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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 February, 2005, 14:09 GMT
Saudis feel winds of change
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Riyadh

Saudi man reading a newspaper
Many Saudis consider the elections as a good first step
It has been an interesting week here in Riyadh, a week in which the Saudis have worked hard to try to project a new image to the world.

This is the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden. It is also the birthplace of most of the 11 September hijackers.

Since that day, the world's perception of this country has changed dramatically. Saudi Arabia is no longer seen only as a country of spendthrift princes and princesses, but as a nation that produced people filled with hatred for the West.

So when the Saudis announced they were holding a counter-terrorism conference, many people thought it was ironic. But all those who had been invited showed up, including senior security officials from the US and Britain.

A few years ago, it would have been impossible to question the importance of religion in everyday life or the ways of the religious authorities
In his opening speech Crown Prince Abdullah used all the right buzzwords - fighting terrorism, tolerance, moderation, education - journalists from around the world here to cover the event were given better access than usual, ministers who are usually reluctant to agree to interviews gave press conferences and spent time answering questions.

We even got to see the Saudi special forces in action during a training exercise - the Saudis did everything to showcase their efforts in the battle against militants.

After all the negative publicity they have been getting over the last four years, this was their PR retaliation, and they were applauded by their traditional allies the Americans for clamping down on insurgents.

'Need for reform'

But the Americans and others have also said there is a need for political and social reforms.

And two days after the conference on terrorism, with all the international media still in town, the Saudis put on another performance.

The first round of nationwide municipal elections was held on Thursday.

Saudi men sit in a traditional salon at the resort and farm of Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd in Al-Azeriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh.
Saudi society remains male-dominated

Even though women were excluded and the men only elected half of the council's members, it was still something of a milestone in this absolute monarchy. At the polling stations, many of those who had just cast their ballots wanted to tell me how they felt: they were happy, excited, proud; many said it was a first step towards democracy, but all of them said they wanted more change.

There is definitely a new openness here. People want to talk and once they start, there is no stopping them.

I have heard some pretty radical thoughts. One man in his mid-30s complained to me about the grip the religious establishment had on the country, he said they had destroyed Saudi Arabia and its culture and made everybody's life miserable.

His friends joined the conversation and all nodded in approval.


We were standing on a street corner next to a campaign rally and I was the only woman there. Five years ago, I would have been harassed by the religious police for mingling in public with men who were not related to me.

As a foreigner you have more leeway these days, but for Saudis, life is not so simple.

A couple in a car were recently detained by the religious police because they could not prove on the spot that they were husband and wife.

Segregation is strictly enforced in most places and Saudis face many restrictions in their everyday life, especially women, who cannot drive or do much without permission from a male guardian.

Saudi women walk outside a polling station in Riyadh.
Women face many restrictions
There are hopes that the small steps taken towards reform will become bigger, but no-one is quite sure where that will lead and if there will be a backlash from the religious establishment.

One young liberal Saudi I spoke to said that most of his friends were either leaving the country or thinking about doing so.

When you are reporting from Saudi Arabia, you tend to meet mostly liberal-minded people who have been educated in the West and want reform, they are accessible and they want to talk.

The religious crowd mostly stay away from the media. They know that what they have to say is no longer considered politically correct in a country that is trying to convince the world it is on the path towards more tolerance.

Most Saudis are still very conservative and deeply religious. A friend told me he had written a column in a Saudi newspaper complaining about how inconvenient it was that everything shut down five times every day for prayers - including the ticket counters at the airport, and that is how he missed an international flight.

A few years ago, it would have been impossible to question the importance of religion in everyday life or the ways of the religious authorities.

Most Saudis still do not.

My friend received an e-mail from a man who wrote that after reading the column, he had woken up his children for morning prayers and together they had called on God to destroy my friend because of his un-Islamic thoughts.

The man said destruction would take place within a few days. My friend saw the e-mail when he returned from a holiday, three weeks after the message was sent. He wrote back saying he was alive and well and that obviously, God was not listening.

But the Saudis I met over the past week are hoping that the rulers of Saudi Arabia are listening to them as they ask for more change.

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