Shobokshi was largely shut out of the media two years ago after he wrote of his dream that one day Saudis would vote in elections, debate human rights and let women drive.

After recording the latest edition of his weekly finance show which returned to the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned channel Al Arabiya in September, Shobokshi told Reuters: "I gave up on being back on TV as a presenter doing my own show."

The programme generally promotes reform in the protected economy of Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter which this month joined the World Trade Organisation.

He said: "There's definitely an improved atmosphere. The situation is far from being open and benign. But there is tolerance in the press and in the media across the board."

Religious pressure

Situation has improved since King
Abdullah took over this year

When editors felt pressure from the powerful religious establishment - alarmed by how outspoken reformers became after the Iraq war in 2003 - Shobokshi was removed from television and his columns pulled from two Saudi newspapers.

Shobokshi said restrictions have eased since King Abdullah, seen as a supporter of cautious reform in Saudi Arabia, ascended the throne earlier this year.

After a "national dialogue" forum in which Shobokshi took part, he said: "The comments I said on air I could not even dare to think about 10 years ago ... it was unbelievable - like tolerance ... school textbooks."

Foreign demonisation

Shobokshi said: "We need to make a new social model for the country to adhere to. We have to criminalise people who accuse others of being infidels, we must not allow intolerance."

"We have to criminalise people who accuse others of being infidels; we must not allow intolerance"

Hussein Shobokshi,
Saudi refromer
 

The government has taken steps to stop the demonisation of non-Muslims in schools, but a violent campaign against the US-allied authorities and Westerners by al-Qaida sympathisers has shown the extent of the challenge.

Western diplomats say they do not detect a willingness by the Saudi royals to press clerics - who they need on side to fight al-Qaida - to loosen their grip on society or to democratise the system of governance.

But Shobokshi said: "At least the direction is positive."