Qahtani is one of a small but growing number of Saudi reformers who are patiently working for change within the boundaries of the deeply conservative Saudi society – and making surprising progress. While few support the revolutionary model of Tunisia or Egypt, they are benefiting from an Arab Spring tail wind.
"The revolution that took place around us was a wake-up call," says Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, speaking recently to a US media delegation in his plush 66th-floor offices in Riyadh's Kingdom Tower. "No one will say it, but it was the catalyst."
Among the signs of reform:
•A new YouTube satire show, La Yekthar ("Put a lid on it"), is pushing the boundaries of free speech; the most popular program so far, which mocks the government's anticorruption commission, received 3.3 million views.
•Police stations, which once turned away battered women with an admonition to obey their husbands, now have special units to tackle domestic violence; the campaign has been led by pediatrician Maha Almuneef (see her quote at lower right).
•Next year, women like Dr. Almuneef will become voting members of the Shura Council, which often summons top officials for questioning and fiercely debates proposed laws.
•Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, a Salafi sheikh long popular among hard-liners, including Osama bin Laden, is now preaching the compatibility of democracy and Islam and getting serious traction (see his quote at right).
•Some 150,000 Saudi students are currently studying abroad on the King Abdullah scholarship, cultivating a generation fluent in English and at ease with Western society.