Major Reforms in Saudi Arabia
Saudi King Abdullah announced a major shake-up in his government over the weekend. Among the changes was the naming of the first woman to a high government office, Deputy Minister for Girls’ Education. The promotion of a woman in a country that generally treats women as second class citizens is indeed a big step.
More interesting–and important–were changes he made in the galaxy of the religious establishment. The most far-reaching change was to re-establish the Grand Ulema Council, the body intended to offer consensus opinion and advice on the religious aspects of law and regulation. Not only does the opening of this office deprecate the power of individual clerics, but its membership was expanded to include representatives of all Sunni schools of law, taking away the monopoly power of the Hanbali School, the foundation of Saudi Arabia’s conservative, ‘Wahhabi’ establishment. The expansion does not, unfortunately, include any of the schools of Shi’ism. That, however, might come in the future.
The ultra-conservative head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—aka, the religious police–was replaced by a more moderate individual who has already noted that his approach to the mission of the organization will be “innocent until proven guilty” and more forgiveness than punishment. Just how that plays out is yet to be known, of course, but it’s a marked change from past practice.
As conservative was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Council who most recently achieved notoriety through his statement that satellite TV broadcasters deserved to be tried and executed for the irreligious content of their programming. He was bounced from his position and replaced by Saleh bin Humaid, formerly head of the Saudi Shoura Council where he played an active role in promoting laws to protect women. Bin Humaid is himself a conservative cleric. Given his demonstrated moderation (as always, the term is used within a Saudi context), his religious authority should make it easier for him to force change.
The Supreme Judicial Council itself is about to undergo major changes. It is planned that it will be replaced by a Supreme Court that will serve to rule on the soon-to-be-codified new Saudi legal system.
It should be noted that the former head of the Supreme Judicial Council has been moved to head the Shoura Council. That’s not an unimportant position, but it holds considerably less power.
Longer-lasting changes–which will take longer to implement–were made in the Ministry of Education. A new Minister was named, this one a member of the ruling family with a long background in anti-extremist security operations. He has the clout to finally root out the extremist who have burrowed deep within the Saudi educational system, as well as having the resources to identify them. He has a new Deputy Minister, one who has led the King’s program for “National Dialogue”, intended to get Saudis publicly talking about things that had heretofore been relegated to private discussions. Top among these topics have been tolerance; dealing with differences in opinions, background, and sex; and facing up to the unexamined cultural issues that color politics and law.
Of course, the naming of a woman as a Deputy Minister of Education was something that has been highlighted in media reports. It is a big step and the first breach in a gender wall. Her remit is somewhat limited to Girls’ Education, but it is well past time that women had a say in how they were educating their daughters.
There’s no denying that Saudi Arabia has a lot of ground to cover just to catch up with international standards of human rights in the 21st C. These steps, however, do mark a clean break with the past and point to a different future. While the deficits should not be minimized, I think it important to recognize positive change as well.
You can find more information about the changes at Crossroads Arabia.