NEW YORK - Sheik Adil Kalbani, the first black Imam to lead prayers in the Grand Mosque in Makkah (Haram Sharif), says that his appointment by Saudi King Abdullah signalled that any qualified individual, no matter what his colour, no matter where from, will have a chance for the extraordinary honour. The King is trying to tell everybody that he wants to rule this land as one nation, with no racism and no segregation, Sheik Adil, a 49-year-old heavyset man, was quoted as saying in a New York Times dispatch from Riyadh. Sheik Adil (who dreamed about leading prayers in Makkah about two years ago) is black, and the son of a poor immigrant from the Persian Gulf, wrote The Times correspondent, Robert Worth. Leading prayers at the Grand Mosque is an extraordinary honour, usually reserved for pure-blooded Arabs from the Saudi heartland, the correspondent pointed out. Prominent imams are celebrities in this deeply religious country, and many have hailed his selection as more evidence of King Abdullahs cautious efforts to move Saudi Arabia toward greater openness and tolerance in the past few years, according to the dispatch. Officially, it was his skill at reciting the Holy Quran that won him the position, which he carries out - like the Grand Mosques eight other imams - only during the holy month of Ramazan. But the racial significance of the Kings gesture was unmistakable, correspondent Worth wrote. Sheik Adil, like most Saudis, is quick to caution that any racism here is not the fault of Islam, which preaches egalitarianism. The Holy Prophet SAW) himself had black companions. Our Islamic history has so many famous black people, the Imam was quoted as saying in the reception room of his home. It is not like the West. Correspondent Worth said, It is also true that Saudi Arabia is far more ethnically diverse than most Westerners realise. Saudis with Malaysian or African features are a common sight along the kingdoms west coast, the descendants of Hajis who came here over the centuries and ended up staying. Many have prospered and even attained high positions through links to the royal family... Slavery in Saudi Arabia was abolished in 1962, the dispatch said. Sheik Adil speaks warmly of King Abdullahs new initiatives, which include efforts to moderate the power of the religious establishment and to modernise Saudi Arabias judiciary and educational establishment. He reads Al Watan, a liberal newspaper. Some people in this country want everyone to be a carbon copy, Sheik Adil said. This is not my way of thinking. You can learn from the person who is willing to criticise, to give a different point of view.