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As King Abdullah al-Saud recovers from his recent surgery in the U.S., his subjects in Saudi Arabia may be wondering what their future holds. The 86-year-old monarch has long branded himself an advocate for reform in the conservative kingdom, saying he supports women's empowerment, increased tolerance for criticism and religious dialogue, and overhauling the justice system. So how far has he managed to take Saudi Arabia?

Last year, the country had reason to hope for dramatic changes. In February 2009 King Abdullah shuffled his cabinet and other government bodies, ousting hard-liners and even appointing the first woman to the position of deputy minister for education. The king began promoting his Interfaith Dialogue Initiative abroad to bring together leaders of various religions. And in November last year, when flash floods in Jeddah killed more than 120 people, he called for the prosecution of city officials whose shoddy planning had allegedly made the floods so deadly.

That's hardly a democratic revolution, but in Saudi Arabia, where entrenched political and religious elites militate against any reform, these were bold steps. Over the past few months though, even these gains have been squandered, and Saudi Arabia has seen setbacks in all these areas of human rights.

Most recently we saw Saudi intelligence forces arrest Muhammad al-'Abd al-Karim on Dec. 6, apparently over an article he posted on his Facebook page analyzing the political fault lines of the ruling Saudi royal family. Mr. al-'Abd al-Karim, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Riyadh's Imam Muhammad University, pondered in his article whether the eponymous kingdom would remain a political entity if the family ceased to rule. He is now in incommunicado detention.

Punishment for voicing ideas goes directly against the grain of the tolerance that King Abdullah has touted since he took the throne in 2005. And Mr. al-'Abd al-Karim's case is, sadly, not isolated. Shaikh Mikhlif bin Dahham al-Shammari, a prominent Saudi human-rights activist, has been in detention for almost six months, the maximum time he can be held under Saudi law in pretrial detention. And the charge against Mr. al-Shammari? "Annoying others." The "annoyance" in question seems to concern his articles critiquing hostile speech by Saudi Arabia's dominant Sunni Muslims, including by some government officials, against Saudi Shia. Mr. Al-Shammari, a Sunni, has long advocated greater equality and openness between the two Muslim sects.

His detention is all the more troubling because Saudi Arabia desperately needs such advocates. The kingdom's lack of religious tolerance remains a serious problem, with systematic discrimination against Saudi Shia. Authorities regularly shut down Shia mosques and arrest Shia for worshiping according to their rituals, or for speaking out against these injustices. Munir al-Jassas, a Saudi Shia who wrote articles online calling for Shia rights, has been in detention since November 2009 without charges or trial. And for all of King Abdullah's interfaith promotions abroad, public observance of any faith other than Islam remains prohibited.

Saudi Arabia has become a marginally better place for women over the past few years. Strict rules for covering up are enforced less rigidly than they were, and Saudis are now openly debating the current requirement for total segregation by sex. More women today hold prominent business positions than they did five years ago, though they must still obtain their male guardians' approval to work, study, travel, marry, and even seek health care in some cases. A Saudi promise to the United Nations in 2009 to dismantle that system has gone unfulfilled.

One area where King Abdullah has invested heavily in reform is the arcane Saudi justice system, which does not have a penal code and lets individual judges define crimes and set penalties. In 2007, King Abdullah's government presented plans to restructure the judiciary, allocating more than $2 billion to modernizing the apparatus. But three years later, all that money seems to have bought very little change.

Consider that in late August the Board of Grievances, an administrative court reviewing the legality of government decisions, struck down a case against the domestic intelligence agency for its arbitrary detention of a former judge, Sulaiman al-Rashudi. The Saudi intelligence agency has held him and others working on political and judicial reform since February 2007 without charges or trial. The court did not rule on the arbitrariness of his detention, but dismissed the whole case on a technicality. Meanwhile, he sits in jail, and authorities have prevented him from meeting with his lawyers.

Saudis are now wondering whether anything at all will come of King Abdullah's reformist talk, and indeed whether he is the symbolic figurehead they need to change their country. Even if Saudis broadly share King Abdullah's vision of a more modern country, their institutions remain rooted in the old ways. This means that lasting reforms will continue to hinge on one individual's will. So far, it has not been strong enough.

Mr. Wilcke is senior researcher for Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.

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