SHIFTING SANDS:

Saudi Arabia’s unseen reform: Saudi Arabia is mainly viewed by others as a traditionally conservative society, particularly in its attitudes towards women. But, below the surface change is happening, even if reformers are wary of moving too quickly in case they face a traditionalist backlash. (Bridget Kendall, 4/30/06, BBC)

The protest by Saudi women who dared flout the ban on driving during the first Iraq war in 1991 had been disastrous, prompting a wave of conservative anger. That mistake must not be repeated this time.

“We lost 30 years, derailed by those who rejected the Western model and wanted to go back to the 14th century,” said one woman, a senior executive in an oil company.

“We can’t afford to lose more time. We educated Saudi women have been quietly empowering ourselves for decades.” she went on, “Now we hope society is ready. But we mustn’t alarm anybody.”

The key, all agreed, was women’s education.

Saudi universities are segregated, separate campuses for men and women, to the extent that male lecturers as a rule only interact with female students via videophone linkups.

But there are now more female than male students in Saudi Arabia all keen to seize new opportunities and an inevitable threat to young Saudi males, already facing rising unemployment.

From a European point of view, it is reform at snail’s pace. Seen through Saudi eyes, there is a definite shift taking place.

And the key, it seems, is that it has been blessed by the country’s new ruler, King Abdullah.

There is no democracy here.

There are no political parties, or even a proper parliament. And criticism of the ruling Royal Family is out of the question.

Ask someone about Saudi princes and you will find the conversation soon peters into silence.

But a reform-minded King can send a signal no-one will disobey, even if privately they are against it.

Absolute monarchy has its uses.

Of course, one of the key reforms is to retain the monarchy but make it not absolute.

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