Saudi Arabia on a Gatekeeper Editors trip with the International Reporting Project.

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