When Saudi security forces rounded up 10 men earlier this month, the operation was touted as a crackdown on terrorism financing. The authorities alleged that the suspects had been raising illegal donations and smuggling funds to “suspicious bodies”.
But it soon emerged that three of those detained were prominent reformers, while the others were associated with a reform movement that had been trying to reassert itself.
The events turned the spotlight back on the ruling family’s willingness to allow change in a deeply conservative country that is currently enjoying an extraordinary oil boom.
Activists say three of those detained had been distributing a petition calling for political change in the kingdom, including the right to hold public gatherings, curbing the powers of the interior ministry and holding elections for the Shura Council, the consultative assembly appointed by the monarch.
Following the arrests, the petition was posted on the internet in a bold move by reformers intended to prevent others from being detained for distributing it. “What we want is rights for everyone,” says Khaled al-Omair, one of the signatories.
A key complaint is that little has changed two years after municipal elections – the first nationwide polls – fuelled hopes that political reform was beginning.
As the second anniversary of King Abdullah’s accession approaches, high expectations that reform would be a feature of his reign are fading. Many still believe he does desire change, but criticise the slow pace of reform.
“It’s hesitant reform. Sometimes the process goes forward, sometimes it goes backwards, like the arrest of the campaigners in Jeddah,” says Abdelaziz al-Qassim, a lawyer. “They make small steps, but there’s no real meaning. Like the municipal elections – you cannot get any news about the councils, their meetings or decisions.”
Officials, however, argue that given the country’s conservative culture, change has to be conducted in a way that does not risk “tearing apart the fabric of society”.
Economic reforms and efforts to tackle corruption, such as this week’s cabinet decision to approve a “national strategy to protect integrity and combat corruption” are examples of the changes under way.
Others say there has been an increase in press freedom, and at least one newspaper quoted sources identifying the 10 men detained and saying they included reformers.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group, was allowed to conduct its first fact-finding mission in the country in December. Christoph Wilcke, the group’s researcher for Saudi Arabia, says the move was significant, but added that there were some dramatic human rights setbacks during 2006 and early this year.
This pessimistic outlook has been highlighted by a controversial judicial decision to divorce a couple in absentia at the request of the wife’s half-brothers.
The brothers had complained that her husband was of an inferior tribal line. The wife has been in prison since last summer because she refuses to return to her family, and the case has heaped negative attention on the judicial system.
The US pressure for reform, which increased after the September 11 attacks, brought greater scrutiny, some Saudis say, but this has diminished in the wake of US failures in Iraq and Islamist gains in elections the region.
One reformer criticised the UK decision to halt a probe into a multi-billion-dollar arms deal between BAE Systems and the Saudi government, describing the decision as a “disaster”. “If the British government cannot resist Saudi corruption, how can people or individuals [here] change corruption?”
Diplomats argue that the reform process is moving in the right direction and warn about the dangers of upsetting the apple-cart – a view some young Saudis deride.
“The whole world is moving forward for more freedom, more democracy, while we are lagging,” says Ahmed al-Omran, a 22-year-old student. “It’s not good for us, it’s not good for the region, because Saudi Arabia has an impact on the whole region.”
Mr Omran runs a blog he set up three years ago that comments on social and political matters – a relatively new phenomenon in Saudi Arabia that reflects the rapid growth of blogs throughout the Middle East.
But in the past couple of months three or four such blogs have been closed, he says. One blogger was detained for four hours this month before being released and told to shut his site down. Mr Omran wonders if he could be next.
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