DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Shoppers and store clerks were shocked, and so were the princes following in the wake of Saudi King Fahd's designated successor. Crown Prince Abdullah was strolling through a mall, chatting with citizens and stopping to munch on fries, pizza and ice cream.
In a country where leaders are traditionally aloof, Abdullah is emerging as a man of the Saudi Arabian people. And not only in gestures.
He has talked honestly to Saudis about the country's economic problems, spoken out against corruption, relayed citizen complaints to bureaucrats and called for women to have a greater role in society.
That recipe is creating a popular power base for a man who has lacked clout within the Saudi ruling structure. He will need that support, because even when he becomes monarch, his half-brothers--including the ministers of defense and interior and the governor of Riyadh, the capital--are expected to retain control of their powerful fiefdoms.
"Abdullah has a common touch, and people feel close to him. They believe he is concerned with their problems and is personally trying to do something for them," said Hassan Husseini, a political analyst.
The crown prince, who has been progressively taking over the country's reins since his brother King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, is at the helm during difficult economic times.
The long-running weakness in the price of oil, the country's leading money earner, has led to annual budget deficits of $12 billion two years in a row.
But Abdullah, who at 75 is just months younger than the ailing king, has been galvanized by the challenge and is bent on bringing the nation closer together and pulling it up by the bootstraps, analysts said.
"He wants to turn Saudi Arabia into a modern nation able to compete in the next century, and he wants all segments of society, including women, to participate," said Waheed Hashem, associate professor of political science at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jiddah, a port on the Red Sea.
His vision of a bigger role for women has gotten much attention recently. "We will open all doors for Saudi women to enable them to make their full contributions to the nation . . . which is in great need of them," he proclaimed in a speech.
That's not a revolutionary idea by Western standards, and it hasn't yet been followed up with any concrete action, but those were trailblazing words in the conservative kingdom. Saudi women are not allowed to drive, need written permission from male relatives to travel, are banned from mingling with men and must cover in public from head to toe.
Abdullah's speech led to an intense and unprecedented debate in Saudi society about the role of women and increased his popularity with them even further.
In a sign of the fragmented power within the royal family, however, Saudi newspapers ignored the speech for several days until they got the green light to discuss it from the Ministry of Information, which is not under Abdullah's influence.
A few weeks later, dozens of young clerics sporting the long beards and ankle-length robes typical of Islamic religious fundamentalists distributed booklets in the mosques of Riyadh, denouncing the call for increased women's rights.
The country's chief cleric issued a religious decree saying a woman's place is in the home.
Abdullah's half-brother, the interior minister Prince Nayef, put an end to the debate when he publicly rebuked the press for discussing the issue. "We have no desire and no intention to allow women to drive, and the status of women should not be made an issue," he said.
Still, Abdullah's stock continues to rise among ordinary Saudis, who applaud his reputation for clean hands and determination to root out graft.
Exiled opposition groups spare Abdullah in their weekly faxes that accuse members of the royal family of decadence and corruption. He also is missing from the roster of allegedly corrupt officials on the Internet site of the dissident group Saudis Against Corruption.
The crown prince recently met with officials from the Ministry of Telecommunications and told them he had received many complaints from citizens about poor services.
During the meeting, the first of its kind, he told the officials that they, like him, must be at the service of the people. He also spoke out against corruption, which is widely rumored to be endemic at the ministry.
Abdullah has also been lauded for his unprecedented straight talk and honesty. "The days of the oil boom are over," he said last year in asking citizens to cut down on unnecessary spending in their state-subsidized lives.
Abdullah is also pushing to get the country's 7,000 princes and princesses to pay for their telephone and electricity service and flights on the national airline, which they now get free.
People who have worked with him say the prince personally goes over plans for major construction projects to make sure they are not padded with kickbacks.
He is slowly trying to get Saudis to rely on themselves and less on the government. He was behind the recent subsidy cut that resulted in a 50% increase in the price of gasoline and is pushing for the privatization of the electricity and telecommunications ministries. A value added tax reportedly is being studied.
Abdullah apparently exercises the same strict financial discipline with his own family. Sources close to him say he goes through home phone bills personally to make sure his children--believed to number 16--do not make excessive calls.