Is Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two holiest cities, and the Arab world's most conservative monarchy, experiencing a change of heart?
In a campaign against extremists at home, Saudi courts have now begun to try 991 prisoners held on terrorism charges. A new government initiative targets jihadist detainees for counseling and religious re-education. And, last year, a Saudi mufti, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah, issued a fatwah prohibiting Saudi youth from traveling overseas to wage jihad.
The kingdom of about 27 million residents, including nearly 7 million foreigners, also seems to be reaching out in new ways. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a new Saudi research institution reported to have a $10 billion endowment, is joining with three American universities — the University of Texas, Berkeley and Stanford — in partnerships worth $25 million or more. The Saudi government recently donated $500 million to the World Food Program and, in August, opened its stock market for the first time to foreign investors.
The kingdom's latest step in this direction was to convene a summit in New York earlier this month, under United Nations auspices, on interfaith cooperation, a follow-up to the Saudi-sponsored World Conference on Dialogue, held in July in Madrid. A dozen world leaders attended the meeting, including President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the heads of seven Arab states.
The meeting sparked a backlash in the Arab world. Hezbollah's foreign relations chief, Nawaf Al-Moussawi, criticized the conference as providing a cover for normalizing relations with Israel.
But there are better reasons to treat the conference — and the Saudi intentions behind it — with a degree of skepticism. This type of event grants Saudi Arabia a platform to promote religious tolerance abroad, even while suppressing religious and political freedoms at home. The kingdom, still beset by a virulent brand of anti-Western Wahhabism, allows no public worship outside Islam. Churches are banned. Shi'ites suffer widespread discrimination.
The Saudi legal system remains as draconian and archaic as ever. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has repeatedly complained about floggings, amputations and beheadings of criminals. Earlier this year, a Saudi judge sentenced a woman who had been gang-raped to dozens of lashes for being in a car with an unrelated man prior to the rape. Women are subject to the Committee for the Advancement of Virtue and Elimination of Vice.
The Saudi campaign against reformers, meanwhile, continues unabated. In May, the public prosecutor charged prominent activist Ra'if Badawi with "establishing a Web site offensive to Islam," asking the court to sentence him to five years in prison. Just this month, activists held a hunger strike to draw attention to the plight of 11 reformers jailed without trial or access to lawyers. Three years after the accession of King Abdullah, hopes for reform have almost evaporated in the harsh Arabian sun.
Why then sponsor an interfaith conference? One reason was given with rare candor after the Madrid prequel by former Saudi information minister Muhammad Abduh Al-Yamani. "We had no choice but to declare a 'jihad' that includes dialogue with the other side," he said, "and to explain the facts accurately, so they would know what Islam is all about." It offered the chance, he continued, to tell Christians and Jews, "We want to bring you back to the original religion."
But the conference, like similar Saudi gestures of late, must fundamentally be understood in the context of the country's efforts to raise its regional profile. This involves actively seeking a role as peacemaker. It involves, too, a well-orchestrated bid for political influence by a country worried by waning economic influence.
As the world's largest oil exporter, after all, the Saudi government is understandably anxious about falling oil prices, and the consequent diminishment of political clout.
That said, the symbolism of King Abdullah sitting through a speech by Shimon Peres, and later dining in the same hall with him, sends an encouraging message. It's good, too, that the Saudis say they're self-conscious about what Islamist violence has done to the image of the Muslim faith.
Benjamin Balint is a Jerusalem-based journalist.