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Things change slowly in Saudi Arabia, if they change at all. The country has long defied foreign investors who would try to guess its next move. Like a mirage, Saudi Arabia’s promise — be it lucrative construction contracts or the chance to invest in cash-rich companies — taunts thirsty believers before disappearing into the desert sand.

Change comes particularly slowly in the realm of Saudi finance. In the time it took its upstart neighbors Dubai and Doha to build entire cities, Riyadh has managed, after many fits and starts, to pass a mortgage law to allow its own population to buy homes on credit. Those who have faith that the Saudis will one day open their equity market to foreigners are especially patient souls. At a time when the capital markets of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are angling to get an upgrade to MSCI’s emerging-markets index, the Saudi stock market, the Tadawul, remains sealed off from direct foreign investment.

But foreigners and Saudis are used to reading signs, and lately they find fresh reason for optimism. The replacement of a key figure, a board reshuffle, even an eerie silence on a once-hot issue — these are often the harbingers of change in Saudi Arabia. The recently adopted mortgage law, for instance, was seven years in the making. After repeated hints and rumors failed to pan out, most observers had given up hope of seeing the measure adopted — then, suddenly, the kingdom’s Council of Ministers enacted the law last July. Such is the nature of change in the Gulf’s biggest, and most opaque, economy.

“In my experience of being in Saudi, when things go quiet on the reform front for a while, they usually then accelerate pretty quickly,” says Farouk Soussa, chief economist for the Middle East at Citigroup in Dubai.

Ever since the government established the Capital Market Authority in 2004 to regulate the country’s stock market, tongues have been wagging about the prospect of opening the Tadawul and its $380 billion worth of companies to foreign investors. For Saudi watchers the latest sign was the February appointment of Mohammed Alsheikh as CMA chairman, replacing Abdulrahman al-Tuwaijri. Alsheikh has an impressive résumé. A veteran lawyer with a master of laws degree from Harvard Law School, he spent nearly two decades representing sovereign wealth funds, governments and banks in Saudi Arabia; worked as the local partner of U.S. law firm Latham & Watkins; and last September was appointed by the government as Saudi Arabia’s executive director at the World Bank. Alsheikh’s experience and government connections make him a good candidate to see through a liberalization of the Tadawul, says Said Hirsh, an independent financial analyst in London and a former economist at Capital Economics. He cautions, however, that the ultimate authority rests with the House of Saud, led by King Abdullah.