Valentine’s Day is not a celebration that is popularly practiced in Saudi but this year the day had a particular significance and will be remembered for a long time to come. King Abdullah announced a cabinet reshuffle on February 14 that was unprecedented in its departure from the traditional norm. In keeping with the spirit of the day, it was perceived as a gift from the King to the Saudi public.
In a move that suggested a harbinger of further reforms, Saudi King Abdullah announced the appointment, to much media attention and public applause, of Madam Norah Al-Fayez as a Deputy Minister for Women’s Education - the highest official appointment a Saudi women has ever been given. This has generated optimism for a greater empowerment of women to effectively lead and contribute to Saudi society.
King Abdullah also made far reaching changes in the justice and religious sectors in addition to appointing new Ministers of Information, and Health. The local media has reported that the announcement was received with enthusiastic support from the Saudi public.
Two points may be made here. This is the first time King Abdullah has reshuffled the cabinet he inherited on ascending the throne in 2005. More importantly, it is pertinent to note that reforms or departure from the norm hitherto only happened at a gradual pace in Saudi on the premise that Saudi citizens needed time to absorb the changes with minimal shock.
Not surprisingly, however, the Saudi King’s reformist mindset, the scrutiny and bad press that the Kingdom had been subjected to in recent times from the international media and the simmering internal problems of radicalisation, all came together to act as drivers to hasten the process of reform.
King Abdullah is increasingly seen as a reformist king who is quietly leading his people into incremental changes at a pace more rapid than what they had hitherto been used to. Saudis remember that King Abdullah was the first Saudi king ever to meet with Pope Benedict XVl.
Some newspapers have noted that the King’s approach to reform is also different in that he attempts to change the policies first and then assign fresh faces to manage the new approach.
Daood Al-Shiryan, a prominent columnist pointed out the difference in King Abdullah’s strategy in Elaph magazine: “King Abdullah first changed the system of the different institutions then appointed new people for the job. This approach is different than the traditional one where the people are appointed first then the system is changed.”
Saudi intellectuals, who generally do not publicly engage in the political arena, have come forward to express their enthusiasm and the hope they felt because of the changes. The occasion was not only an opportunity for them to express their gratitude to the King but also an opening for them to criticise the bureaucratic procedures and policies that were a result of the previously strict and conservative ideologies that inflicted the Saudi society.
The changes in the judicial system that included the appointment of a new Minister of Justice were long awaited. Saudi citizens have on occasions expressed their disapproval of the system with its stifling bureaucracy and its inability to adapt to modern times. The local newspapers have also carried disapproving views.
A very significant move in the Saudi contest was the bold opening up of the Grand Religious Commission, which until now comprised the strict Hanbali religious scholars. The King broadened it to include Sheikhs from all the four religious schools of thought (Hanbali, Shafie, Maliki and Hanafi). Many saw the decision as a clear attempt to introduce other schools of thoughts in the society to promote tolerance of other beliefs.
In this context, the Saudi public expressed their relief that the head of the Grand Religious Commission Saleh Al-Luhaidan was replaced by Saleh Bin Hameed. Al-Luhaidan, it will be recalled, was highly criticised for issuing fatwas and statements that were often rigid and which some detractors even considered illogical. His latest fatwa in September 2008, for example, was condemning the owners of satellite TV owners to death.
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