updated 4/1/2006 10:46:53 AM ET 2006-04-01T15:46:53

Saudi King Abdullah Saturday vowed gradual reform to bring the conservative kingdom closer to the rest of the world without violating the principles of Islam.

“We can’t remain rigid and the world around us is changing,” the monarch said in his first annual address to the all-male advisory Shura council since his enthronement last August.

King Abdullah said the envisaged reforms, which would be debated through a state-sponsored national dialogue would seek to “meet the desires of society and be in harmony with Islamic sharia (law).”

The world’s largest oil exporter will also continue liberalizing its economy, fighting graft and poverty and improving public governance, King Abdullah added.

Saudi officials have said they cannot push reforms forward without strong popular backing, reflecting their awareness of possible resistance from the influential religious establishment and significant conservatism in the society.

An absolute monarchy with no elected parliament, Saudi Arabia adopts an austere interpretation of Islam, which requires that women cover up in public, carries out punishments including beheadings, and polices streets via a special religious squad.

The monarch made no reference to widening the Shura council’s prerogatives, as wished by its head Saleh bin Humaid, especially in boosting its scrutiny over the government.

“The council aspires to more prerogatives especially after authorities launched this year national dialogue on political, social and economic issues,” bin Humaid told pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

“The advisory practice in the kingdom has developed with the citizen’s participating with his opinions, suggestions and dialogues in a bid to improve and develop his life.”

Reformers want the council to be at least partly elected, which the monarchy has resisted. But members won the right to propose or challenge new legislation three years ago.

Saudis got their first taste of nationwide polls last year to select 50 percent of local municipal councils. Authorities appointed the other half.

The Shura council has played a widely advisory role since its inception 13 years ago. The expansion in the role and size of the council reflects Saudi Arabia’s cautious steps toward political reform, which gained greater urgency after the Sept.  11 attacks against the United States.

Three years after the attacks, carried out mainly by Saudi nationals, the Saudi wing of al-Qaida launched a wave of strikes in the kingdom itself. King Abdullah promised, to stamp out the “straying group of terrorist killers.”

“There is no place for extremism in the country of the two holy shrines,” he told the council.

Al-Qaida has been waging a violent campaign for more than two years aimed at toppling the pro-U.S. monarchy and expelling Westerners from the birthplace of Islam.

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