It was shortly before noontime prayers and the main hall of the Governor's Palace in central Riyadh was lined with silent, waiting petitioners, mostly elderly Saudis dressed in traditional flowing robes and checkered headdresses.
Palace chamberlains and messengers, wearing gilt swords at the waist and leather bandoliers studded with silver bullets and bearing a pistol across the chest, scurried about on princely errands.
Suddenly, all eyes were riveted on the doorway as Prince Salman, province governor and one of the kingdom's most powerful men, entered and crossed to an antechamber, with the assembled petitioners falling in behind to pray with him on oriental rugs spread out for the occasion.
Afterwards, the traditional ceremony of the majlis (assembly) began. As the tall prince stood solemnly beneath the picture of king Abdelaziz, founder of today's kingdom, each petitioner came up and presented his complaint. Some were scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper and barely legible, others neatly typewritten by a professional scribe. After handing them over, each kissed the prince on the right shoulder and then retreated to his seat without saying a word.
The prince sat down in his straight-backed chair to read the 40 or more petitions. As he finished each one, he called out the name of the owner and dispatched him with a messenger to deal with the complaint. Once, he leaned over to discuss with a bearded old man the details of his problem.
The issues before the prince could not have been more mundane. One petitioner was asking permission to break into his apartment because the man renting it had disappeared with the key and without paying the electricity bill.
Another, a Bedouin, was asking help in getting an official deed for the land he said he owned, although he had no document to prove it.
A third needed birth certificates for his children and a fourth was asking release of his father, jailed for drunkenness.
Salman dealt with most of the petitions simply by referring them to the appropriate government ministry and writing on them the words "according to instructions," meaning those of the pertinent office.
But his stamp and personal attention apparently were enough to give hope to his supplicants that justice would be done.
In this manner a kind of desert democracy is enacted daily by the ruling House of Saud in a modern urban setting as important princes, provincial governors and village mayors meet the people in majlises across the kingdom. While the aging and frail King Khalid has reduced his meetings to Mondays, others, like Salman, hold two every day. The prince, 44, who has been Riyadh's governor for 25 years, also opens up his home after dinner for four hours on most days.
"As long as we pray and go out to meet our people, then we will be in good shape," he said in an interview. "But if you hear we have lost these two things then you know we are in trouble."
Salman freely admits that listening to his subjects' complaints is a time-consuming and tiring business. Yet the institution of the majlis is held in as much esteem by Saudi rulers as a cornerstone of their political system as Congress is by Americans.
"It comes from the tradition of king Abdelaziz and we have to keep it," explained Abdullah Sudairi, Salman's American-educated secretary. "The people believe in direct contact with their prince even if there are government offices to handle it.
"This way the prince can feel the sentiments of the people and that is one reason for the stability of the country. The shah of Iran, he didn't do it," Sudairi said.
Whether the majlis is any longer capable of a role in this complex and sophisticated but largely nondemocratic society is a question that has been under debate here for some years. The kingdom has no constitution, bill of rights or parliament and all decisions are made either by the royal family or the 24-man Council of Ministers.
The law of the land is the Sharia, the tenets of Islam governing every aspect of life and stemming from the Koran.
While the majlis provides a channel of communication between the rulers and ruled, educated Saudis note that one can hardly discuss weighty issues or debate matters of state in such a stylized form.
Since the time of king Abdelaziz, the monarch who by 1932 unified the kingdom through conquest of or marriage into the feuding tribes of Arabia, there has been periodic talk of establishing an appointed national shura, or consultative assembly, for such matters.
Following the attack in Mecca in November 1979, when 500 armed men occupied the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, the Saudi royal family renewed its oft-stated promises to institute political reforms. Crown Prince Fahd, the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom, even announced that plans for a national assembly and a constitution would be drawn up in two months.
But it was not until March 1980 that a nine-man committee under Interior Minister Prince Nayif was appointed to draft the document, which was completed and submitted to King Khalid nine months ago.
Since then, nothing has been heard or said publicly about its fate.
Reports say the document includes a 200-article constitution based on Islamic law, a set of basic statutes for the government, a plan of administration for the 14 provinces and a definition of the powers and functions of an initially appointed national consultative assembly.
The sweeping reform, which seemingly promises momentous change from family to constitutional rule, does not seem to be a gripping public issue. There is nothing in the state-guided press or on government-run radio and television about it and Saudis seem uninterested when asked in private about the reform.
"They have been talking about that for 25 years," one Western diplomat said. "It's always imminent. We may one day be deeply shocked when and if it is established."
But the diplomat said public pressure for the reform seemed to have slacked off. "They don't need the shura as a safety valve for discontent," he said. "I think the people are too busy making money."
Some Saudis seem to feel a royally appointed assembly, probably of elders and religious leaders, is about the most that will come out of the reform and that this is hardly worth getting excited about.
"It's probably a step in the right direction," conceded one, "but it doesn't go very far."
Even when a shura does come to the kingdom, many Saudi officials believe the institution of the majlis will continue for a long time because it is the traditional Saudi way of doing business. Traditions run deep in this highly conservative kingdom.
But reporters attending Prince Salman's noontime majlis noted that virtually no young Saudis showed up to ask a favor or help. This could suggest that the younger generation at least is losing faith in the majlis of the princes and is dealing directly with the ministries instead.
Nonetheless, Salman continues to be deluged with petitioners at every session, handling on the average 100 requests a day.
"I think this tradition will last for a long time," said the prince's young secretary. "People still do want direct contact with their ruler."