Reform-minded Saudis cheered when Abdullah became king four years ago. The avuncular Custodian of the Holy Places,as Saudi monarchs title themselves,had a reputation for probity,tolerance and humility that augured change for the better. Yet few of his tentative reforms have stuck. Initiatives to modernise state schools and courts have stalled in the face of entrenched religious conservatives.
But in a move of rare boldness for the stately kingdom,on February 14th the 86-year-old king decreed sweeping changes in government. His reshuffle affected top posts in education,the courts,the armed forces,the central bank,the health and information ministries,the religious police and the state-appointed religious hierarchy,as well as the royally-appointed,150-man proto-parliament,the Shura Council.
It was not the scale of the turnover that raised eyebrows; most senior ministers retained their posts. More striking was the injection of reformist blood into the ossified school and court systems. With his background in intelligence,and as a son-in-law of the king,the new minister of education,Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Muhammad,may be better equipped to flush out teachers who are failing to comply with curricula that have been revised to emphasise tolerance in Islam.
The departure of Sheikh Saleh Luhaydan as head of the supreme judicial council,along with several other senior judges,suggests a new push to modernise the courts. Mr Luhaydan was notorious for rulings such as one that said it would be legal to kill the owners of TV channels broadcasting immorality. During his tenure judges faced little pressure to adopt new rules meant to make the kingdom’s unique and often harsh forms of sharia justice more open and consistent. Similarly,the sacking of the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will be seen as a response to a chorus of demands to curb the morality police,whose puritanical agents have often been accused of harassing law-abiding citizens.
Equally significant,the new appointments are markedly diverse. The 21-man board of senior clerics which issues official religious rulings,or fatwas,now for the first time includes representatives of all four schools of Sunni Islam,so breaking the monopoly,exercised solely in Saudi Arabia,of the arch-traditionalist Hanbali school associated with Wahhabism. The body still excludes Shias,a minority numbering about 10% of Saudis that faces widespread discrimination. But King Abdullah has compensated in part by increasing Shia representation in the Shura Council.
A far bigger slice of the population that has been kept to the margins of society,namely women,also got a boost with the appointment of a female deputy minister,the highest-level government post yet to be filled by a woman. Nora al-Fayez,an American-educated schools administrator,is to run the girls’ section of the ministry of education,a division managed until recently by Wahhabist clerics.
Should such personnel changes give an impetus to the deeper reforms that many Saudis long for,King Abdullah will have secured an important legacy. But a quite different reform,decreed by him three years ago,may bear fruit sooner. Addressing concerns that the line of succession to kingship,which traditionally passes between brothers before reaching their sons,would produce a series of brief reigns by dotards,King Abdullah created a 25-man family council to elect future kings.
The council was to meet only after his own brother had succeeded. But the current crown prince,Sultan,is in his 80s and said to be very ill. In all likelihood,it is the council that will choose Abdullah’s successor,in what might prove to be,even if restricted to a handful of senior princes from the Al Saud family,the first quasi-democratic transition of power in Saudi history. It would be a momentous feat. But it will also set nerves jangling.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009