Ever since King Abdullah announced a sweeping Cabinet reshuffle two weeks ago, Saudi liberals have been in a rare holiday mood. Many have hailed the changes — including the replacement of some major conservative figures and the appointment of the first female deputy minister — as a “mini-revolution” and proof that the king is at last willing to tame this country’s hard-line religious establishment.
But there is a larger, more conservative, constituency here, and its members tend to dismiss those liberal hopes as fantasies.
“These are merely dreams and wishes for things that will not happen,” said Sheik Sulayman al-Daweesh, a prominent conservative cleric and staunch defender of the country’s feared religious police.
The reformers, al-Daweesh said, “would like to weaken Saudi Arabia’s Islamic identity, and they will not succeed.”
Who is right? It may be too early to say. But even with all the political will in the world, King Abdullah’s Cabinet shakeup — his first prominent attempt to rein in the power of the conservatives since he assumed the throne in 2005 — will not succeed quickly or easily.
Saudi Arabia’s judiciary and vast educational establishment are mostly populated by men much closer in outlook to al-Daweesh than to the small liberal elite. And while the king seems sincere in his desire to bring more moderation and openness, he is 84 years old and has opponents within the royal family.
Some of King Abdullah’s new ministers have already disappointed the liberals, who hope the changes will be the first steps toward modernizing the legal system and moderating the religious influence in the schools. After a newspaper published a photograph of new Deputy Minister for Women’s Education Noura al-Fayez wearing a head scarf but with her face uncovered, she complained bitterly that she had not approved its release and would never allow herself to be seen in public that way.
Advocates of change concede that the scale and difficulty of the task are daunting, and that the steps may come too late for the current generation of people under 25, who make up 60 percent of the population. Unemployment is high — especially among the young — and the schools continue to nourish the same culture of extremism and xenophobia that helped spawn the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Saudi analysts say.
“The Ministry of Education has been kidnapped by extremists for decades,” said Mshari al-Zaydi, a journalist and political analyst. “I don’t think we’ll see any real change there for 15 or 20 years.”
Still, the reformers have some reasons for optimism. King Abdullah fired some major conservative figures who had been obstacles to change, including the chief of the religious police and the country’s senior judge. He installed people in influential positions who are known for their loyalty to him, including new Minister of Education Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, the king’s nephew and son-in-law.
In another landmark change, the king installed more moderate and diverse members in an important committee, the Council of Senior Ulema, that is influential in determining how judges can interpret Islamic law. A broad effort is under way to discipline and modernize the legal system, in which judges are now unrestrained by anything but their own, usually severe, interpretation of Islamic law.