TOPICS > Politics

Saudi Cabinet Reshuffle Signals Moderate Shift

BY Admin  March 2, 2009 at 5:30 PM EDT

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah

The Cabinet restructuring is generally viewed as a subtle shift toward more moderate policies, but analysts assessed the significance of the moves differently. The new Cabinet members took office on Feb. 16.

One of King Abdullah’s most-notable appointments was Noura al-Fayez to the new position of deputy education minister in charge of women’s affairs. Al-Fayez received her master’s degree in educational techniques from Utah State University in 1982.

Since 1993, she has been the director general of women’s section of the Institute of Public Administration, which offers intensive English language programs and professional training courses for Saudi nationals. She also previously served as the head of the Center for National Dialogue, which hosts programs for public debate on some of the country’s most controversial “values” issues — many of which focus on women’s rights.

The king’s endorsement of the Center for National Dialogue was one of several signals of an apparent new openness to changing some of the nation’s laws linked to religious beliefs. Since coming to power in 2005 when his father, King Fahd, suffered a stroke, King Abdullah, a devout Muslim, has given speeches on educational and judicial reform and on strengthening women’s rights.

In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive and laws that are intermittently enforced by religious police patrolling public places dictate that women must keep their heads covered and not speak to men to whom they aren’t related.

“This king has been an iconoclast all along,” said Nathaniel Kern, president of Foreign Reports, a Washington-based consulting firm that focuses on Saudi Arabia and its surrounding countries. “He likes shaking things up, and he likes having younger people around him to give him ideas. So these reforms are very much in character.”

Other experts see the changes differently. “King Abdullah has a track record of moving cautiously,” said F. Gregory Gause, a University of Vermont political science professor who is currently a Fulbright scholar at the American University of Kuwait and the Kuwait Foundation visiting professor at Harvard University.

“The Cabinet changes are significant, no doubt, but not the system-changer than some more enthusiastic analysts have proclaimed,” Gause said. “They are not a move to decentralize authority or to share real decision-making with non-family institutions. And they are not a move toward democracy — that is for sure.”

The royal family’s relationship with the Wahhabi religious establishment is still a pillar of the state, and these Cabinet changes do not mark an end to the close ties, according to Gause. Wahhabism has been Saudi Arabia’s dominant faith for centuries and is centered on a literal interpretation of the Koran, with strict Wahhabis believing that those who don’t practice the same form of Islam are infidels and enemies.

The tension between those in favor of reforms and the more conservative-minded rose to the surface recently when a newspaper published a photograph of al-Fayez with her head uncovered. Saudi blogger Eman Fahad wrote from Riyadh about the public outcry over the image, saying that al-Fayez’s background as a tribal woman from Saudi Arabia’s central region dictates that she should keep her face covered at all times, especially since she is a public figure.

“When her photo came out it upset these people who make up a large percentage of the Saudi demographic,” Fahad wrote. “They started speculating that she might remove the mandatory requirement for students to cover their faces when entering and leaving schools — and that she would be a terrible role model for Saudi women of her own background. Hence Mrs. al-Fayez has had to condemn the photo and the newspaper that published it so as to avoid starting out on the wrong foot. If she had been from the western region or had a foreign mother or even been related to the royal family, she would not have faced this resistance to showing her face.”

Although al-Fayez’s appointment is significant, one of the other figures the Saudis are watching closely is Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Muhammad, who is married to the king’s daughter and will take over as the new education minister. Prince Faisal, who founded a think tank studying best practices in higher education across regions, comes directly from a top position in the Saudi foreign intelligence service.

“This is the most interesting appointment, in a sense, because if someone has been given this task by the king and he’s also related to the king, he’s ultimately got the best strings to pull if he faces problems in executing his responsibilities,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Henderson noted that Prince Faisal’s wife, Princess Adila, is one of the few Saudi princesses who regularly speaks in public on policy issues and is a known advocate for women’s right to drive.

Reform of the education system is a closely-watched topic for some Saudi watchers. Among the critiques of the school system, observers say harsh language used in some textbooks to identify all those who do not follow Wahhabism, including moderate Muslims, fosters extremism among youth.

While Saudi officials have pledged in the past to modernize the country’s textbooks and remove signals of religious intolerance, outside investigations have asserted that the issue still remains.

“There have been some grassroots pressures from Saudi parents and activists to make changes to curriculum that they say is much too focused on religious studies and that overemphasize rote learning,” Gause said, although he stressed that religious rhetoric in the classroom is somewhat of a side issue to many Saudis. More parents are worried about overcrowding, lack of infrastructure investment and an emphasis on passive learning styles that they feel put their students at a disadvantage, Gause said. These are some of the areas that many expect Prince Faisal to focus on modernizing.

The king also replaced hard-line Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan as the head of the Supreme Council of Justice. The move pleased those critical of his comments last year that owners of satellite networks airing “immoral” content may be killed. Al-Lihedan later sought to tone down his declaration, saying that the television owners could only be put to death after a judicial process, the Agence France-Presse reported on Sept. 14.

Al-Lihedan’s replacement is Saleh Bin-Humaid, a younger and more moderate figure who previously served as the head of the Shura Council, the country’s highest advisory body.

The king swore in new members of the Shura Council on March 1.

Al-Lihedan remains a member of the Council of Senior Ulama, a group of influential religious leaders who consult regularly with the king.

In addition, the king dismissed Sheikh Ibrahim Ghaith as the head of the religious police, who enforced public separation between the sexes and adherence to strict Islamic laws and was becoming increasingly unpopular for the reported harsh behavior of his agents.

While many Saudis appeared to welcome the Cabinet changes, there are limits to how much of a cultural shift the country is willing to accept — as demonstrated by the uproar over al-Fayez’s newspaper photograph. “Saudis tend to be not only conservative, but also cautious,” Henderson said. “They’re not going to want to be like Americans — they are going to want to be more in line with other Gulf countries.”