February 15, 2009

Saudi king orders long overdue reforms

King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud (DOD photo)King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

Saudi Arabia's King 'Abdallah issued a series of orders recently that hopefully will begin long overdue reforms in the oil-rich kingdom. Long regarded as an ultra-conservative Islamic state with little tolerance for other religions or value systems, Saudi Arabia is a major foreign policy concern for the United States - it will remain so as long as we are dependent on fossil fuels for energy.

King 'Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, as all the country's kings before him, must tread lightly when making reforms, especially when the reforms impact on the Islamic nature of the society. The social contract between the royal family - the House of Sa'ud - and the people is almost totally based on religion, in this case the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam.

One of the sensitive and controversial elements of Saudi society is the religious police, the mutawa'in, the short name for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices.

These zealots enforce Koranic law - they ensure that businesses close during prayer times (the sign to the left reads "Closed Because of Prayer [time]"), that men and women are not engaged in any prohibited social contact, that women are dressed appropriately in public, there is no alcohol in the country, etc.

On February 14, the king replaced the hard-line head of the religious police with a more moderate cleric. There will be outcries from the ultra-conservative religious leadership, but based on my time in Saudi Arabia, it will be welcomed by most of the population, both Saudi and foreign.

It is of note that the king chose to make this replacement on the Western (Christian) holiday of Valentine's Day. The mutawa'in had mounted a very unpopular campaign to prevent any celebrations by Saudis, to the point of prohibiting items colored red from being sold in stores.

In addition to replacing the head of the religious police, King 'Abdallah expanded the membership of the Grand 'Ulama' (religious scholar) Commission to include representatives of branches of Sunni Islam other than the Wahhabis. This move is more than cosmetic - it will change the autocratic hold the Wahhabis have had on religious thought in the kingdom. This is not without risk.

The changes go even further. The head of the Supreme Council of Justice, Saudi Arabia's highest administrative court, was removed as well. The fired jurist, Shaykh Salih al-Lahaydan, gained international attention last fall when he ruled that is was legal to kill the owners of satellite television stations that broadcast "immoral" programs. Given the actions of the religious police over Valentine's Day, I can guess what al-Lahaydan's definition of "immoral" might be.

Saudi fourth grade textbookPerhaps one of the more significant of the king's changes with long-term implications is the naming of his son-in-law Prince Faysal bin 'Abdallah bin Muhammad Al Sa'ud as education minister. (Photo right: Saudi fourth grade textbook.)

Of note, the king also appointed a woman to be Prince Faysal's deputy minister for girls' education. Remember, this is a country where women still cannot drive automobiles. She is the first woman to be appointed to this level in the Saudi government.

The Saudi education system has been an issue between the United States and the kingdom for years. Since 15 of the 19 hijackers that perpetrated the September 11, 2001 attacks were products of the Saudi education system, Americans have demanded reforms in the anti-Western, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian curriculum. To be fair, the curriculum also targets many non-Wahhabi Muslim sects as well. With the expansion of the religious leadership council and the appointment of Prince Faysal as education minister, there may be hope for change.

The U.S. State Department has been working since at least 2003 with the Saudi Ministry of Education to alter the curriculum. Although Saudi Arabia has claimed it has changed the textbooks by editing out the more offensive sections, studies over the last two years show that is not entirely the case.

King 'Abdallah's shakeup of the power structure in the country is far-reaching. It is also long overdue. Perhaps they will yield positive change in the kingdom.