RIYADH // Changes in the top ranks of Saudi Arabia's influential religious and judicial leadership announced on Saturday by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz have been welcomed by most Saudis as steps that will advance needed reforms. Women in particular are happy about the king's endorsement of opening up more career opportunities for them by appointing Norah al Faiz as the deputy education minister for girls, the highest government rank ever attained by a woman in the kingdom.
"It's all positive on every level. I can't believe I've lived to see all these changes for women, and for breaking the grip of the religious establishment," said Ibrahim Al Mugaiteeb, a human rights activist in Dammam. But the general optimism generated by the king's personnel changes, which also included four new cabinet ministers, two senior military officers and a new chief of the religious police, was tempered by warnings that real change also requires assent from rank-and-file bureaucrats.
For example, one official who asked not to be named said he believed employees in the education department and the religious police, two top targets of King Abdullah's reformist agenda, "will not fulfil King Abdullah's orders because our society is still very conservative". As a result, he added, "we shouldn't be too excited about the changes" made in the leadership of those departments. The king's shake-up did not alter the firm grip on power of the royal family, which retains control of most sensitive posts, including the defence and interior ministries.
But it was taken by many observers as an important indication that King Abdullah wants to decisively move his country onto the path of reform. "This is the first major shake-up undertaken by King Abdullah, sending out a clear signal that the king means business," read an editorial in yesterday's Saudi Gazette. But even while cheering the royal initiative, some say more will be needed if Saudi Arabia is to successfully navigate the global challenges of today's world.
"It's only a step forward, and a lot more steps must be taken, and fast," said a Riyadh businessman, Turki F al Rasheed, who has called for elected local governments and an elected parliament. Perhaps the most important royal moves were the replacement of the country's most senior judicial official and the diversification of the Grand Ulema Council to include religious scholars outside the dominant Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence.
"To include all Sunni legal schools is unprecedented," said Khalid al Dakhil of the sociology department at King Saud University. "It's a positive step." The king has been disappointed by the lack of support from the clerical establishment for his international initiative to encourage interfaith dialogue, as well as his moves to reform the domestic educational and judicial structures. Although the overhaul of the ulema council is no doubt aimed at creating more enthusiasm for the king's policies, it is still unclear whether that will materialise. As several observers noted, even if the newly appointed members of the ulema come from legal traditions other than Hanbali, they are likely to be just as conservative as their Hanbali colleagues.
"They all belong to the salafi school," said Tawfiq Alsaif, a spokesman for the minority Shiite population. "All of them have the same view to non-Wahhabis; they are against democracy, against women's rights." If you want to have a truly "national religious establishment", he added, "you have to bring people from the Ismaili, the Shia, the Sufi". The king named six Shiites to the 150-member Shura Council, an advisory body. But that small number did not make up for the Shia community's disappointment in being excluded from representation in the cabinet and foreign diplomatic corps, Mr Alsaif added.
"We just came out with nothing," he said. The removal of Sheikh Saleh al Lihedan, the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council, was seen as another important move, this time to break a logjam in implementing judicial reforms. Sheikh Lihedan had refused to co-operate with the proposed reforms. He also embarrassed King Abdullah last Ramadan by declaring that media officials responsible for broadcasting immoral television programmes could be executed, comments that brought ridicule to Saudi Arabia from around the world.
"This is a smart thing," said Abdulaziz M AlGasim, a lawyer, because the king has brought in "trustworthy and modern guys" now to head the judicial system. Sheikh Lihedan's replacement is Saleh bin Humaid, who up to now has been speaker of the Shura Council. Turki al Thunnayan, a columnist writing yesterday in Al Watan, said the judicial system, which operates on the basis of Islamic law, needs "a little prescription called transparency, transparency, transparency. Switching the lights on and putting the spotlight on the bodies concerned with justice will undoubtedly reveal the ills to everyone, including those involved in the ministry itself."
Although the education ministry is a bastion of ultra-conservatism, its new chief, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Muhammad Al Saud, 59, appears up to the task of pushing through reforms. The prince, who is the king's son-in-law, was educated in the United States. He was a top official in the National Guard in the 1990s and for the past five years has been the country's deputy chief of intelligence.
"Education is the government's priority," said an editorial in yesterday's Arab News. "It is hardly surprising then that fresh hands are needed to implement the potentially far-reaching changes that have been agreed [on]." The new head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or religious police, is Abdul Aziz bin Humain. Speaking yesterday in a television interview, Mr Humain intimated that his first loyalty will be to the king's agenda. "We will seek, to achieve the aspirations of the rulers," he said.
A sampling of reactions from the right to the king's changes is available at Al Sahat, an ultraconservative forum and website. One comment was addressed to the ousted Sheikh Lihedan: "Your brave fatwa will not be forgotten. You just sent ripples of fear throughout their spines and they had you dismissed. I send my regards to you." Another visitor cautioned that conservatives should not be too happy about the removal of the information minister, Iyad Madani, because "the new guy's said to be of the same calibre".
And a third commentator, who refers to King Abdullah in a derogative way as "sultan", wrote: "Is it the 'Sultan's' place to decide who our scholars are? Furthermore, what after their dismissal? Do they just stop becoming our scholars?" email@example.com