Just a year ago, democratic changes in this absolute monarchy seemed to be gathering steam. But what observers saw as a promising opening has been stymied as an influx of oil money and victories against militants linked to Al Qaeda have reduced the urgency surrounding reform.
A number of signs point to retrenchment. A law issued recently by the Council of Ministers makes the signing of petitions by government employees, or speaking critically of the government to the press, punishable by firing or jail. A trial of three reformists charged with dissension and other crimes, which started in August and was open to the public, has been closed. And in King Fahd's annual speech last month to the Shura Council, an advisory group, reforms were ignored, analysts say.
"It seems that the Interior Ministry has the upper hand in the war on terrorism, so they think it's about time for them to target reform-minded individuals," says Khaled al-Dukhayel, assistant professor of political sociology at King Saud University. "To [government officials], reforms are as much of a threat as terrorism, and they are now criminalizing reform activities," he says.
Just last year, members of the royal family, including Crown Prince Abdullah and Defense Minister Prince Sultan, seemed to vie with each other in championing reform. In Riyadh and the port city of Jeddah, the atmosphere was charged with a sense of upcoming change. Activists met in cafes and homes to brainstorm and write petitions asking for more political and social freedoms.
Lawyers, journalists, and professors took their cause to Arab satellite channels and newspapers, openly discussing previously taboo subjects. They called for transparency in Saudi Arabia's huge annual budget, accountability for government officials, an end to corruption, and more political participation.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, carried out mainly by Saudi hijackers, the kingdom has been under intense pressure from the US to provide outlets for political dissent. Pressure also increased from within last year after militants ratcheted up attacks to drive Westerners out of the kingdom, home to Islam's two holiest sites.
Some 100 people, including foreigners and policemen, have died in the violence. Recently, the Interior Ministry said it had gotten the upper hand, and since June, major attacks on Western compounds and car bombings have halted. Militants have still made their mark, engaging in a series of assassinations of Westerners. A week ago, a French engineer in Jeddah was shot as he left a market. It was the seventh killing of a Westerner in four months.
But a byproduct of the continued violence has been a boost to the kingdom's coffers from high oil prices, analysts say. The kingdom expects a budget surplus this year of 130 billion riyals ($3.5 billion), and the stock market has soared, according to economist and Shura Council member Ihsan Buhaleega.
That has shifted the focus on reform. "When the money came in, the government tried to provide better services rather than reforms," says businessman and former journalist Ahmad Adnan. "And the word reforms was conspicuous by its absence from King Fahd's Shoura Council speech."
Council member Ihsan Buhaleega says that economic reform is the first step. "The government is concentrating on ... improving people's lives by expanding social services and infrastructure and battling unemployment," he says.
Mr. Buhaleega says commitment to political reform is evident in the fact that Saudis will vote for half the seats of 178 municipal councils, starting in February. It is not clear if women will participate.
But to lawyer Bassem Alem, such measures are cosmetic at best. Weekly majlis, where senior princes grant an audience to citizens, is an example of the paternalism rulers prefer. "When people no longer stand in line to greet a prince and hand over a letter asking for help ... when we have civic institutions that take care of these things, then we will be on the path to reforms," he says.
Some activists have become discouraged. Mr. Adnan, a once-energetic activist, was dismayed at the arrest of reformist friends. "I felt then that reforms were a whim, not something being built into the system," he says.
All but three of the dozen activists arrested in March were released after pledging to no longer publicly demand reforms or talk to the media. But academics Abdullah al-Hamid and Matrouk al-Faleh and poet Ali al-Dimeini remain behind bars. The three made history when they had an open arraignment in Riyadh in August, the first public trial for dissidents. Charges included holding a public gathering, asking for a constitutional monarchy, and charging that the judiciary was not independent.
More than 120 people came to their second hearing but were initially barred by policemen. The trial was postponed when the detainees refused to enter the courtroom because they didn't see family or supporters.
Mr. Hamid stood on a chair and spoke emotionally on the need for greater freedoms. The men and women waiting in the hallway cheered. Court was adjourned till Monday, but the men refused to attend the closed hearing because they were not properly informed of it, their lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem says. "This is a severe step back," he says. "How can you expect fair elections in a country where people are jailed for political activism and don't even have the most basic rights, like gathering in public?"