RIYADH: Saudi Arabia won't see dramatic political reform under its new Custodian of Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, but the monarch will carry on driving the social changes which are slowly transforming the desert kingdom, prominent Saudis say.
Since he became the de facto ruler of the world's biggest oil producer a decade ago, King Abdullah has overseen initiatives to liberalise its ultra-conservative society through a very traditional channel – dialogue and consensus.
Despite opposition from the country's powerful religious establishment, the process may gather momentum now that King Abdullah has been confirmed as monarch after the death of his brother King Fahd, Saudi businessmen and activists said on Thursday.
"King Abdullah is not new on the scene so I don't expect major differences, but there will be movement and the pace may quicken," said Abdelaziz Al Orayer, a former deputy finance minister who is now on the country's appointed advisory council.
"Abdullah is known for his ability to listen and he is more open to ideas. But I don't expect a major departure from the gradualist approach ... decisions here are reached by consensus and I expect that to continue," he said.
To Western eyes, the social and political changes which have taken place in the birthplace of Islam during the past 10 years may appear insignificant.
But to ordinary Saudis they are sweeping – municipal polls took place for the first time this year, the Shura advisory council was given legislative powers, a human rights body was created and newspapers openly debate contentious issues.
A prohibition against women driving still stands, but women now work alongside men in many professions even though in practice, most of society remains segregated.
"I have big hopes in this man," said Mohammad Al Zulfa, a Shura Council member who sparked controversy in June by suggesting that the advisory body consider lifting the ban on women driving. A decision is still pending.
"We know he is for reforms, he realises change should happen ... but he will only do what is good for the security and stability of the country," Zulfa said.
Abdullah broke new political ground in a meeting with liberal Saudis demanding political reform a few years ago.
In 2003 he launched talks which brought together Sunnis and marginalised Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
The "National Dialogue" has dared to tackle the most thorny subject of all for many zealous followers of the kingdom's Wahhabi form of Islam – how to view non-Muslims, often dismissed by the faithful as "infidels".
"I think there will be some change as King Abdullah has taken many initiatives already," said Jafar Shayeb, a Shi'ite businessman who won a seat on a municipal council in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province earlier this year.
"He has laid the ground for future reforms ... we can't know how big they will be but he is the right person."
Many reformists say much more work needs to be done on human rights issues. A Saudi court last month upheld jail terms of six to nine years for three prominent activists who petitioned for Saudi Arabia to move towards a constitutional monarchy – a decision which highlighted the limits of political reform.
But Shayeb said he was hopeful the three men, two university lecturers and a poet, would soon receive an amnesty.
Another issue is likely resistance from senior royals who are not so open to change – notably, the powerful Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who is King Abdullah's half-brother.
King Abdullah's first remarks as King in a televised address on Wednesday were seen by many as evidence of his intentions.
"My work will be a work to achieve justice and righteousness, to serve all people without discrimination," he said after receiving thousands of Saudi men who pledged their loyalty in a traditional palace gathering.
"I ask you to be my strength and that you support me and that you are not miserly with your advice," he added.
Known as "Bay'a", the allegiance process continued on Thursday. But supporters were received by the three senior brothers of King Abdullah – Crown Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef and Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh province.
Businessman Abdul Rahman Al Zamil pointed out that in keeping with royal policy, decisions would continue to be made by consensus between brothers rather than King Abdullah acting alone – which he said ruled out any sudden policy transformation.
"We should not expect major positions taken that lead to sudden change, it is not in our culture. But there may be an acceleration of the process because society has started to be more accepting."