Saudis Take First Steps on Route to Reform

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Slowly but surely, ultraconservative Saudi Arabia appears to be loosening the bonds of its strictly controlled society, despite the absence of big government initiatives on political reform.

King Abdullah, a supporter of cautious reform, ascended to the throne last year, but there have been no moves to dilute the absolute monarchy, turn the consultative council into anything resembling a real parliament or advance women's rights.

However, observers note a series of small steps that, taken together, are evidence of a new political atmosphere in the country, whose powerful religious establishment still has free rein to impose its austere Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam.

The royal family has ruled the desert kingdom in close coordination with hardline clerics since it was set up in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula in 1932. Analysts say the royals want to reform but are wary of upsetting their clerical allies.

"The kingdom is moving on the path of reform step by step, without rushing, and through firm steps," the king said during a high-profile tour of Asian countries last month.

Many ordinary Saudis have taken affairs into their own hands. They have the tacit or open approval of the government, which fears social strife from high unemployment in the country of 24 million, including 6 million foreigners.

Women have been elected to the boards of some business and professional organizations, which are slowly becoming independent of government ministries.

The authorities have encouraged women to be economically active. Many are investing in the booming stock market, making use of new rights to have their own identification cards.

Clerics have tried in vain to hold back inventions that have come with the global revolution in information technology.

Some Muslims argue that, as the guardian of Islam's holiest sites, Saudi Arabia should remain immune from liberal trends as a kind of Islamic utopia where modern technology must be made to fit uncompromising rules of public morality.

Cell phones with cameras were banned at first because they could be used to distribute pictures of unveiled women at schools and weddings. The Internet is strictly policed, but many young people manage to get round the state's proxy server.

The government got the clerics on its side in its propaganda war against Islamist militants who launched a campaign in 2003 to bring down the U.S.-allied monarchy at the head of the world's biggest oil producer. The mini-insurgency has largely run out of steam.

"Abdullah really does think the country has fallen behind. The atmosphere has lightened up, and people are talking about things in a way they didn't do before," said one Western diplomat, describing the system of government as "18th-century."