Some of the senior religious leaders who protested outside the palace in the Red Sea port of Jiddah said the United States was behind a campaign calling for women to drive on Oct. 26 that claims to have garnered 16,000 signatures.
The government has not cracked down on the driving campaign, and King Abdullah is believed to favor some social reforms. The protest by clerics, who are among the most influential voices in Saudi Arabia, shows the challenge he faces in pushing gently for change without antagonizing conservative segments of the population.
The hard-line Saudi religious establishment has sway over the courts and oversees the often zealous religious police, run by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which enforces strict segregation of the sexes and other restrictive interpretations of Islamic Shariah laws.
"Why was the date of the protest (by women driving) given a Western date and not an Arab one?" asked prominent Sheik Nasser el-Omar at the rally, referring to the Islamic lunar calendar that differs from the Gregorian one used by the West. "This suggests the campaign was made in the U.S.A.," he said in remarks carried by the semi-official news website Akhbar 24.