RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — An old man with long, gray tendrils of beard tottered up to the crown prince here, wailing. The man's son had died the day before in a car accident. What was the family going to do without a wage earner?
Saudi Arabia's acting head of state whispered something and sent him on his way. Later, Crown Prince Abdullah retired to his office, a huge room draped in silk and glistening with crystal chandeliers, and signed dispensations for dozens of supplicants who had come that day.
Did the old man get help? Or was his recent request one of those the prince dismissed without signature to his bowing assistant? In Saudi Arabia, there is no way of knowing. There is no parliament or complete national budget, and in the end, what Abdullah does for his subjects is whatever he feels like doing that day.
A few hundred miles away, in Iraq, a war is underway that President Bush says will lead to a popularly elected government to replace Saddam Hussein's regime. The Bush administration says it hopes the seeds of democracy in Baghdad will spawn similar change in conservative regimes elsewhere in the Middle East.
Here in Saudi Arabia, one thing is almost universally agreed upon. Of all possible outcomes of the war, one of the most perilous is the idea of suddenly injecting democracy into a region of emirs, tribal chiefs and military dictators -- a concept that prompted one Saudi official to call the administration's idea "the most preposterous, idealistic statement I have heard in a long time."
Yet the prospects for Iraq are quietly lending support to a political reform movement underway in this conservative kingdom. While Saudis almost universally oppose the Anglo-American offensive, many express quiet hope that political change in Iraq after the war could give the House of Saud the confidence to move toward elections, women's rights and an end to political repression.
The Saudi government, which has been a more positive force for liberalization than its generally conservative subjects, already has signaled that it is prepared to move toward significant reforms when the time is right. With the nation's economy dependent on oil and hit with plunging per capita incomes, the Saudi royal family appears convinced that only real change, especially on issues such as investment laws and the judiciary, can keep the country competitive and stable in the new world economy.
The war, Saudi leaders say, is actually hampering the move toward greater democratization by igniting dangerous instability and anti-Western sentiment in the region.
"If there is any talk of reform, it is proposed by the government," Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said recently. "But if there is stability, if there is peace in the region, that is the way that will bring about democratization. Not through war."
"There is enough talk about reform that the agenda is gaining momentum now," said Hussein Shobokshi, a businessman in the city of Jidda. "Everybody seems to be riding the reform bandwagon now, so we can ill- afford to be left out."
Currently, the face of the country's limited democracy is Abdullah -- sitting at his three-day-a-week majlis, listening to the proposals and peeves of the tribesmen. In some ways, it is a remarkably open process. A man -- and only a man -- is admitted to talk with Abdullah simply by showing up at the palace gate and checking any weapon at the door.
It is a process of shura, or consultation, in which citizens consider themselves on equal footing with their leaders. Abdullah himself has a circle of close friends who argue with him openly on policy, and consensus is reached, his advisors say.
But the reality is that there is very little predictability or institutional memory in whispered conversations with a prince. Saudi Arabia has no secular commercial courts, its citizens take a certain pride in ignoring its traffic codes, and the only real rule of law is enshrined in Sharia -- the Islamic law of the Koran -- and in the Saud family.
For years, the relatively progressive Saud clan has maintained stability -- and a tight grip on power -- through an alliance with a religious leadership that is probably the most fundamentalist in the Muslim world.
Now, the royal family finds itself confronted with calls for reform from both sides: the Western-oriented liberals and the Islamic conservatives. The liberals want to see expanded rights for women, the creation of reliable court systems, and government agencies that would provide assurance for investment, a changeable prime minister and a move toward an elected parliament.
The conservatives want an end to corruption in the royal family, no more abrupt and indefinite detention of religious leaders who don't toe the royal line, and an end to Saudi Arabia's long flirtation with the U.S., particularly in light of the war with Iraq.