In the world’s leading oil exporter, princes and clerics wrangle behind closed doors over cautious but critical changes aimed at reconciling Saudi Arabia’s conservative traditions with the needs of a modern economy — not least the role of women. Reforms, such as King Abdullah’s decision last month to grant women more political rights in future, often follow months or years of tough negotiations in which conservatives warn of a dangerous backlash against too-rapid change.
“The conservative old guard will resist any new move,” said Mohsen al-Awaji, a cleric in Riyadh who wants more democracy. “The conservatives have significant power, but this slow move from the government (of giving women more rights) does not match the requirements of the Saudi people.”
The king pledged to include women in the unelected Shura Council, which advises on legislation, and to let them run and vote in future municipal elections, the only public voting now held in the country. The next such polls are due in 2015, while the Shura council membership is to be set in 2013.
At stake is the future of a Western security ally which sees itself as the leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims due to its status as home to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. Abdullah’s power in a wealthy kingdom with a youthful, increasingly outward-looking population, stems from a centuries-old alliance between his extensive family and clerics of the austere Wahhabi school of Islam.