Fahad Nazer, political analyst at JTG Inc and former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in the United States.

A common perception among casual observers portrays Saudi Arabia as an anachronism: a country whose political and social institutions are relics of a bygone age and do not reflect the demands, realities—or sensibilities for that matter—of  a “modern” state.

However, those who follow developments in the kingdom closely over an extended period of time—particularly  since the end of the first Gulf War—tend to consider the tentative steps the government has taken towards political, social, and economic reform as reflective of some level of awareness among Saudi leaders of the changing demographics and political culture of the kingdom. These steps also suggest that leaders are more attuned to the pressures exerted from the outside, especially since the Arab Spring swept the region, than some might assume. Critics characterize them as mere cosmetic “window-dressing” intended mainly to placate Western critics who—ever since it was revealed that the majority of September 11 hijackers were Saudi—have been emboldened to scrutinize what were once considered purely domestic concerns, including  what is being taught in Saudi schools. However, taking the long-view suggests a less dismissive—or  cynical—reading  of these initiatives. 

Noteworthy reforms include instituting periodic national dialogues that bring together Saudis from different ends of the political and religious spectrums to debate the challenges facing the kingdom, expanding  the consultative Shura council (which now includes 30 women), and holding nation-wide elections for municipal councils—which gave Saudis their first taste of democracy. These are not indicative of an acute case of political sclerosis, as some have claimed. 

In 2011, King Abdullah took another calculated risk by declaring that women would be eligible to participate and run in the next round of elections in 2014. Much like his pet project, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (a coeducational, graduate level university aimed at preparing Saudis to compete in a global  economy), the king’s initiatives to empower Saudi women roiled conservative elements, who continue to view most reforms as inherently antithetical to the Islamic precepts and mores upon which the country was founded.

Nevertheless, the recent crackdown on outspoken advocates of reform has given many observers pause. While Saudi leaders don’t seem nearly as averse to reform as some critics maintain, they do seem to prefer to implement it at their own pace and on their own terms.