While much of the Arab Middle East has been convulsed by revolutionary change over the past year, Saudi Arabia's ruling class has sought to straddle a fine and precarious line between reaction and reform. On one side, activists have begun to use social media to agitate for liberalization of the kingdom's laws and institutions. On the other, hardline conservatives have vowed to oppose any significant shift in the status quo. Crown Prince Sultan's death on Oct. 22 may have shifted momentum in the direction of the latter camp, with the ailing King Abdullah having named his half brother, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, an ally of ultraconservatives, as heir to the throne.
Perched between the camps is the 27-year-old current wife of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (the king's nephew), Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel. Part of a ruling family focused on maintaining the existing order, Ameerah is also an eloquent member of the Twitter generation who has begun to use her social prominence to advocate for women. “We want equal rights, we want what God has given us, the respect and the dignity to live as an equal citizen,” she says.
King Abdullah himself has made some tentative moves to expand women's rights. Two years ago he angered conservative clerics by launching coed university education. More recently he decreed that women would be able to vote and run for office—in the 2015 municipal elections, a delay designed in part to avoid roiling those same clerics.
With Sultan's death, some activists have begun to wonder whether the openings of the past few years will turn out to be only a moderately liberal interlude between decades of tight restrictions on women's lives. Yet the princess remains hopeful. “I don't see Saudi women accepting going back,” she says.