Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Thursday, 4 June 2009 12:18 UK

Saudi reform in 'fits and starts'

Saudi shopper
Saudi women must buy all garments untried, as fitting rooms are banned

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah presents himself as a sponsor of reformed Islam, but as Ginny Hill discovers competing power bases in the country mean that social reform develops sporadically.

Saudi Arabia's zealous religious police - the mutaween - are often among the first clichés that spring to mind when Westerners think about life inside the kingdom.

During two weeks in Riyadh, I was curious to know if I would encounter any members of the religious police.

Civic serenity

One afternoon, I was walking with a friend past the headquarters of the mutaween.

We were both wearing mandatory long black robes but we left our hair uncovered, and nobody challenged us.

Saudis are aware that the boundaries are moving, but no one quite knows where the new red lines lie

We came to a public square - the site of many beheadings - but on that afternoon, it was a picture of civic serenity.

Children were cavorting at the edge of a water fountain and parents ambled by with pushchairs.

Boys pulling kites were running across a flat expanse of smooth flagstones that plays host to crowds, corpses and executioners.

A few days later, speaking to new acquaintances in a house in a Riyadh suburb, I recounted our story of how we had chatted outside the mutaween building without our headscarves.

Our hosts were three elegant Saudi sisters in their 30s and 40s.

One woman had just shown me a photo on her mobile phone of a recent trip to London - she was unveiled and her hair was showing, as she drank tea in Hyde Park.

So I expected our hosts might laugh, and perhaps applaud our boldness at defying the mutaween on their home turf.

But there was an uncomfortable silence when I finished telling my story.

One of the sisters revealed that she was married to a member of the mutaween. "They are good men and they are here to protect us," she said, unsmiling.

Slow-burn reform

King Abdullah at recent Mecca conference
King Abdullah is seen as a reformer in a conservative political establishment

For several decades, Saudi Arabia's religious police have been the lynchpin in a power structure linking hard-line Wahabi clerics to the Saudi royal family.

But King Abdullah has been sponsoring a slow-burn reform programme since inheriting the throne.

And he replaced the head of the mutaween in a rare cabinet reshuffle in February.

The move was seen as an attempt to rein in the organisation's most brutal and oppressive elements.

Saudis are aware that the boundaries are moving, but no one quite knows where the new red lines lie - and maybe there are no single clear lines anymore.

In Riyadh, where anonymity is greater and community ties are weaker than in traditional rural areas, wealthy young Saudis are taking every opportunity to grasp small personal freedoms that set them apart.

In the affluent Sulamania district of Riyadh, young teenage girls traipse about with their black robes unbuttoned, revealing jeans and velour tracksuit trousers.

Gaggles of young women giggle and screech like sober hen parties hidden behind heavy curtains in all-girl dining booths in the restaurant family sections.

Bizarre inconsistencies

A few Saudi women are starting to go bare-faced in the smarter shopping malls

Contact between the sexes is still tightly regulated, but there are some bizarre inconsistencies.

Riyadh's equivalent of Ann Summers, a high-end lingerie boutique stocking rubber corsets, lace scanties and kinky patent leather boots, is staffed exclusively by male shop assistants.

And in Mamlaka Mall's women-only mezzanine level, male security guards are employed to ensure that women shoppers remove their veils when they come in so that men can't dress up as transvestite imposters in order to gain entry.

Even familiar British high-street fashion chains retailing in Riyadh display photos in their shop windows of models wearing the latest tight-cut seasonal clothes - but they bow to conservative sentiment by pixellating both male and female faces on these promo boards.

At the same time, a few Saudi women are starting to go bare-faced in the smarter shopping malls.

To fresh eyes, Riyadh is shot through with these apparent contradictions.

They reflect the fact that there is no one centre of power within the Saudi state.

Instead there are multiple actors within Saudi Arabia, pursuing contradictory agendas inside the country itself.

Tensions over reform

And, of course, there are competitive circles of power within the ruling family.

King Abdullah presents himself as a sponsor of reformed Islam, while his brother, the Interior Minister, reaches out to traditional scholars, judges and the religious police.

Saudi media reflect these tensions.

In one week in April, a Saudi-owned entertainment channel filmed a report about the merits of marriage arranged on the internet, while another Saudi channel screened a tragic TV drama.

It told the story of two sisters who are kidnapped by men they meet on the internet, beaten and violently raped.

The rapists threaten to circulate video clips of the rapes, filmed on their mobile phones, if the sisters dare to go to the police.

King Abdullah may have set the direction of travel, but social reform moves in fits and starts.

During a discussion about the pace of change in the kingdom, one Western observer told me: "This isn't an arm wrestle with a single victor."

He added: "It's more like an aggressive tango where they pull each other round the dance floor."

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Country profile: Saudi Arabia
26 Mar 11 |  Country profiles
Barack Obama launches key Mid-East mission
03 Jun 09 |  Middle East
Creating a woman's world in Arabia
04 Mar 09 |  Middle East
Saudi women 'kept in childhood'
21 Apr 08 |  Middle East
Saudi lingerie trade in a twist
25 Feb 09 |  Middle East

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific