Promises of reform in two neighbouring mid-east countries: in Yemen, president Ali Abdullah Saleh calls for early elections and says he is committed to a peaceful transfer of power. In Saudi Arabia, king Abdullah has announced that from 2015 women will be allowed to stand and vote in local elections.

The promised change in Yemen is much more dramatic. Mass protests that began in January have shaken the regime, with an on-again-off-again deal for a transition to democracy. Saleh has only recently returned to Yemen after being hospitalised in Saudi Arabia with injuries received in an attack on his presidential palace in June.

While the process of removing Saleh has turned out to be unexpectedly drawn-out and convoluted, there’s little chance of him hanging on for much longer. Dictators don’t survive this level of popular disaffection unless they have either very powerful friends or an unusual combination of wiliness and ruthlessness. Saleh doesn’t seem to fit the bill.

In Saudi Arabia, however, change happens slowly. What news reports sometimes neglect to mention is that female suffrage will be only for local elections — not because it’s by way of a trial run for something bigger, but because they’re the only sort of elections Saudi Arabia has.

There is no parliament, no competing centres of power, no official outlets for dissent: it is one of the most comprehensively repressive states left on Earth.

So if the Earth is really shifting in Saudi Arabia, that’s a much bigger story. Most media coverage of the Arab Spring seems to have discounted the possibility of any major change there, but the Saudi rulers are clearly aware that they are sitting on a powder keg.

Nothing else would have led them to go as far as they already have — supporting the intervention in Libya, condemning Hafez al-Assad’s crackdown in Syria, trying to engineer a peaceful transition in Yemen, and now cracking the door open a little wider in the kingdom itself.

Saudi discrimination against women is particularly stark; a web of restrictions, including a ban on driving, render them unable to function independently in society. Movement on this front is important not because gender equality has been a key issue for Arab protests, or because anyone expects a wave of female mayors to appear in four years, but simply as a signal that real change may be afoot.

At 87, Abdullah is an unlikely reformer, but over the past decade he has in fact been moving very gradually towards greater openness.

Tocqueville’s line again comes irresistibly to mind: “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.”

Juan Cole, the regional expert who was consistently right about Libya, puts the question as “whether the Saudi dynasty … is moving fast enough to avert a revolution.” Its vast oil wealth and strong international support (the two of course are not unrelated) give it a substantial buffer, and while the latest moves show that Abdullah and his circle are worried, they are not yet panicking.

But with Yemen and Syria already tottering, as more dominoes fall it will be more and more difficult for the Saudis to stay on top of the demand for change.

Peter Fray

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