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Saudi king tiptoes toward more openness

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He was also the first member of the royal family to meet in front of television cameras with leaders of the persecuted Shiite and Sufi minorities. This was during the first part of a series of intra-Saudi dialogues he set up several years ago, despite the fact that the official Wahhabi ideology dominant in Saudi Arabia reviles those Muslim sects as quasi-heretic.

As a result of his reputation as a reformer, Abdullah has received a deluge of petitions in the past couple of months. A leading Islamic cleric, Salman al-Odah, wrote an open letter asking for more government accountability and public participation in the decision-making process. A woman posted a letter to the king entitled "I want to drive" on a popular website.

Delegates from the Shiite minority in the east and the marginalized Ismaili minority met with the king and asked for more representation in government and the country's consultative Shura council. (The Shura was formed in 1993. It now has 150 members appointed by the king every four years. It debates government, social, and economic policy, and advises the king, but has no legislative authority.)

Abdullah also met with two groups of women, including female activists.

But despite the flurry of requests Abdullah has not announced any major political reforms since taking power. Saudi Arabia held partial municipal elections earlier this year but those councils have yet to meet. The government has not announced the appointed members, who will make up half of the councils, nor explained the delay.

"There is a fear that the municipal elections are part of isolated and arbitrary reforms instead of a democratic reform program with clear goals and a time frame," says Saudi political analyst Tawfiq al-Saif.

Mr. Saif and other liberal analysts say the king must seize the moment to institutionalize reforms, taking advantage of widespread public support and a flush treasury. High oil prices have increased revenues in the world's biggest oil producer to over $150 billion this year, up from $106 billion last year. The Saudi stock market has grown six-fold in the past three years, going from a capitalization of $82 billion in 2002 to over $517 billion this year, according to the Samba financial group, a leading Saudi bank.

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