Clergy Loses Ground but Remains Major Powerhouse
It has taken King Abdullah 17 years to realize his life's vision of leading the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to reforms that render the clergy less infallible – 13 as acting monarch during King Fahd's failing years and four on the throne himself.
He made a big show, therefore, on February 15 when he unveiled new appointments across-the-board in the ministries of justice, education, health, culture and information and, boldest of all, in the top echelons of the Majlis al Shura, the central bank (SAMA), the religious police, the judicial system and religious institutions.
Abdullah broke a longstanding taboo by appointing the kingdom's first woman as deputy minister. She was placed in charge of women's education at the education ministry.
By injecting fresh blood in the hidebound government and ruling institutions, the king hoped to accelerate reforms in the judicial, education and health systems – but most of all, to introduce moderate elements to the ultra-conservative clerical establishment.
Education system modernized
The new education minister, Prince Faisal ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad, is the king's son-in-law who comes from the General Intelligence Service where he served as No. 2. A prince at the top of the department will have more clout than an ordinary citizen to pursue the king's plans for bringing the oil kingdom's schools into modern times. His wife Princess Adila is moreover a leading force for women's rights and advocate of modern education.
The new minister's deputy, Faisal bin Abd al-Raham al-Muammar, is former secretary-general of the King Abd al-Aziz National Dialogue Center and a noted zealot of governmental and social reform.
The two other deputy education ministers are Khaled bin Abdallah al-Sabti, for boys and Noura al-Fayez for girls.
Al-Fayez's appointment betokens the king's eagerness to meet demands from the kingdom's womenfolk for a better place in Saudi society. With a master's degree from the University of Utah, her job is to raise teaching standards in government schools for girls, after their long neglect and under-budgeting by the imams who controlled them.
Abdullah wants the entire Saudi education system to absorb curricula and standards current in the West and countries with excellent schools. This means putting back the general subjects which the religious authorities used their powerful stranglehold on the system to excise in the second half of the 20th century.
Abdullah has spent lavishly on establishing new universities, including King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in the Red Sea region of Jeddah, with the help of prominent scientific brains from American universities. He had to contend with opposition from the mullahs, who argued that the West would use the introduction of universal content in schools to seize control of the kingdom's education system.
Abdullah has not won all his reform battles.
For now, the new universities and research institutions, established or under construction, will be no better than Western islands scattered among the academic institutions whose studies are conducted by religious teachers and restricted by stringent Islamic rules.
These islands may in time merge and influence the rest of the system. But for now, the new education minister and his two deputies felt bound to call on the Chief Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, with an assurance that the changes need cause him no concern.
Weeding radicals out of religious institutions
For the first time, the King has forced the Council of Senior Ulama, the body which forms the pinnacle of religious establishment and steers its activities, often through religious edicts, to accept representatives of all four Sunni schools of law. This audacious step has adulterated the ultra-conservative Hanbali law school's sole grip on the Council for the first time since its establishment in 1970 as senior partner of the royal house in government.
Abdullah went on to sack the fanatical Ibrahim al-Ghaith as head of the hated religious or morality police and replace him with Abd al-Aziz al-Humain, who is a graduate of the Imam Muhammad bin Saud's Sharaya College, but who has intimated in recent press interviews that he will rein in the force's more outrageous activities, especially summary arrests without authority.
Saudi Arabia's religious police is notorious for its over-aggressive imposition of religious mores on the public, violent conduct and overstepping its authority. Word that the new director would put a stop to their brutalities has elicited threat against him from inside the force.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Saudi experts expect the moderate Humain to face trouble from a force fearful of losing its inordinate power.
Restructuring the judicial system
Three new and relatively young figures have been imported by the royal reformer to overhaul a judicial system sunk in deep sclerosis for sixty years.
Muhammad Abd al-Karim al-Eissa is the new justice minister; Saleh bin Humaid, the outgoing head of the Majlis Shura replaces the ultra-conservative sheikh Saleh al-Lahaidan as head of the Supreme Judicial Council, and Abd al-Rahman bin Abd al-Aziz al-Keyla becomes Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
All have academic backgrounds and are experienced in affairs of state.
New faces also adorn the benches of the Supreme Judicial Council, the Court of Appeal and the Court of Grievances, all of which operate according to Shariya Law.
Changes have also been introduced in the specialized regulatory courts which adjudicate according to statutory regulations in matters not covered by the Shariya.
This overhaul is designed to energize the sluggish Saudi justice system and accelerate court procedures.
The Shariya is still the basis of Saudi Arabia's constitutional law and impervious to reform even in this day and age.
Has the Saudi kingdom changed intrinsically?
Abdullah has spent years working up to these reforms which are unquestionably of high importance. At the same time, his package of changes and new appointments has not touched Saudi Arabia's fundamental power-sharing bond between the House of Saud and the clerical establishment.
The internal balance of power has been revised to the detriment of the latter, but the immemorial steel bands bracketing the royal house with the clerical establishment have not been sundered. That would take a convulsion.
Our Saudi experts calculate that Abdullah has gone as far as he can given his great age, 85, and the opposition he faces in the royal house.
The rest will be up to his successor on the throne.
A member of Abdullah's princely faction would most likely carry on chipping away at the prerogatives of the clergy, but the chances are better of a member of the opposition Sudairi branch of the royal house succeeding him. The frontrunner is the interior minister Prince Nayef. The imams can therefore rest easy, certain that Abdullah's reforms will end or may even be reversed.
Because the king refrained from invading the traditional strongholds of the religious hierarchy, it retains the levers of power for snatching back from moderate officials its domination of the judicial system, religious institutions, the morality police and the education system.
The royal reforms therefore have not revolutionized the infrastructure of Saudi Arabia's regime base, but rather applied a facelift which afford it a more up-to-date visage more in keeping with the new administration in Washington.