Waleed Abu Alkhair, a 28-year-old Saudi lawyer, has learned to ignore telephone threats ordering him to stop “defaming’’ Saudi Arabia. Neither would he be silenced after being beaten up in Jeddah last month by people he believes were security agents on his return from a human rights workshop in Yemen.
“We used to be the kingdom of silence, but we will not be intimidated any more,” says Mr Abu Alkhair. “We do not seek regime change, but want an end to government abuses. We want ordinary Saudis to have a say in the country’s future, not only the royal family.”
Mr Abu Alkhair documents abuses against Saudi political prisoners. He was one of 77 activists who signed a petition in May calling for the creation of a constitutional monarchy and the appointment of a prime minister from outside the royal family – the king is the prime minister and the crown prince is the first deputy prime minister.
The hopes of people such as Mr Abu Alkhair, however, are not about to be realised – and the petition was altogether ignored by the royal family.
True, pressure for reform intensified this decade, boosted by the realisation that the kingdom’s austere brand of Islam and its closed political system were breeding religious extremism of the type that led to the September 11 attacks in the US (most of the bombers were Saudi).
But while it has taken steps towards social and religious reform, the monarchy remains fearful of any radical change, preferring a gradual process that it says has helped quash a campaign by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants to destabilise the House of Saud.
While some Saudis denounce what they perceive as cosmetic reforms, others see important progress – increased freedom of expression, more opportunities for women and municipal elections in February 2005 – as substantive steps.
“We have come a long way, and we have a longer way to go,” says Adil Abdoh, a Saudi intellectual. “Some people cling to power by trying to patent their own vision of Islam, then fight any reform as a deviation from the faith, this is our main challenge.”
King Abdullah, who succeeded his late brother, Fahd, in 2005 but has been the de facto ruler since 1995, has built a reputation as a social reformer but his focus has been on religious tolerance and conditions for women, rather than democracy.
Crown Prince Sultan, the second in the line to the throne and widely regarded as pro-western, has been on medical leave for more than a year, leaving open questions about the future direction of the country.
In February, many observers were thrilled by a cabinet reshuffle in which the king sacked the head of the religious police and the Supreme Judicial Council, well-known opponents of reforms. After increasing the budgets for the ministries of health, education, and justice in December, the government also replaced the ministers with people in favour of reform. The reshuffle also brought the first woman to a ministerial post.
Yet, in March, King Abdullah appointed his half-brother, Prince Naif, the powerful interior minister, as the second deputy prime minister, positioning the prince as third in line. Prince Naif is regarded as an arch-conservative close to the religious establishment.
Soon after, a film festival and summer festivities were cancelled in Jeddah, a city deemed relatively liberal in comparison with Riyadh.
In May, local elections were postponed for two years. At the same time, however, there have been gestures that point in another direction. The 77 petitioners, for instance, may have been ignored but the ringleaders were not arrested, as has happened in the past.
Some experts say labelling certain royals as pro- or anti-political reform does not reflect the political dynamic. After all, the House of Saud has survived for 77 years through its ability ease or tighten its grip on power when needed. “There is no such thing as reformist and reactionary factions within the royal family,” says one western observer. “They all do what they must to maintain power, even if it means introducing or unrolling [political] reform when necessary.”
Khaled Al-Dakhil, a professor of sociology, says the reform process has been so slow that many people have lost interest.
“The problem is there is no wide-open support for the idea of reform,” he says. “Behind closed doors, everyone talks but, once they are in charge, they abandon their responsibility. They do not understand that reform is crucial, it does not have to happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere.”
Yet, while the government often tries to discredit or play down the influence of reformists, it is aware of the influence of young Saudis who have grown up with satellite television and the internet and expect their country to change.
Last month, it blocked the Twitter accounts of Mr Alkhair as well as Khaled al-Nasser, a 28-year old blogger and activist, apparently after the tool was widely used by Iranian activists to publicise the protests in Iran. Their comments, or tweets, included commentary on rights issues in the country or provided links to other websites such as a Human Rights Watch report on Saudi Arabia.
“I do not believe we should pin our hopes on individuals,” says Mr al-Nasser. “We need to have a system, a state in which we feel protected by the law, not protected by individuals, a state in which I vote for the parliament, where I have a job and a future. Is that too much to ask?”