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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah adds moderates -- including a woman -- to government

The king's moves weaken the grip of Islamic hard-liners. He dismisses a top fundamentalist cleric and the head of the religious police, and appoints a woman to a ministerial post for the first time.

February 15, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia weakened the hold of Islamic hard-liners Saturday by appointing the first woman to a ministerial post and dismissing a leading fundamentalist cleric and the head of the nation's powerful religious police.

The surprising government reshuffle indicated that the 84-year-old monarch was frustrated with the pace of reform in a kingdom uneasily balanced between moderates and ultra-conservatives. By broadening the voices of modern Islamic thinkers, King Abdullah apparently is trying to refashion the religious establishment at a time the country faces the global financial crisis and renewed threats from Al Qaeda militants.

The king dismissed Sheik Ibrahim Ghaith as head of the Commission of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which oversees the religious police who arrest those deemed to flout religious edicts, such as women not properly veiled. The monarch also removed Sheik Saleh Lihedan as chief of the country's highest religious tribunal. In September, Lihedan issued a fatwa saying it was permissible to kill TV executives for broadcasting "evil" and immoral programs.

Noura Fayez, an official at the Saudi Institute for Public Administration, was elevated to the new post of deputy minister of women's education. The women's education division is regarded as highly corrupt, and Fayez's appointment appeared to be the king's response to increased lobbying from women's rights groups to stem discrimination.

The reorganization included the naming of a new central bank director and new ministers for education, justice, health and information.

In another sign that the king was pushing for more openness within the country's puritanical, Wahhabi brand of Islam, the Saudi Press Agency reported that the body of religious scholars, known as the Grand Ulama Commission, will be reestablished and made up of representatives of all Sunni schools.

"It's a positive sign, but it's overdue and minor," Mohammad Fahad al Qahtani, an economics professor, talk show host and activist, said of the government restructuring. "But at least it's bringing fresh blood into the system. . . . He can't do it in drastic steps, although it's much needed."

Since formally coming to power in 2005, Abdullah has been praised by moderates for taking steps to curtail the influence of ultra-conservatives. But his supporters have also complained that he has moved too cautiously, apparently fearing a backlash from the royal family.

Saturday's shake-up was strong evidence that the king wants to cement a legacy as modernizer in a country that still flogs those accused of blasphemy and does not give women the right to vote.

Abdullah recently started a series of judiciary reforms and is building a multibillion-dollar university that will rely on Western and international science programs and faculty members. He also has called for increased tolerance between faiths.

But the king's wishes don't always force religious and government hard-liners to cede turf. Human rights groups repeatedly criticize the country for torture and abuse, and it is still a crime in the kingdom to practice any religion other than Islam.

Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Humain, who replaced Ghaith as head of the religious police, indicated that he would act with less of an iron hand. "We will try to be close to the heart of every citizen. Their concerns are ours," Humain told Al Arabiya satellite news channel.

Mohammad al Zulfa, a member of the Saudi Arabia Shura council, told the Arab news media that the government reshuffle "is a turning point."

"It is the biggest change that happened in this country in 20 years. It is a new start for King Abdullah. People are expecting changes. These are new faces who can bring change."

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jeffrey.fleishman@ latimes.com

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