x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Shake-up hints at wider reform plan

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz's shake-up of government on Saturday has been seen as a precursor to a wider reform plan to shape the country.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has introduced important changes to the kingdom's religious establishment and its role in government.
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has introduced important changes to the kingdom's religious establishment and its role in government.

JEDDAH // King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz's shake-up of government on Saturday, widely lauded by reform-minded Saudis, relied for the first time on non-state and non-religious actors, seen as a precursor to a wider reform plan that aims to turn Saudi Arabia into a knowledge-based society, analysts said yesterday. "Although I think that there will be more changes in the pipeline, I believe that we are witnessing the rise of the fourth Saudi state," said Saudi journalist Samir Al Saadi. The shake-up introduced important changes to the structure of the kingdom's religious establishment and its relationship to government, and relied on planning by Saudi Aramco and Al Aghar Group, a Saudi think tank, both key to devising the reform agenda decreed on Saturday. Al Saadi said he believed the reshuffle was significant not only because it allowed for reform at the core of the Saudi system - traditionally built on the ties between the government and the religious institutions - but because it involved a new player: the national oil giant Saudi Aramco. "Saudi Aramco was heavily involved in the new state legal and social planning and this was obvious from the number of people from the company involved on the King's reform project," Al Saadi said. Saudi Aramco, he continued, is the best model the government has and is the only state-owned company that has a professionally organised system. Decades ago Saudi Aramco, while under the control and management of US oil companies, was the first Saudi company to mobilise the kingdom's economy and had a profound influence on society. It hired and created a modern workforce, erected modern towns and cities around the country and built a road network when the Saudi socio-economic system was still traditional. The company was the first state-owned enterprise to allow women to work side-by-side with men and to allow Saudi women to hold managerial posts. That resulted in a number of important changes in key facets of Saudi society. Many highlighted the appointment of Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, a former figure in the Saudi Intelligence and who headed the Al Aghar group, as minister of education replacing Abdullah Al Obaid, a conservative Islamist. Prince Faisal worked with the Al Aghar Group's think tank, comprising 300 Saudi men and women, to formulate a strategy for transforming Saudi Arabia into a knowledge-based society by 2022. The strategy was approved by King Abdullah. In a column he wrote last year, Prince Faisal said the new Saudi society "should be characterised with a sense of sustainable growth through people working in an environment of advanced technology and equipped with a state-of-the-art infrastructure aimed at achieving a high standard of living, while holding on to the Shariah and sublime Islamic values". The reshuffle was also significant because it challenged the authority of the head of the Supreme Judiciary Council and the head of the Saudi morality police, the two other leading figures in the reform of the Saudi religious institution beside the Grand Mufti. The replacement of Shaikh Saleh Al Lihedan as the head of the judiciary with former Shoura chief Shaikh Saleh Bin-Humaid was itself a sign of progress, said Abdul-Aziz Qassim, a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic affairs. "Al Lihedan is one of the leading 'eagles' of the Saudi religious establishment and his removal means more openness," said Mr Qassim, who added that he expected to see more reforms in the judicial system. Mr Qassim said Shaikh Bin-Humaid was more "tolerant" because he grew up in the Hijaz when the four Islamic schools of thought were taught at the Holy Mosque in Mecca. wmahdi@thenational.ae