A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Saudi Reshuffle

It seems as if the major development in the region over what was a three-day weekend in the US was the Saudi reshuffle. In the US media most of the attention has been given to the fact that the King (in his capacity as Prime Minister) named the Kingdom's first woman deputy minister, as Deputy Minister of Education for Womeh's Education. But I think this BBC account I linked to gets the emphasis right: the replacement of both the head of the Supreme Judicial Council and the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice: these are key positions, critical to the country's justice system. The latter post is in charge of the mutawa'in, the religious police, and the former has been blocking the King's efforts at judicial reform.

Saudi rehuffles are rare. Usually ministers are replaced one at a time, when death or clearcut misconduct makes it necessary; a tenure lasting decades is not unusual. Clearly King 'Abdullah is sending some messages in this reshuffle.

Lately the Kingdom has been embarrassed internationally by a number of judicial decisions, and the educational system has long been criticized for the content of textbooks: by going after the education and justice systems the King seems to be addressing both issues, while also naming new figures to the Shura Council and the Council of 'Ulama.

This is no great revolution -- the Kingdom is not revolutionary -- but it is a major reform, and it suggests 'Abdullah is tired of foot-dragging in key areas, particularly the judiciary. It is also a direct attack on the most conservative parts of the religious establishment: the judciary, the schools, and the mutawa'in.

Again, the real thing to emphasize here is the rarity of significant shake-ups in the Saudi Cabinet and other administrative apparatus. This one affected several major power centers at once, and that is almost unheard of. While the appointment of a woman at sub-ministerial level is unprecedented, it may in the long run be less important than the shake-up in the courts and the religious police.

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