SHOCKWAVES from last September's attacks on America continue to buffet Saudi Arabia, rocking its relations with the West and stirring change inside the kingdom. They have even reached Buraydah, a city famed for its rigid puritanism. Suddenly, in this desert Vatican, men are talking to women, even some with their faces bared, about reforming the strict Saudi branch of Islam. “We have to develop a modern, tolerant and inclusive interpretation of faith,” says one of the participants, Mohsen al-Awaji, who was once jailed for religious extremism.
This is no revolution. Women still need permission from their male relatives to attend such meetings, and are not allowed to drive home. But the fallout could be far-reaching for Buraydah's clerics, who for the past 70 years have enforced their brand of Islam on the peninsula and used Saudi petrodollars to spread it throughout the world. In a town where television was long scorned, the guardians of tradition now compete to appear on satellite channels. One-time firebrands, such as Salman al-Awda, a dissident hardliner, issue cyber fatwas on the legality of anything from opening internet cafés to oral sex (both permitted, according to his website).