x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Saudi king overhauls leadership

Sweeping changes seen as "a big sign for the progressive movement" as those opposed to reformist agenda are relieved of power.

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia replaced four cabinet members as part of the overhaul.
King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia replaced four cabinet members as part of the overhaul.

RIYADH // King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia initiated an extensive overhaul of his country's leadership yesterday, announcing new appointments to top political, religious and military posts, all apparently aimed at reinforcing the monarch's reformist agenda.

The king replaced four cabinet ministers, the country's most senior judge, the head of the religious police and the top official of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA). For the first time, he named a woman as a deputy minister. He also ordered a reorganisation of the Grand Ulema Council, the Muslim nation's top religious body, so that its scholars represent different branches of Sunni Islam.

In the past, the Ulema Council members all "held the same views and belonged to the same school of jurisprudence", said Mshari al Zaydi, a columnist at Asharq Al Awsat newspaper who specialises in Islamic issues. Now, "there is representation from the Maliki, Hanafi and Shafi'i [legal] schools in the council". Mr Al Zaydi added that the new council members "are also relatively young and as a result have been through different experiences. I think these men will be the king's biggest helpers and supporters for reform."

Still, the new Ulema Council does not have a scholar representing the kingdom's Shiite Muslim community, which will probably disappoint this important minority group. The long list of new appointments, whose breadth and unexpectedness left many Saudis breathless, also included new members to the Shura Council, an advisory body to the king. These appointments were anticipated because the four-year term of many Shura members expires next week. But the Cabinet shake-up took almost everyone by surprise as the ministers still have two more years to go in their current term, according to one government official.

The sweeping changes are "a big sign for the progressive movement of the king", said Mohammed H al Qunaibet, a Shura Council member. The king's decrees ordering the changes come at a time when his intended heir, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, is undergoing medical treatment outside the kingdom. He is currently recuperating at his home in Morocco. Since coming to power in 2005, following the death of the late King Fahd, King Abdullah has indicated in a myriad of ways that he wants to bring social, legal, educational and economic change to Saudi Arabia.

But in just as many ways, he has been frustrated by ultraconservative religious and political leaders and their allies in the government bureaucracy. Judging by the backgrounds of many top appointees in the royal decrees issued yesterday, the king appears to have made clear that he will no longer tolerate such passive opposition and inaction. Perhaps the most blatant example of this was the replacement of Sheikh Saleh Al Lihedan, the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council, who declared last Ramadan that media officials responsible for broadcasting immoral television programmes could be executed. Sheikh Lihedan's removal, however, had much more to do with his refusal for more than a year to allow implementation of judicial reforms advocated by King Abdullah. The elderly sheikh's replacement is Saleh bin Humaid, who has been the head of the Shura Council, where he is highly regarded, and whose father was a prominent religious scholar, Mr al Qunaibet said. Mr Humaid now becomes head of a new supreme court mandated under the judicial reforms ordered by the king. The new minister of information is the Saudi ambassador in Lebanon, Abdul-Aziz al Khoja. Abdullah al Rabia, a surgeon who is an international expert on separating conjoined twins, was appointed health minister. He has a huge task because access to medical care and good hospital care are among the biggest complaints of ordinary Saudis. Education reform has been a royal priority, but it faced significant bureaucratic and religious opposition. The new education minister is the king's son-in-law, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, who used to have a top position in the National Guard. Norah al Faiz, a long-time educator, becomes deputy education minister for girls, the first Saudi woman to hold a position of that rank. "We appreciate this," said Salwa al Khateeb, a university professor of sociology. "It's very encouraging for Saudi women." The new deputy education minister for boys, Faisal bin Muammar, has led one of the king's pet projects, the National Dialogue, for the past three years. In that capacity, Mr Muammar has been responsible for organising public policy seminars across the country. Mohammed al Jasser, the vice governor of the SAMA, will replace governor Hamad Saud al Sayyari, who had been at the helm of the agency, which functions as the kingdom's central bank, since 1983. In the military field, the king named Major Gen Abdul-Rahman to command the ground forces. Justice Minster Abdullah al-Sheikh will move to the Shura Council to replace Mr Humaid as speaker and Mohammed al Issa replaces Mr Al Sheikh. Now leading the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice will be Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Humain, believed to be more moderate than its former head, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith. One surprise for many observers was the change at the top of the information ministry since the former minister, Iyad bin Amin Al Madani, was a strong supporter of the reformist programme and seen as close to the king. The president of the human rights commission, Turki Al Sudairy, was also replaced by Bandar Al-Ayban, a former Shura Council member described by colleagues as a "calm, quiet" person and "a seasoned politician". Mr Al Sudairy had made it known that he wanted to step down after helping establish the commission, a colleague said. cmurphy@thenational.ae