Mohsen Awajy knows better than most Saudis the perils of speaking his mind on such subjects as elections and government accountability.
Nine years ago, not long after the Persian Gulf War, the religious scholar and agronomist was thrown into prison for co-writing a petition that suggested Saudis be given a "choice" on who ruled the country. He was released in 1998, four years into his nine-year sentence, with the admonition that he could end up back in jail if he spoke out again.
Dissidents like Awajy were emboldened once more by the current conflict in Iraq. Many recognized that the government was allowing dissent and anger to flow. Saudis watching the war have been successively outraged by civilian casualties, elated at Iraqi resistance and depressed when the war turned in favor of U.S.-led forces, and are now expressing humiliation at the rapid collapse of Baghdad. The government has sought to manage and co-opt antiwar fervor. In a country where public demonstrations are banned, there is new debate about political reforms that were suggested long before the first U.S. strikes against Iraq.
"The regime used to be brutal in peaceful conditions," said Awaji, who intends to call on the government to distance itself from the United States when the war finally ends. "In this crisis, we find a lot of opportunities to express our feelings. Without trouble in the region, we aren't able to say anything."
But there is no consensus about what form changes in government may take. Many Saudis doubt that reform will go as far as the Bush administration would like. Whenever they hear U.S. officials talking about enhancing democracy in the Middle East, they assume the reference is directed at them. But many reject the notion that war and military occupation can spawn Jeffersonian ideals in this deeply conservative kingdom.
"It could be amusing, if it weren't so bloody," one Saudi official said.
Saudi officials say they already are instituting changes, but at their own pace, liberalizing the economy and taking the first steps toward sharing power with the appointed Majlis Al-Shura, or consultative council.
Some said the war in Iraq could impede the process, because resentment has grown about U.S. policies. Many Saudis see U.S. actions in Iraq as unilateral and imperial, and that makes it harder to sell U.S. ideals.
"If you say you have to deal with the United States, especially after liberating, or occupying, Iraq, then you will be viewed as someone who is just a follower, obeying America," said Turki Hamad, a Saudi political scientist. "It's a kind of stubbornness."
Analysts say that the Saudi royal family has survived and maintained stability by aligning itself with a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. In so doing, they are courting their traditionally conservative-minded subjects. For some Saudis, the war has driven a wedge between them and the princes who rule them. Few Saudis bought the deception engaged in by the government during the war in Iraq, in which it denied playing any role even as the U.S. Air Force selected bombing targets from Prince Sultan Air Base, a sprawling facility 70 miles from Riyadh.
"The distrust has grown between society and government," says Awadh Badi, a political scientist at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. "Before, if the government was fragile, 50 percent, now it is fragile, 60 percent."
Many Saudis scoff at the suggestion that the royal family is seriously endangered, either by those who are unhappy about its close ties to the United States or by the quiet rage that enveloped the nation during the war in Iraq.
"Since I was 10, I've been hearing about the imminent demise of the Saudi government," Ghazi Ghosaibi, the water minister and former ambassador in London who is in his 60s, says dismissively. "People are angry, but they identify the government being as one with them in their anger."
In a country with no opinion polls, it can be tricky gauging the popularity of the government. But in dozens of conversations, even many Islamic groups and reformers who favor democratic elections show little appetite for replacing the royal family.
"Some people may not be happy with the behavior of some of the princes," said Abdullah Sabeeh, a psychology professor at Imam Mohammed Bin Saud Islamic University, the most religious and conservative of the seven Saudi universities. "But they still believe the royal family is a key player in the political system. If you lose the royal family now, it means the unity of the country will be shattered."
The royal family describes its reform policy as "development without change." And many Saudis complain that the United States neither understands the system nor gives them credit for the changes underway.
"Saudi society is in a constant state of change," said Ghosaibi in an interview. "You guys connect it with demonstrations in the street. But powerful and far-reaching changes here are taken care of, quietly."
Ghosaibi retrieved a piece of paper from the breast pocket of his traditional, floor-length shirtdress, called a thobe. He cited statistics showing that about 250,000 Saudi women have jobs in the government or in private business. "To have that many women working would have been unheard of 30 years ago," he says. "This is a profound change in a complex and moving society."
He neglected to mention that Saudi society is so segregated that many of these women work in separate buildings from their male co-workers.
Reformers often point to the weekly majlis, or open meeting, held by the nation's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, as a symbol of what is wrong with the way the country is governed.
Dozens of men attend. "Handshake only," they are advised, in a discreet admonition not to kiss the ruler's hand or shoulder. Each is ushered before the large, goateed man sitting in a black leather swivel chair behind a gleaming glass desk with brass trim. Many of the supplicants are elderly and poor. They approach the crown prince across a huge blue and white Persian carpet, their worn sandals peeking out from the brown and tan ceremonial robes trimmed in gold thread that they have borrowed or rented for the occasion.
Each presents his case as if he were appealing to a small claims court judge instead of the highest power in the land. Petitioners lean in close, some wagging their fingers in the prince's face.
At a recent majlis, one man wept while recounting the death of his son, the family breadwinner, and asked for financial aid. Documents were pressed into the hands of a hovering factotum, who scribbled notes as the crown prince made snap judgments.
Rather than viewing this as an intimate exercise in governance, critics complain that the majlis symbolizes the regime's authoritarian nature, in which all power is vested in one man instead of in institutions.
"You don't need to go see the president of the United States," said a businessman, who on principle refuses to attend the majlis, which he considers "shameful" and "humiliating."
"You [in America] have a system, with rules and regulations. Why should I have to stand for six hours outside the palace to see him? In the United States, if I have a complaint, I can just mail it in."
The Saudi system faces increasing criticism, though mostly in private, as the country's economy founders, even though Saudi Arabia sits on a quarter of the world's proven oil reserves.
Two decades ago, per capita income was on a par with that of the United States; now it's closer to Mexico's.
The government is unable to create enough jobs for the 70 percent of the population of about 24 million that is under 30 years old. Forty percent of Saudis were born since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"There's a stability problem, just not right away," said one diplomat.
Idle, unmarried young men cruise the streets at night, slapping placards with their cell phone numbers in the windows of women sitting alone in the back of a taxi or a limousine. Unable to support a family, many young Saudi? men delay marriage until their 30s, and have little to do in their 20s.
Under a process called Saudi-ization, foreign workers are slowly being replaced, though at a recent job fair in the Jeddah gold souk, or market, some applicants left when they learned they would have to sweep floors twice a day. Foreigners still make up 80 percent of the private workforce, but the occasional Saudi now can be found among the ranks of supermarket cashiers and hotel clerks.
"There used to be an implicit deal," one diplomat said. "The Al-Sauds ran the country and provided well-paying government jobs. The price for a good job and prosperity was staying quiet. People say now that the deal has broken down, because the government no longer can fund it."
Whatever the future of reform, many Saudis say they reject a U.S. model.
"With all due respect, I don't want America teaching me my values," says Khaled Sultan, deputy minister for educational affairs. "Don't link values to military power. Have you ever seen democracy imposed from outside? We aren't against what the United States is calling for. But it has to come from the grass roots. We can manage our own affairs."