Saudi Arabia's announcement that it will hold its first-ever elections - for municipal councils - is a welcome step along the difficult road the kingdom must follow.
The Saudi royal family has reached a decision point. It can begin desperately needed political, economic, and social reforms and try to gradually bring the deeply conservative country into the modern world. Or it can resist and watch the country slide backwards into greater poverty, unemployment, and benighted fundamentalism, risking the Islamist revolution Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist organization aims to provoke.
The imperative for reform is as much domestic as foreign. The country's population has doubled in the last 20 years to 23 million. Unemployment is at 25 percent - yet the government must import foreign workers to do jobs the country's religion-based schools leave Saudis unqualified to perform. These disgruntled youth form the recruiting pool for Al Qaeda - the pool from which most of the 9/11 hijackers emerged.
The elections - to take place in about a year - are the latest in a series of reform moves. The government has transferred girls' education to the Ministry of Education. Non-Muslims can now own property in the kingdom. Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, is trying to introduce due process into the judicial system, reduce the government's role in the economy, and curb royal privileges.
For many Saudis these moves are earthshaking. The government's challenge is to move fast enough to satisfy liberals and moderates on the two coasts, while not provoking a violent reaction from fundamentalists in the heartland.
Two further steps should now follow: Granting more power to the appointed Shura Council, a nascent parliament; and reforming an education system and curriculum that breed hatred of Christians, Jews, and the West in general, while leaving graduates unprepared for the job market.
The royal family must maintain the momentum for reform. Time is not on its side.