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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 December 2005, 12:09 GMT
The slow pace of change in Saudi
By Gerald Butt
BBC News, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia remains by far the most conservative of all the Gulf states, with women enjoying fewer rights than elsewhere in the Middle East. Former BBC Middle East correspondent Gerald Butt says there are signs of change, but social transformation remains a long way off.

Young Saudi women in Riyadh
Saudi Arabian women are banned from voting and driving

Over the two decades that I have been visiting Saudi Arabia the most notable changes have been physical ones.

The capital Riyadh, for example, is said to be the fastest-growing city in the world.

In the 1960s, its population was just 50,000.

Today, it is home to 4.5 million people, with the suburbs creeping ever further out into the desert.

The centre of Riyadh is ultramodern in looks, crisscrossed by six-lane highways that, through a combination of fly-overs and tunnels, keep constant rivers of large American cars flowing at frightening speeds.

The city is dotted with lavish and glitzy shopping centres with branches of leading London department stores and a popular British high-street chain, famous for its undergarments, among the thousands of shops.

But the high-rise, futuristic office blocks and luxury hotels are misleading.

Beneath the modern exterior, Saudi Arabia remains deeply conservative.

While there is practically every shop and restaurant you might want, there are no cinemas, no bars, nowhere for young Saudi men and women to meet.

In fact, bearded religious police are on hand to make sure they do not and to check that women are properly covered up.

You could stay several days in Riyadh or Jeddah without even seeing a woman; certainly not a female face.

Minimal role

Some women do work - in schools and hospitals, for example - and recently two women were elected into the Jeddah chamber of commerce.

But these are exceptions.

Women's public role in society is minimal - they are not even allowed to drive - at least not yet.

Saudi women gets into a taxi in Riyadh.
Conservatives fear if women drove they could mix freely with men

Until recently, the issue of women driving was never mentioned in public.

But earlier this year, the taboo was broken.

A member of the all-male Majlis al-Shura - the 150-seat unelected consultative council - caused something of a rumpus.

Muhammad al-Zulfa pointed out there was nothing under Islam or the constitution that justified the ban on women driving, and the council should discuss ways of lifting it.

A heated debate ensued. Even King Abdullah found himself involved.

In response to a question on American television, he said he thought a day would eventually come when Saudi women could drive.

I was curious to meet the man who started the debate, so I invited Dr Zulfa to my hotel one evening for tea.

I suppose I had been expecting an extrovert, someone who enjoys the publicity that courting controversy attracts.

But I was wrong. Dr Zulfa is quietly spoken, shy, with a cherubic face, glasses and a broad smile; an academic by profession.

He said the ban on women driving was nonsensical.

'Delicate subject'

For a start, in the agricultural Asir region in the far south of the kingdom, where he was brought up, it is normal for women to work alongside men and to drive, out of economic necessity.

So it would be wrong to suggest that a nationwide ban on women drivers is enforced throughout the country.

Nevertheless, not all Saudis agree with this argument, or with the whole delicate subject of women driving being raised in the first place.

Saudi King Abdullah
King Abdullah says the promotion of women in society is a priority

Dr Zulfa has been bombarded with criticism from some members of the royal family, from the religious establishment and the public.

"I'm a historian and I like detailed records," he told me.

"I am cataloguing all the criticism and will make a book out of it," adding with a chuckle, "it'll be a very big book."

Much as Dr Zulfa believes in the cause of women driving, he also sees the debate he has started as a positive sign, reflecting greater official tolerance of open discussion of sensitive topics.

"The Islamic conservatives," he continued, "those men with rigid minds, they've controlled all the argument in this country for too long.

"Their voice was very loud and suppressed the others."

Today, in Dr Zulfa's view, "the atmosphere is much more open than it was a year or two ago. Today the rigid people no longer decide what's said and written."

And so, gradually, something other than the skyline seems to be changing in Saudi Arabia.

A noticeable increase in press freedom, the holding of the first municipal elections earlier this year. These are all small signs of progress in Saudi society after decades when there was none.

But change will be slow, slower than anywhere else in the region, because the conservative voice is still strong and influential.

King Abdullah knows that it is a constituency that cannot be ignored.

Dr Zulfa's hope is that expanding public debate will win over more people to the argument that women need to be given a greater role and greater freedom and that change can be brought about without jeopardising the principles of moderate Islam.

"I look forward to a day," he said, "when I can go out and enjoy a coffee in public with my wife and daughters. That's not asking much, is it?"

In most countries it would not be. But Saudi Arabia is still years away from being anything like most other countries.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 December, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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