Backstage wrangles with old guard dictate pace of conservative kingdom's change
In the world's leading oil exporter, princes and clerics wrangle behind closed doors over cautious but critical changes aimed at reconciling Saudi Arabia's conservative traditions with the needs of a modern economy - not least the role of women.
Reforms, such as King Abdullah's decision last month to grant women more political rights in future, often follow months or years of tough negotiations in which conservatives warn of a dangerous backlash against too-rapid change.
"The conservative old guard will resist any new move," said Mohsen Al Awaji, a cleric in Riyadh who wants more democracy.
"The conservatives have significant power, but this slow move from the government [of giving women more rights] does not match the requirements of the Saudi people."
The king pledged to include women in the unelected Shura Council, which advises on legislation, and to let them run and vote in future municipal elections, the only public voting now held in the country. The next such polls are due in 2015, while the Shura council membership is to be set in 2013.
At stake is the future of a Western security ally which sees itself as the leader of the world's Sunni Muslims due to its status as home to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
Abdullah's power in a wealthy kingdom with a youthful, increasingly outward-looking population, stems from a centuries-old alliance between his extensive family and clerics of the austere Wahhabi school of Islam.
A week after the king said women would have more rights, the former judiciary head, Sheikh Saleh Al Lohaidan, warned him not to tug too hard on "the thread between a leader and his people" in case it snaps.
A hardline cleric, Muhammad Al Habdan, had already written on Twitter that allowing women to join the consultative Shura Council was "haram", or religiously forbidden, explicitly challenging the king and the clerical establishment.
Another conservative warning shot was fired two days after the reform was announced, when a Jeddah judge sentenced a woman who had defied the Saudi ban on female drivers to 10 lashes.
Yet for the most part, the Wahhabi establishment kept its views on the king's move private, offering neither public praise nor condemnation of a step it had previously opposed.
"Princes would like the world to think that they have this powerful constituency that rejects reforms," said Madawi al-Rasheed, author of A History of Saudi Arabia and frequent critic of Saudi policies.
"But clerics are subservient to princes and serve them by showing they are backward and conservative, while the princes look progressive by comparison."
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The alliance between princes and clerics dates to a mid-18th century pact between Mohammed Ibn Saud, the ruler of a small oasis town near modern Riyadh, and a preacher called Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahhab, who together built a desert emirate around a vision of pure Islamic belief and force of arms.
King Abdullah is Mohammed ibn Saud's great-great-great-great-grandson, while the preacher's descendents, known today as the Aal Al Sheikh family, include the Islamic affairs minister, the Grand Mufti and two previous justice ministers.
The fruits of the alliance, which to this day include frequent intermarriage between the Al Saud and Aal Al Sheikh clans, have brought religious legitimacy to the ruling family and wealth and status to the clergy.
Key to Wahhabi political doctrine is the importance of absolute obedience to a ruler - in this case King Abdullah - unless he tries to make his subjects break Islamic sharia law.
Saudi oil exports of roughly 6.5 million barrels a day fund a lavish religious infrastructure, including huge universities that teach Wahhabi doctrine, Koranic study institutions, Wahhabi satellite channels, a morality police force and the construction of mosques and Islamic seminaries across the globe.
Moreover, clerics have a big say in Saudi education and they provide the judiciary for a country that has no written legal code, allowing judges to interpret Islamic law themselves.
"Whenever push has come to shove, when the fundamental survival of the regime is at stake, the religious establishment always supports the al-Saud," said Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. "Pragmatism always trumps religious righteousness."
Analysts say that persuading clerics to accept a greater future political role for women, a notion described not long ago by the Grand Mufti himself as "opening the door to evil", shows Abdullah is winning some battles.
However, they also point out that with Abdullah in his late 80s, attention is turning to his likely successor Prince Nayef.
The veteran interior minister, 77, is reputed to be conservative by instinct and to enjoy a strong affinity with anti-reform clerics, but he might show a different side as king.
"King Abdullah has developed this reputation for being a reformer and Nayef developed this reputation as an arch conservative," said Haykel. "They may both be playing a certain role. There's an element of shadow puppetry going on."
Adding to the complexity, the Wahhabi clergy contains some relative liberals while the al-Saud family counts entrenched conservatives among its hundreds of princes.
The gravest challenges to Saudi rule have always come from religious hardliners, including uprisings in 1929 and 1979, an Islamist opposition movement in the 1990s and al Qaeda attacks.
But attempts to placate them have sometimes backfired, such as when King Khaled gave clerics control of education, reducing the role of technical subjects in favour of Islamic studies for a generation of Saudis who now struggle to find jobs.
Now, as young Saudis tune into myriad foreign sources of culture and debate beamed in by satellite television and the Internet, more liberal clerics believe the power of the establishment is fading.
"The new player is society, which is intellectuals, women, youth, the new media," said Abdulaziz al-Qasimi, a former Wahhabi judge who now supports liberal reforms.
"And the major discussion now is between society and the state without needing to go through the religious elite."