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Saudi Arabia: early stirrings of revolt?

Three separate petitions represent a small but growing slice of Saudi public that is discontent with an absolute monarchy.

But even that appears unlikely for now. Although King Abdullah has initiated changes in the country’s education and justice systems, pushed for greater public participation by women, and given the Saudi press greater latitude than previously, he has not ventured into the sensitive arena of political reform.

Elections for all-male municipal councils that were supposed to be held last year were cancelled.

“Here in Saudi Arabia what’s important is the mainstream ... and they don’t have a positive connotation of current events in the Middle East,” said one young pro-reform professor who signed the third petition but asked not to be named in an article. That is why, he added, he does not expect any major political reforms.

The first petition was signed by around 40 Saudis, mostly young journalists. Significantly, they asked for a new cabinet whose average age would be 40, rather than the 65 years it is now. The second petition was the most Islamist in tone and did not, like the other two, mention women’s rights at all. It drew more than a thousand signatures, including that of the popular independent cleric, Salman Al Audah.

The third petition, also signed by hundreds, was similar to the first but more specific. "Ours is a rainbow coalition,” said Khalid Al Dakhil, a Riyadh sociologist who helped organize it. “There are Islamists, Shiites, Sunnis, men and women. It is more liberal."

All three called for more freedom of expression, creation of civil society and action against corruption — a major complaint among all sectors of Saudi society. The issue was thrown into high relief during floods that hit Jeddah, the kingdom’s second largest city, in January, causing at least 13 deaths and millions in property damage.

Saudis were angry that the government had not taken steps to prevent floods, as they had promised after a similar inundation in November 2009. Most Saudis are convinced that corrupt officials and businessmen are to blame for that failure.

This is not the first time a Saudi monarch has contended with an outpouring of political demands. Similar waves of petitions with competing visions of reform were made in the 1990s and in 2003, when the kingdom was caught up in a violent campaign of suicide bombings waged by Al Qaeda.

Today, however, “the circumstances are different,” said Al Dakhil. “Maybe the moment is more opportune. People seem to be more hopeful. We know there are those in the government, in the royal family who are for reform. This signals to them they are not alone, that they have a basis for calling for change."