Two years ago, 10 Saudi businesswomen attended an economic conference in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. No previous public event had allowed both men and women to participate. The country's highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti, immediately denounced the gathering, saying 'the mixing of men and women' contravened Islamic law and 'dire consequences' would ensue. This year, at least 200 women attended the Jeddah Economic Forum, including female doctors, bankers, journalists and engineers, and student volunteers whose uniform dark blue headscarves made a relatively racy fashion statement in a country where head to toe black is obligatory for women. Large mirrored screens separated male and female seating areas in the vast, 20-chandelier conference hall of the beachside Jeddah Hilton. Coffee breaks, internet access and meals were all strictly segregated by gender. Yet despite the screens and the separate restaurants, you only needed to go up one floor to the hotel lobby to see men and women mingling in a mufti-maddening fashion. And in the press centre, women were among the journalists quizzing government officials and berating the World Bank's top official for the Middle East about the need for international aid to the Palestinian Authority. It was a microcosmic example of how rapidly things are changing in Saudi Arabia - at least, for the business elite. Businesswomen are making important strides forward, and the new king, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, is seen as sympathetic to improving women's rights. But for the most part, this deeply religious society is extremely conservative, and the king will remain wary of controversial changes that could alienate powerful traditionalists within the clerical establishment and even within his own family. The relatively liberal Red Sea city of Jeddah is an oasis of tolerance for the minority of women who are actively pushing for more civil, legal and professional rights. Overwhelmingly, these women are calling for change within the framework of Islam, basing their arguments on the Koran rather than western feminists, often seen as overly secular and anti-family. Even if they want to, few dare question Islam in a country where all citizens must by law be Muslims. 'Our problems are with traditions that are simply local customs rather than real Islam,' said consultant family physician Maha Alatta. 'Divorce and domestic violence are particular problems.' 'The right of women to own and run their own businesses is guaranteed in Islam,' said Samar Fatany, chief broadcaster in the English section of the state-owned Jeddah Broadcasting radio station. Nationwide, women account for 55 per cent of university graduates but make up only 4.8 per cent of the workforce and own only 5 per cent of the country's businesses, according to Ms Fatany. Rights activist Aisha, the only woman I met who admitted to being 'not religious', said of Jeddah: 'Here, we rarely see the mutawwa'in [religious police who enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic tradition].' The local Chamber of Commerce made the latest elections to its board nationally significant, by allowing women to campaign and vote. This was a first in Saudi Arabia, a non-democratic monarchy that denied women the vote in its first ever local elections last year. Against most expectations, businesswomen Nashwa Taher and Lama al-Sulaiman won two of the 12 elected seats. This was followed by another development at the national level: In December, Nadia Bakhurji became the first woman to be elected to the 10-person board of the National Engineers' Council - an impressive step in an industry dominated by men in much of the world. Nadia al-Hazza is one of the country's few female engineers. 'When I started, I was always the only female engineer that I knew of, and people kept thinking I was an interior designer,' she said. Now she is one of five women engineers working at national oil company Saudi Aramco. 'Things will be much easier for my two daughters,' Ms Hazza said. The bright and funny Ms Hazza had to learn her skills in the US: engineering has only been taught to men in Saudi Arabia. Until now. This year, private women's university Effat College is setting up the country's first ever course for women engineers. Dima Ikhwan, a student on the course, said: 'I love science, but more than that, it is wonderful to be part of this change.' Effat, established by liberal members of the royal family, is a wealthy college with a curriculum based on a US model. Students are able to wear jeans in the privacy of the college grounds, and the school's branded merchandise includes both headscarves and baseball caps. It is a world away from the public universities for women, whose facilities are inferior to men's colleges and which face much tighter government controls. Effat attracts staff from around the world, like Nadine, an American engineering professor and single mum who had moved to Saudi just two weeks previously. Nadine praised Effat's supportive atmosphere, saying US women studying engineering might well perform better in a single-sex educational environment. The impressive, inspiring women I met in Jeddah are the lucky ones: educated, employed and optimistic. Again and again, I heard women mention their gratitude that they had fathers who had allowed them to be educated. Thoraya Obaid, undersecretary-general of the UN Population Fund, said: 'I am grateful for my parents' foresight in sending me to school. My father reared me like himself, free and responsible.' But such opportunities depend on the luck of the family draw: having an enlightened father, brother or husband. 'Many women are forbidden by their father to go to school, let alone get a job,' Aisha said. 'Some are beaten by their brothers when they are found with jeans or mobile phones.' 'For the women in rural areas, nothing has changed for 25-30 years,' said Omar Bourgar, economics editor of the Saudi Gazette. 'Does some Bedouin woman inland have rights if she has a conflict with her husband, and if she wants custody of her children? There are still people who would call me an infidel for talking to you with your face uncovered.' Perhaps the progress of the professional elite will lead to legal changes, and create role models, that will ease conditions for all women. But there are no guarantees. And in a country where many see the wealthy as corrupt and irreligious, there is a high risk the all-important fathers and brothers will see women's rights as just another aberration by an overly western ised elite.