In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday night, the country's de facto ruler, Prince Abd Allah bin Abd al-Aziz, said the "government will pursue a studied and progressive path" in reform. 

The oil-rich, highly conservative kingdom, under pressure from the United States and from some sectors of society, has embarked on a cautious process of reform. That has led to a clash between conservatives, opposed to change, and liberals who are demanding widespread changes and the promulgation of a constitution. 

Prince Abd Allah said the government "will not permit anyone to interfere with reform, be it by appeals to ultra-conservatism and stagnation or to ill-considered adventure." 

Need for balance

His demand for moderation reflects the need for a delicate
balancing of political and social tensions in a country that has
been dominated by a strictly puritanical form of Islam, known as Wahhabism, since the country's creation in 1936. 

"The correct path is that of the happy medium and of moderation, that of the Quran, and of our prophet," Prince Abd Allah said. 

While acknowledging the need for reform, he said Saudi Arabia
"will never accept anyone attacking its Islamic faith in the name of freedom of opinion. 

"Our society draws all of its foundations and its existence from the Divine Constitution, that is to say, from the Quran and from tradition. Any opposition to that Constitution represents an attack on the nation."

Saudi is clamping down on groups
 blamed for the Riyadh bombings

That was a swipe at calls from reformers last year for a constitution, a separation of powers and an elected parliament, none of which exist in the kingdom. 

In order to structure and guide the debate, the authorities last year established what they called a "Convention for National Dialogue." 

The first session, held in June, urged widening of political participation, more judicial independence and fair distribution of wealth, among many other things. 

The unprecedented meeting for the first time brought together members of the Sunni majority with their Shia and Ismaili
counterparts. The latter two Muslim sects have not been recognised in Saudi Arabia. 

The second, held behind closed doors in Islam's holiest city,
Makka, brought together religious figures, intellectuals and even included women, whose role in society is closely circumscribed. 

It drew up a series of recommendations to root out extremism, reform academic curricula and grant more freedom to the media. 

Since then, Saudi authorities have raised the prospect of
limited reforms in the conservative kingdom, which is engaged in a massive crackdown against Islamist hardliners, blamed for a series of bombings in Riyadh in May and November.