Most of the analysis of King Abdullah’s shakeup of the Saudi government has been positive, seeing it as a major reform in the direction of increased tolerance and dialogue. Some, for whatever reason, see it only as a ‘snow job’, an effort to sway foreign public opinion without actually doing a thing to change the nefarious plotting to take over the world. I won’t be giving any links for the latter point of view, but they can be found easily enough if you’re interested.
Three pieces that do warrant attention, though. I recommend that you read them in their entirety.
Stephen Schwartz, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia—though he doesn’t particularly understand it well and conjures evil with the name ‘Wahhabi’ —writes at Weekly Standard that the changes seem real. Schwartz still can’t get his facts right: The religious police are not volunteers, they are government employees; ‘Qatif Girl’ was not punished for being raped, but for the preceding crime of khulwa; King Abdullah is not an ‘absolute’ monarch as he is constrained by the power blocs that Schwartz does recognize; etc. He nevertheless finds the reforms ‘promising’:
Shaping Up Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia may have finally begun its long-predicted turn toward significant reform, as reported over the past weekend in Gulf media. King Abdullah ibn Abd Al-Aziz has effected a series of major decisions that could impose a dramatically new and modern direction on the kingdom.
Abdullah has appointed the Wahhabi-dominated society’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, a former teacher trained in the United States, to direct a newly established official department for women’s education. That was the most impressive news out of Riyadh on February 14. The elevation of a Saudi woman to a deputy ministerial position represents a major break with ruling habits in a land that still does not permit women to drive automobiles–although 80,000 Saudi women own cars–or to travel without a family member or chaperone.
King Abdullah further placed reformers in charge of the ministries of justice, education, information, and health. Naming a woman deputy minister and emphasizing women’s training are giant steps forward. But Saudi authorities must also make education useful to graduates–rather than emphasizing obscurantist religious topics–and, of course, must completely remove the hateful and violent doctrines of the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi sect from the schools.
Writing for the Dubai-based Gulf News, Jumana Al Tamimi focuses on the potential for educational reform resulting from the shakeup. She identifies—correctly, in my view—the Saudi education system as the root of Saudi Arabia’s current problems. Beneath that, and still of critical importance, is ‘tribal culture’ that needs to be adjusted through education.
Long expected changes to education in the Kingdom finally materialise
Jumana Al Tamimi, Associate Editor
Dubai: It was shortly after 9/11 attacks, when the Saudi society came under the Western microscope.
Since then, calls started to pour on the Kingdom to introduce changes in many aspects of daily life, including school curriculum, and to be more open with the rest of the world.
The changes were needed to repair the image of the oil-rich kingdom abroad, distorted by the fact that the majority of the attackers were Saudis.
Some westerners and Saudis blamed the terrorism on the “narrow-minded” education system which they said had failed to keep up with other field advancements in Saudi society.
Perhaps the most thoughtful analysis to date is that of Simon Henderson, writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I find some of the Institute’s analysis to be shaded toward Israeli political points of view, but here, I think Henderson correctly sees the shakeup for what it is: a major effort to move Saudi Arabia out of the backwaters of the 21st C.
Saudi Arabia Changes Course, Slowly
On February 14, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced a range of new ministerial, legal, and bureaucratic appointments. Surprising in scope and timing, the changes include the appointment of the kingdom’s first woman as a deputy minister and were made, according to Labor Minister Ghazi al-Ghusaibi, “to speed up implementation of new educational and judicial reforms.” The realization of such reforms remains questionable given the traditionally glacial pace of administrative change in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, further advances could be blocked by more conservative and religious forces.
Abdullah’s First Reshuffle as King
Arguably the most significant appointment is that of Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Muhammad — who comes from a branch of the royal family with no direct claim to the throne — as the new education minister. (The woman appointed, Nura al-Fayez, will be a deputy education minister, in charge of girls’ affairs.) Prince Faisal is regarded as progressive, and he founded a think tank studying the reform of higher education. Until his appointment, he was a top leader in the Saudi foreign intelligence service and, before that, a senior officer in the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), the praetorian guard commanded by King Abdullah for more than forty years. But Prince Faisal’s principal significance is that he is married to the king’s daughter, Adila, giving his policy initiatives important backing. Princess Adila has strong views of her own, being one of the few Saudi princesses with a semipublic role and a known advocate of women’s right to drive. (The kingdom is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.)
Apart from Prince Faisal, other associates of King Abdullah also figure prominently in the changes. The new health minister is Abdullah al-Rabia, who has been in charge of health at the SANG but is better known as a surgeon who has separated several conjoined twins. Another new deputy minister of education is Faisal al-Muammar, who was secretary-general of the National Dialogue Center, the principal mechanism used by King Abdullah to allow public — albeit tentative — debate of contentious issues in the kingdom. The new head of the Saudi Human Rights Commission is Bandar al-Aiban, a former member of the consultative council (majles al-shura) and before that a SANG officer attached to the Saudi embassy in Washington.
King Abdullah, who turns eighty-six this year and is reportedly limited in his abilities, is probably best described as the sponsor rather than the architect of these changes. But he is allowing a group of close advisers to develop ideas and policies that are, in Saudi terms, pushing the envelope of political and social progress, even if by regional standards the measures seem minimal and overdue. Crucial advisers around the king include Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Labor Minister al-Ghusaibi (a poet and writer on the side) and Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the secretary-general of the Allegiance Council, the so far untried mechanism announced in 2007 for confirming the appointment of future kings. Another is Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubair, who seems to spend as much time with the king as he does in Washington.