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."
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.
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.
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.