WITNESS - Searching for reforms in King Abdullah's Saudi Arabia

RIYADH Thu Mar 24, 2011 6:22pm IST

Saudi King Abdullah smiles in his palace in Riyadh February 14, 2009.  REUTERS/Saudi Press Agency/Handout/Files

Saudi King Abdullah smiles in his palace in Riyadh February 14, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency/Handout/Files

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RIYADH (Reuters) - The moment my wife and I left our apartment compound in downtown Riyadh, a jeep screeched to a halt infront of us and a bearded man stepped out.

"Is this your wife? I want to give you some advice. Don't let her wear makeup," said the religious policeman, dressed in a traditional white robe.

"If she uses makeup, other men will only look at her," he added, raising his forefinger to stress his point and staring hard at me.

A woman wearing makeup or not completely covering up would go unnoticed in most parts of the world, but in Saudi Arabia it can be enough to get you detained for "immoral behavior".

Encountering religious police roaming the streets to uphold the kingdom's values of an austere version of Sunni Islam was one of the most striking experiences of living in Saudi Arabia.

It was also a reminder that the Gulf Arab state remains a deeply conservative country despite hype in the West praising King Abdullah for reforms such as overhauling outdated state education or liberalising the economy.

"Moderate" and "reformer" are regular descriptions of Abdullah by Western diplomats, intellectuals and business people since he took office in 2005. Some even call him "liberal".

But during my two years as Reuters correspondent in the Saudi capital, I did not notice any changes in a strict social code banning unrelated men or women from mixing and forcing shops and restaurants to close five times a day for prayers.

In fact, I felt the country got slightly more conservative, not just because of religious police cops roaming the streets.

Shortly after I arrived, the cabinet shelved plans for a municipal vote in which women had hoped to participate for the first time. The move shocked reformers longing for changes in a country without an elected parliament or political parties.

Weeks later, authorities cancelled Saudi Arabia's only film festival. We few accredited foreign journalists had planned to cover the Jeddah event, but at the last minute, officials told us in private that it would not take place.

No explanation was given, but diplomats pointed the finger at Interior Minister Prince Nayef, a half brother of Abdullah and a conservative who won a promotion in March 2009 and could one day become king.

Getting to the bottom of any government decision was my biggest challenge in a country famous for its secrecy, but following Nayef's promotion, I got the feeling that what little reform impetus there was soon petered out.

REFOMERS' REPUTATION IN SHATTERS

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family in alliance with clerics where conservative and more open-minded princes are in constant battle, with the result that little actually happens -- one step forward, one step back.

True, there was one reform push while I was there, with the launch of the first mixed-gender university in September 2009 -- the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) near Jeddah which reveled in almost unlimited funds.

It was a bold move for a country which imposes strict sex segregation, but the inauguration gave the impression that Saudi Arabia was more concerned about window dressing rather than looking to kick start much-needed education reform.

Riyadh flew in hundreds of journalists, academics and Nobel Prize winners to the campus, built in a remote spot far from the prying eyes of clerics. We attended a lavish ceremony and met students and professors who praised the academic freedom.

I found out later that only a fraction of the students were Saudis, while those we talked to on the campus had been briefed by a foreign PR agency what not to tell us -- such as the fact the campus Internet was censored, like in the rest of Saudi.

Soon afterwards, reporters were no longer welcome while even some academics were discouraged from visiting. The few that made it were not allowed to take photographs of unrelated students studying together for fear of annoying the clerics.

It was as if the government wanted to forget the place.

SOURCES GETTING SILENT

The impression of non-reforms only increased when rumours started to flow in July 2010 about the king's health after he abruptly cancelled a visit to France without offering a reason.

It was impossible to find out anything concrete, but I sensed that government activity slowed down. No major project got under way and Abdullah travelled to New York to undergo back treatment which kept him away from home for three months.

There was certainly no sign of a much-delayed bill that would help ordinary Saudis get affordable housing -- and touch on the sensitive issue of why so much land was owned by royals.

Since his return last month, Abdullah has unveiled handouts worth $130 billion to insulate his oil-rich kingdom from protests battering other Arab states. He also moved to strengthen internal security forces and the religious police.

Just days later I saw religious cops driving around my neighbourhood in jeeps, urging people via loudspeakers to go to the mosque for evening prayers.

With Riyadh watching Arab protests tapping its borders, my job got harder as sources and commentators got more reluctant to talk. Newspapers stopped publishing controversial editorials.

"I don't comment anymore," one of my best sources said just before I left.

State security agents knocked at dawn at my hotel room after I had covered Shi'ite protests in the eastern province. A week later the government withdrew my accreditation.

Despite this abrupt end to my assignment, I leave with happy memories of the hospitality of the many Saudi friends I made.

One day, I was driving with my wife in the desert near the volatile Yemen border searching for pre-Islamic rock carvings when I made a wrong turn and got the car stuck in sand.

A farmer stopped his pickup to ask whether he could help. Since I struggled with the local dialect, my wife, a native Arabic speaker, did most of the talking. Out of modesty, the pious man averted his gaze whenever she spoke. But he fixed our car in no time and invited us for lunch.

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