The death of King Fahd is unlikely to significantly impact the prevailing political situation in Saudi Arabia. For several years now the new king, former Crown Prince Abdullah, has been the real ruler of the country and gradually acquired the aura of the undisputed leader of the Saudi ruling elite. But, Fahd's death comes in a moment of great domestic challenges and amid a turbulent regional and international environment. An objective understanding of current dynamics is indispensable to anticipate what the future trajectories of Saudi politics might be.

Any attempt to analyse the political situation in Saudi Arabia faces two major obstacles. On the one hand are pervasive assumptions, among Arab and Western researchers, that Saudi Arabian social and political life can be reduced to a set of immutable stereotypes. These axiomatic tenets regarding Saudi Arabia's closed society extend to a conservative cultural environment, an authoritarian government and a domineering religious establishment. These, and other generalisations, have entrenched a rigid and overly simplistic outlook that has remained blind to the complexity, diversity and, indeed, contradictions in Saudi Arabia's contemporary political development. On the other hand is the paucity of empirical, data-based analyses of political transformations in Saudi Arabia. This has created an information vacuum that has been filled by assessments guided by either ideological preference or motivated by political goals. The result is that the bulk of Arab and Western reports on recent political reform, and on the experiences of the municipal elections and the national dialogue conferences in particular, are little more than unsubstantiated impressions channelled into a blinkered defence of an illusive perfection or else are part of an ongoing process of faultfinding and censure.

To overcome these obstacles I spent several weeks visiting Saudi cities, interviewing officials, politicians, writers and intellectuals whose political convictions ranged from the liberal right to the Islamist left. The very diversity of the explanations offered with regard to political conditions in Saudi Arabia and the roles played by political and social forces cast fresh light on current developments.

Recent years have witnessed the gradual growth in the public sphere of a considerable margin of freedom in dialogue on political, social, religious, economic and civil rights issues. For decades such discussions were restricted to closed and tightly controlled circles and entirely taboo in public.

That this margin of freedom now exists, and is steadily expanding, does not mean that red lines have vanished or that openness to opposing opinions and the exchange of ideas have become firmly entrenched. Nor does it negate the way in which official political and religious rhetoric impacts on all areas of life. It does, however, suggest a trend towards openness and plurality and a growing willingness on the part of the ruling elite and religious establishment to treat opposing views less autocratically.

Political repression continues, as the detention of reform activists Ali Al-Domani, Matruk Al-Faleh and Abdullah Al-Hammad, and the lengthy blacklist of people banned from travelling, writing or teaching in universities clearly attests. Yet to ignore qualitative improvements with respect to freedom of opinion and expression is to deliberately blind oneself to the reality of what is taking place in Saudi Arabia.

One key to understanding contemporary Saudi Arabia can be found in the dynamics set in motion by institutional and political reform measures introduced in the last years by the ruling elite under the auspices of the then Crown Prince Abdullah. In spite of the non-binding character of the recommendations issued by the national dialogue conferences, the limited power of municipal councils, the fact that women are barred from electing the members of these councils and that members of the Shura Council are political appointees, there is no question that the existence of these institutions has shifted the relationship between the citizen and the state, raising expectations with regard to popular participation in government, civil freedoms and questions of accountability and transparency. People in Saudi Arabia today are talking about whether women should be accorded full civil and political rights and not whether they should be allowed to drive. NGOs, human rights organisations and intellectual forums, on which the government keeps close tabs, are calling for broader public participation in government, the popular election of at least a portion of Shura Council members and broader powers for the Shura Council and municipal councils, including the power to scrutinise public budgets. While the political will necessary to secure action is still lacking, and obstacles within the royal family and the religious establishment formidable, the momentum being generated by discussion is extending throughout society. This, combined with recent changes in the regional and international context, is creating a climate conducive to reform.

That said, the concentration of social power in the hands of the ruling elite and the Wahabi religious establishment, as embodied by the Dar Al-Iftaa, the Council of Ulama and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, cannot be overestimated. The ruling elite monopolises the government and national income while the Wahabi religious establishment controls schools and universities. Their power is exercised and perpetuated within the framework of a mutually beneficial relationship whereby the latter confers religious legitimacy upon the ruling elite while the former protects the Wahabis' absolute authority to regulate society. This reciprocal arrangement works to curb any reformist drive, giving both sides of the equation the ability to determine the nature and pace of political change. Against this binary power structure the influence of other political forces in society, from the liberal, secularist, enlightened Islamist to the hardline fundamentalist, pales. Whatever hopes they entertain are pinned either on manoeuvring themselves into positions whereby they can obtain the ear of those who monopolise power, or else on mobilising the public in support of their demands, so enhancing their room for manoeuvre.

Two exceptions to this rule of thumb exist -- the armed religious extremist groups and the separatist movements operating in the eastern portion of the country. Both of these challenge the sovereignty of the state and are consequently dealt with as a national security threat.

Reform advocates agree that within Saudi Arabia's duopoly it is the political, and not the religious, elite that has the upper hand. This has been illustrated on several occasions, from King Faisal's decree in the 1960s to permit female education to the recent ending of the ban on mobile telephones with cameras. These cases show that the clergy will ultimately bow to the will of the ruler. They will not venture into open opposition of reformist policies in cases in which the ruling elite have demonstrated a clear resolve to pursue such a course. In the face of the elite's total control over the resources of the state the reservations of the religious establishment over matters pertaining to women's rights, civil rights and the status of practitioners of other religious denominations, notably the Shia, are likely to fall by the wayside. While one should be wary of oversimplifying the complex relationship between the political and religious establishments in Saudi Arabia secular and religious reformers both insist it is the official religious establishment, and the ultraconservative movements that are vying with it, that constitute a major obstacle to reform and that it is in the hands of Saudi Arabia's rulers to offer a solution.

So to what extent does the ruling elite desire change, and what are the available strategies to put this desire into effect?

It is a question on which Saudi politicians and intellectuals are sharply divided, and along lines that have emerged in most other Arab countries. One group pins its hopes on a reformist trend within segments of the ruling elite headed by Abdullah while another group looks abroad to regional and international transformations and cites historical imperatives. Whereas one body of opinion believes that the royal family is the only power capable of guaranteeing stability as it confronts conservative and extremist religious thought and spreads the values of tolerance and plurality, others argue that it was the Saudi ruling family that allowed the Wahabis to impose their control on society and marginalise moderate religious voices in the first place. The first group point out that King Abdullah, along with several key figures around him, has tangibly demonstrated his eagerness to promote modernisation through the gradual reform of political rights, the media and education. They expect him to use his popularity to initiate more constitutional and legal reforms. The second group argues that were it not for regional developments and international pressure such reforms would not have been broached.

The arguments bounce back and forth. Democratic transformation is inevitable given the rise of an educated urban middle class that is increasingly open -- Saudi Arabia has the largest concentration of satellite dishes in the world. But that same middle class, say detractors, has repeatedly shown how conservative it remains in its thinking. Resistance to demands for political and civil rights cannot withstand the relentlessness of outside pressure. But in the light of successive rises in oil prices, the West has few cards it can play against the Saudi royal family. And on it goes.

As is often the case, there is validity in the arguments of both sides. And while it is probably true that the continuation and expansion of the current reform drive in Saudi Arabia is contingent upon the pattern of convergence between domestic, regional and international factors what is more important is that ideological and politically motivated analyses can no longer provide ready-made answers. Discussions of Saudi Arabia have finally emerged from the shadow of hand-me- down stereotypes.

* The writer is senior associate at the Democracy and Rule of Law Project, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC.