Rice flew into Riyadh late on Monday on the fourth leg of a regional tour after delivering a major speech in Cairo calling for sweeping democratic change and naming Saudi Arabia as one of the states still lagging behind.

 

"The row is really meaningless," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a post-midnight news conference after Rice conferred with him and the country's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.

 

"The assessment that is important for any country in the development of its political reform is the judgment of its own people," he said. "And that is, in the final analysis, the criteria that we follow."

 

When speaking in Egypt, Rice praised the "brave citizens" in Saudi Arabia who are "demanding accountable government".

 

"Some first steps toward openness have been taken with recent municipal elections," the chief US diplomat said. "Yet many people still pay an unfair price for exercising their basic rights."

 

Activists arrested

 

"Three individuals in particular are currently imprisoned for peacefully petitioning their government - and this should not be a crime in any country," Rice added.

 

She was referring to three activists sentenced to between six and nine years in prison in May on charges of demanding a constitutional monarch in the conservative Gulf country.

 

Rice toned down her criticism
when she was in Saudi Arabia

Ali al-Demaini, Abdullah al-Hamed and Matruk al-Faleh were found guilty of "using Western terminology" in formulating their demands. They also allegedly questioned the king's role as head of the judiciary.

 

The trio were the last activists held out of a dozen people arrested in March 2004. The three planned to lodge an appeal of their case on Tuesday in a Riyadh court, a lawyer and one of their wives said.

 

The US State Department had already registered concern over the fate of the activists and Rice said she raised the matter in her talks with the Saudi leadership.

 

"We will continue to follow the progress of this case, we think it is an important case," she said. "The petitioning of the government for reform should not be a crime."

 

Court action

 

But Saud said he told Rice the prisoners had broken the law. "They are in the hands of the court. The government cannot interfere until the court action is taken in this regard." 

 

"We encourage reform to go forward as quick as possible"

Condoleezza Rice,
US secretary of state

Critics have accused the administration of US President George Bush of going easy on the autocratic Saudi government because it is a key player in oil markets and a valuable ally in Washington's "war on terror".

 

Rice's comments in Cairo were among the more forthright US statements on Saudi shortcomings, but she toned down her appeal for reform as she stood alongside Saud at the Riyadh news conference.

 

"Obviously countries will do this at their own speed," she said. "But we encourage reform to go forward as quick as possible."