x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Senior Saudi cleric gripes about lack of consultation by king over votes for women

Sheikh Saleh Al Lohaidan, a member of the senior clerics council, complained on television that he was not consulted about King Abdullah's decision to grant women more political rights.

JEDDAH // One of Saudi Arabia's most important clerics said he was not consulted about King Abdullah's decision to grant women more political rights, a sign of discontent from powerful conservatives since the reform was announced.

In a speech last week, the monarch announced that women would vote and run in municipal council elections and serve in the appointed Shura Council which advises the king on policy.

King Abdullah said his decision was made after consultation with the country's senior clerics, who have extensive political and social influence.

"I wish the king did not say that he consulted senior clerics. When I heard the speech and what was said about consultation, without a doubt I had no knowledge of it before hearing the king's speech," Sheikh Saleh Al Lohaidan, a member of the senior clerics council, said on the al Majd television channel on Friday.

The cleric was careful in his remarks not to criticise the king's decision directly, and did not say whether he supported it. But he referred to an Arabic proverb which warns that "the thread between a leader and his people" will snap if it is pulled too hard.

Saudi Arabia's clerics, who are generally conservative, are said to be less than pleased about the reformist ideas of the king. A senior cleric criticised the kingdom's first mixed-gender university after its launch in 2009 and was immediately relieved from his position.

Sheikh Lohaidan himself was removed from his position as chief of the kingdom's highest tribunal, the supreme council of justice, after he issued a religious edict that called for the killing of some television executives.

He remained as a member of the senior clerics council, which has about 20 members.

King Abdullah has promised cautious reforms since he ascended the throne in 2005, but the pace of change has been slow. Women's rights in particular are a sensitive subject, provoking impassioned opposition from conservatives, and the decision to allow women to vote came as a surprise.

Women in Saudi Arabia are legally regarded as minors. They cannot travel, work or even undergo certain surgeries without the written permission of a male relative officially recognised as their guardian. They are not allowed to drive.

Earlier this year, a campaign calling for an end to the ban on driving was met by calls for men to assault women who got behind the wheel in public. Last week, a judge in Jeddah sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for driving, which some activists interpreted as an expression of the unhappiness of conservatives over the reform. The sentence was later revoked by the king.