Here's an excerpt from a very long piece.
I have chosen the fierce debate over gender mixing (ikhtilat) as an illustration of the convoluted process of reform. Gender segregation in schools, universities, charitable organizations, hospitals, restaurants, government offices and other public spaces is one of the defining features of Saudi Arabia. As several researchers have pointed out, this is not a traditional practice in Saudi society.9 It was actively promoted in the 1980s and 1990s by the state, the revivalist Sahwa movement,10 conservative ulama and the religious police, who enforce public moral behavior. Although the position of women has improved since 9/11, ikhtilat demarcates the battle lines between reformists and conservatives. Any attempt to diminish its enforcement is regarded as a direct attack on the standing of conservatives and Islam itself.11
In the following pages, I trace the ikhtilat debate from its eruption in October 2009 to the start of its fourth round in May 2010. I closely analyze the arguments and positions of the four main players around which the debate has concentrated (Sheikh Saad al-****hri, Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamidi, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, and Sheikh Yusuf al-Ahmad), examine their backgrounds and allies, and assess the support or neglect they have garnered in higher state circles.
Revising strict gender segregation has been on the agenda for the past 10 years,12 but what really triggered the present clash of interests was the decision on February 14, 2009, to overhaul the personnel of the highest government agencies.13 The opening in September 2009 of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which has become the symbol of reform and acceptable ikhtilat, exacerbated the already deep apprehension of the conservatives.
Middle East Policy Council | Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Gender-Segregation Debate