Saudi Arabia is one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. It has a policy of discrimination toward women, a complete disregard for human rights and a total lack of democracy.
Rigid application of Shari'a - Islamic law - leads to such atrocities as putting women to death by stoning, cutting off the hands of thieves and widespread use of the death penalty.
The country is the center of ultra-conservative
Wahhabi Islam, and it contributes large sums of money to the creation of mosques and Islamic cultural centers throughout the world which teach the most extreme forms of the religion.
Finally, the Saudis supported the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hamas in Gaza, only ceasing such support when they realized that both groups also posed an enormous domestic threat.
All of the above did nothing to improve the image of Saudi Arabia in the world, an image which was further tarnished when it was revealed that 16 of the 19 terrorists who launched the 9/11 attacks in New York were Saudi nationals. Following the discovery, many US officials called for a drastic cooling in relations with the kingdom.
Today King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is desperately trying to improve his country's image abroad and introduce much needed reforms. But he is doing so while facing two very real threats to the stability of his kingdom: AlQaida and the subversive activities of Iran.
Oil rich Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. According to the Basic Law of 1992, it must be ruled by the descendants of King Abdel Aziz Al Saud. Further, as the Koran is the country's constitution, it must be governed according to Islamic law.
Both factors should have made the kingdom less vulnerable to modern influences than any other Arab or Islamic country. But current global culture being as pervasive as it is, changes were inevitable.
King Abdullah was wise enough to understand that his family would ultimately pay a price if he did not initiate some of the reforms so desperately wanted by the younger generations - and by women, who are still subject to discrimination and repression. As soon as he acceded to the throne in 2005, he attempted to reform religious, cultural and judicial institutions to loosen the stranglehold of the Wahhabi religious establishment. One of his first decisions was to appoint younger and more liberal officials to the Ministry of Education to modernize school curriculums. It is unclear what - if any - progress was made.
Princess Adala, one of the king's daughters, has also been active in promoting better conditions for women. Under her guidance, gymnastics has been introduced into all public and private schools for girls. Sports and health clubs for women have been established, and women have been granted the right to take part in both domestic and international competitions.
Last month witnessed the formal opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, an institution which is not only physically state-of-the-art, but also culturally. While the country has yet to allow men and women to study together, the university breaks from that tradition and permits gender-mixing. Further, although women are forbidden to drive or to go out unaccompanied by a male family member elsewhere in the kingdom, on the university campus women are allowed to drive.
The opening of the university, combined with the introduction of sports in girls schools, will not radically change the face of Saudi Arabia, but it is a step in the right direction. It should therefore come as no surprise that both have angered conservative forces. Yet the king - who has the wholehearted support of academics and liberals - has not conceded. In a sign that Abdullah would not tolerate dissent, he dismissed one of the most revered religious leaders, Sheikh Saad Bin Nasser al-Shetri, who had vigorously condemned the mingling of men and women in the new university. This was taken as a warning that the king would not tolerate dissent.
Aside from religious leaders, the king also faces dissent for his modernization of education from within his own court. These opponents are led by Interior Minister Prince Naef, who has stated publicly that he is against the liberalization of the status of women. But the king has many allies in the royal family, and they are also outspoken. Prince Walid bin Talal, who is well-known in the West for his liberal views, was filmed next to his wife when she declared that she drives alone when abroad, and that she hopes one day she would be able to do the same in the kingdom. The king undoubtedly gave his blessing to the declaration.
When implementing his judicial reforms, Abdullah took equally groundbreaking measures. His firing of the head of the Supreme Court and several high ranking members of the Office of the Mufti ( Dar el Iftaa) were actions tantamount to a declaration of war against the rigid Islamic establishment.
Despite all of his progress, King Abdullah is still coming under fire from those who feel he continues to move too slowly. A few months ago, Saudis in favor of a constitutional monarchy called on the king to allow non-royals to run for high office, including the premiership. In addition, they urged him to act within the framework of a constitution.
On a different front, the kingdom came under unprecedented criticism from a local human rights organization. In its yearly report, the Saudi National Human Rights Association harshly and publicly criticized, for the first time, government institutions which violate human rights, emphasizing specifically the Interior Ministry and the so-called modesty watch.
The king has taken recent steps to address the continued concerns. Last week he signed a new law making it possible for government and educational institutions to promote "human rights culture," a set of principles compatible with Islamic law, and offering detailed explanations on human rights and the institutions set up to safeguard them. Yet debate continues as to the effectiveness of his reforms.
Recently, two Islamist newspapers opposing the reforms have been shut down, and in tribal areas - where religious traditions are still very strong - the population is wary of implementing greater freedom for women. FAR MORE threatening than the domestic discontent over the king's reform policies are the two major external challenges he faces.
Al-Qaida launched a number of terror attacks in the kingdom in the past five years with the expressly stated intention of toppling the monarchy, which it views as being guilty of "betraying Islam" for letting the US set up military bases on its soil. These bases have since been transferred to Qatar, but for al-Qaida, that's not enough.
Foreigners are still allowed to live in the Arabian peninsula, and for al-Qaida, such a transgression - allowing infidels to reside in the same country where the prophet Muhammad was born and is buried - demands nothing less than the establishment of a pure Islamic regime in place of the monarchy. Needless to say, al-Qaida is also incensed by the king's attempts at reform.
Abdullah has been fighting back strenuously against this threat, and last year his security forces killed or arrested many members of the organization. In addition, while al-Qaida remains active, its own missteps may cost it long-term support. Recently, the organization launched a failed attempt to assassinate Prince Muhammad Bin Naef, the son of the interior minister, who is in charge of combating terrorism. Shocked by what was perceived as a sacrilege, conservative tribal leaders who had been leaning towards al-Qaida renewed their allegiance to the regime.
The other external threat is that of Shi'ite Iran, which sees in Saudi Arabia, the heart of Sunni Islam, the main obstacle on its path to promote its Islamic revolution.
The most glaring danger posed by Teheran is in its nuclear program. Should Iran get the bomb, Saudi Arabia would be defenseless without American protection. In fact, it can safely be assumed that the kingdom secretly hopes that Israel will eliminate the threat by destroying the nuclear facilities.
But whether or not Iran gets the bomb in the future is of less concern than more immediate issues. Of particular concern is the possibility that Iran will try to destabilize Saudi Arabia's eastern provinces, where most of its oil reserves are situated - and where there is a sizable Shi'ite minority.
Were Iran to turn this minority against the regime or to foster an armed resistance, this might very well deal a death blow to the country, since Saudi Arabia without its oil reserves would no longer be a major power. While King Abdullah has taken active measures to prevent such a situation, touring the area and promising vast sums of money to improve local infrastructure and raise the standard of living, there is still the potential for instability.
Immediately across the western border, in Yemen, government troops are currently battling against the Iranian-backed Huthi rebel clan. This violence could very well spill over to Saudi Arabia, despite Abdullah's domestic efforts.
Saudi Arabia has attempted to take the offensive, tackling Iran's influence in the region through intense diplomatic activity, but the process has so far produced little success. The kingdom has tried to promote common political and economic goals between the Gulf countries, within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Unfortunately, the gulf countries have little military power and rely on the United States to protect them. Qatar is host to a number of American military bases and the largest American navy base in the region is in Bahrain. American troops transit through Kuwait on their way to and from Iraq. Yet this is not a solid front. Qatar is getting closer to Iran, and so is Oman. Ongoing efforts to bring Qatar back into the fold are yet to bear fruit
Other world powers have tried to assist Saudi Arabia in its efforts to stop the spread of Iranian influence, most notably by pushing the kingdom to befriend one of Iran's closest allies: Syria.
Relations between Riyadh and Damascus had noticeably cooled after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a close friend of the royal family. Together with Egypt, Saudi Arabia was at the forefront of a move to isolate Syria - a process supported by other pragmatic Arab countries, such as Jordan and Morocco. The move had the full support of the US, which imposed economic sanctions on Damascus and recalled its ambassador, as well as of the European Union, which suspended the signing of an economic agreement with Syria.
But recently the diplomatic winds have changed. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France tried to reverse the isolation by inviting Syrian President Bashar Assad to Paris to take part in his grand project, "Union for the Mediterranean." In addition, US President Barack Obama has renewed American dialogue with Syria. Saudi Arabia has reluctantly followed suit, and King Abdullah himself went to see Assad in Damascus last month.
While Abdullah and Assad discussed some pressing issues, the only tangible result of the meeting has been the exchange of ambassadors between Riyadh and Damascus - a move which actually took place prior to the visit.
While religious differences between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia can sometimes turn hostile, these disagreements are never more visible than when they manifest themselves during holy pilgrimages. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made highly inflammatory speeches promising dire consequences should Iranian pilgrims going to Mecca for the haj before the end of the month be subjected to any form of harassment.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have interpreted the warning as a sign that the pilgrims intended to carry out demonstrations in Mecca, which would pose a serious embarrassment to the king, and provoke unrest throughout the country. There was a violent reaction, not only from the Saudi authorities - who decried the use of the holy pilgrimage for political purposes - but also from religious leaders of the famous Al Azhar University in Egypt.
Such a disagreement is not without precedent. In 1987, demonstrations by Iranian pilgrims in Mecca led to the intervention of the Saudi National Guard which left hundreds dead and wounded. Perhaps recalling that event, Teheran backtracked on the statements of its leaders when a government spokesman stated that no demonstrations were intended, and that the pilgrims would behave according to the instructions received by Khamenei, with a view to reinforcing solidarity between all Muslims.
THE EMBATTLED monarch knows that time short. He is 86 and his potential heirs are all far from young. Crown Prince Sultan, another of King Saud's sons, is 83 and in poor health. For this reason, the royal family decided in 2006 to set up an "Allegiance Committee," which is empowered to rule the country - if necessary - until a suitable successor has been chosen. Another son and potential heir is Prince Naef Bin Abdul Aziz. Although he is only the fifth in the order of succession, he was appointed second deputy prime minister, thus becoming the third most powerful man in the kingdom. But he is 76 and has been interior minister for nearly four decades. Despite his age, he may very well ascend the throne.
The old king keeps on working to leave his country in the best possible shape for whoever succeeds him, and he is racing against time. He is a reformist by necessity, not by belief. Brought up in the ultra-conservative milieu of strict Wahhabi Islam, his age and his education do not make him receptive to the idea of a constitutional monarchy. Under his steady hand, Saudi Arabia has remained an island of stability and pragmatism against the rise of radical Islam and Iran's intense effort to export its Islamic revolution. That said, three factors have kept Saudi Arabia stable so far: oil exports, US support and the royal family's ability to govern smoothly. Will it go on in the future as it has done in the past 80 years? That is the question.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Sweden.