Saudi Arabia announced Feb. 14 massive Cabinet changes, replacing conservatives with more liberal officials. The new composition of the government is the boldest move by King Abdullah in his modernization efforts. The Saudis seem to have things under control; but at a time when the kingdom is fast approaching a period of transition, these changes could trigger a backlash from the country's ultraconservative elements.
Saudi Arabia's monarch, King Abdullah, on Feb. 14 effected a sweeping shake-up of his government, including the replacement of the head of the country's powerful religious police and a controversial senior judicial figure, as well as the appointment of the kingdom's first-ever female Cabinet member. The changes are as follows:
Norah al-Fayez, currently an official at the Saudi Institute of Public Administration, was appointed deputy education minister for female education affairs.
The ultraconservative head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, was replaced by Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Humain, who was quoted as saying that the religious police would strive to be closer to the hearts of the public.
Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan, chief of the kingdom's highest tribunal, the Supreme Council of Justice, who made headlines in September 2008 for his edict that it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV channels broadcasting immoral programs, was replaced by Saleh bin Humaid, who was head of the Consultative Council (the Saudi equivalent of a legislature); the Consultative Council will now be headed by Sheikh Abdullah al-Sheikh.
The monarch's son-in-law Prince Faisal bin Abdullah — a senior official in the country's elite military force, the Saudi National Guard — was given the job of education minister.
The former Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Abdul-Aziz al-Khoja, has become information and culture minister.
Legal expert, Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, was named justice minister; and Bandar al-Iban, a liberal senior official of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, was appointed as the head of the commission.
Lt. Gen. Hussein was appointed Deputy Chief of General Staff, and Maj. Gen. Abdul Rahman was made commander of ground forces.
Mohammed al-Jasser, the vice governor of Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, replaced outgoing central bank chief Hamad Saud al-Sayyari, who had held the position since 1983.
The Supreme Administrative Court got a new chairman, Mohammed al-Dossari; and Ibrahim al-Huqail was named of head of the Bureau of Public Grievances.
The membership of the Council of Ulema (the highest clerical authority in the kingdom) was expanded to 21 — to include, for the first time, representatives of all four Sunni Islamic schools of jurisprudence. Until now, only those from the Hanbali school of thought (upon which Wahhabism is based) had representation on the council.
It should be noted that the most-powerful Cabinet portfolios of foreign affairs, interior and defense — which are held by the elite of the ruling al-Saud family — as well as those of oil and finance — held by technocrats — remained unchanged. That said, the reshuffle is highly significant in terms of the changes taking place in the kingdom, as King Abdullah tries to steer the country away from its deeply conservative past at a time when the country is at the cusp of a major transition, given that the Crown Prince is thought to be terminally ill. The king, though quite healthy, is himself in his mid-80s, and the next three in line are in their 70s. Given the probability of a major change in the Saudi hierarchy over the course of the next five years, the moves toward reform and these sweeping changes are risky. The fact that Saudis have historically held a risk-averse attitude toward change makes the ongoing changes even more daring. However, the Saudi leaders at critical moments in their history have shown their resilience through their ability to make the difficult decisions. Abdullah, therefore, would not have embarked on changes of this magnitude if he wasn't reasonably certain that his government would be able to live with them. He is responding to a significant demand for a more open society from a growing cross section of the public. But the changes affecting social and religious norms carry with them, to a certain degree, a risk of backlash — particularly given that the kingdom only recently began an anti-extremism and de-radicalization campaign to combat Islamist terrorism. Since this project will be a work in progress for the foreseeable future, the ultraconservative elements within the kingdom — especially those in the religious establishment — are bound to be unhappy. Long resistant to change, Saudi's ultraconservative elements are not going to accept the direction in which the country is headed. Thus, they might become more open to the criticism from al Qaeda and other radical Islamist tendencies that the Saudi leadership is now openly tampering with the religious character of the country rendering it a secular state in order to please the West. Consequently, the possibility of conflict within the world's largest producer of oil remains large — and this would come at a bad time, given the external threat in the form an emergent Iran and its Arab Shia allies. Therefore, these cultural and leadership changes designed to move Saudi Arabia toward a relatively more liberal society at a time of transition could lead to unrest within the country.