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14 April 2024

Saudi shake-up aims to ease Islamist hold: analysts

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (AP) 

Saudi King Abdullah's government reshuffle is a full-scale assault on ultra-conservative Islamists who have locked up the country's education and justice systems, Saudi and foreign experts believe.

More than three years after becoming king, 84-year-old Abdullah has moved to confront the challenge of a huge youth demographic that, if not provided with modern schooling and jobs, could become tinder for movements like Al-Qaeda, they said.

"These are radical and fundamental changes, which the Saudis have hoped for a long time," Abdallah al-Oteibi, a specialist on Islamist groups, told AFP.

In his sweeping shake-up announced on Saturday, the king replaced four cabinet ministers, notably those for justice and education, and the head of nearly every key justice-related body.

These institutions included the Supreme Judicial Council, the Ulema Council of the highest clerics, the consultative Shura Council, the Supreme Court, and Umm al-Qura, the Islamic university in Mecca.

While sacking the chief of the Muttawa morality police and naming Saudi Arabia's first-ever woman to ministerial rank grabbed the headlines, analysts say his education and justice changes were far more important.

"What the king has done is pretty amazing," said Christopher Boucek, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"The king has been trying to force his will, the government's will on institutions that had been working independently," he told AFP.

His education appointments show Abdullah's seriousness in reforming a bureaucracy where conservatives had stymied efforts to bring curriculums into the 21st century, rid textbooks of passages demonising non-Muslims, and provide ample opportunities for women.

The education system "had been dominated by radicals who were responsible for ideas of intolerance and extremism being taught to students," said political scientist Turki al-Hamad.

The new education minister is the king's son-in-law, Prince Faisal, whose previous job was number two in the intelligence directorate.

His wife is Princess Adila, a leading force for women's rights and opportunities, modern education and health services and protection of children.

Named deputy minister was royal adviser Faisal bin Muaammer, who ran the Centre for National Dialogue which Abdullah has cannily used to raise and debate reform issues and thus identify capable reformers and points of resistance, analysts believe.

The new woman deputy education minister, Norah al-Fayez, is a veteran educationalist who has also fostered some of the agenda identified with Princess Adila.

Together all of them have years of experience dealing with the education system, a western expert in Riyadh said.

"Now they know the structure, who are the problems," he added.

Ultimately, experts believe, Abdullah is completely conscious of the challenge of providing livings to a growing population that in 2006 was 33 per cent aged 15 or less, and that requires education and jobs in modern industries to ensure future stability.

The king also took his broom to the justice system, almost completely controlled by clerics with free rein to interpret Islamic texts and tradition.

This left the system with no formal body of precedents, inconsistent definitions of crime and inconsistent punishments. It also allowed judges to ignore recently drafted laws on court procedure and defendants' rights.

The main replacement was of Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, head of the Supreme Judicial Council for more than four decades. Its new head is Saleh bin Humaid, who as outgoing leader of the legislature-like Shura Council advanced the king's programme.

The Shura will now be led by outgoing justice minister Sheikh Abdullah al-Sheikh, another royal confidant whose job will be to guide the council in crafting legal reforms, analysts say.

Meanwhile a relative progressive was named to lead the Ulema Council, which will also include, for the first time, representatives of all four Sunni schools of religious law.

Previously only the ultra-conservative Hanbali school which dominates the Saudi version of Islam was represented.

Analysts believe the abruptness of Abdullah's shake-up came only after years of cautious study of what he wanted to do, and after making his general agenda known and watching what happened.

The king is "attacking rigidity of thought" in the government, said one westerner who has followed Saudi politics for years. "He wanted to change the policies and the people did not do it for him."