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.
But Abdullah's leap toward normalization of an ideological state was not limited to women's issues. Another announcement in the same list of cabinet changes was greeted with jubilation by wide sections of the population--dismissal of the fanatical Wahhabi chief of the so-called "religious police" or mutawiyin, Ibrahim Al-Ghaith. Westerners often make several incorrect assumptions about the mutawiyin, officially styled the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. First, it is not really a police body, but a militia of volunteers armed with wood and leather sticks who, with minimal training and no interest in preventing ordinary law-breaking, monitor compliance with Wahhabi doctrinal practice. And Wahhabi strictures are not limited to supposed "moral" issues like the wearing of the all-covering abaya by women in public.
As described in detail in THE WEEKLY STANDARD (see here and here), the mutawiyin spend as much time harassing Shia and Sufi Muslims for praying in a manner of which the Wahhabis disapprove, for listening to music, and for other infractions of Wahhabi writ, than they do beating couples they suspect of being unmarried or women who inadvertently allow their abayas to slip enough to expose an ankle.
The mutawiyin are the most-hated institution in Saudi Arabia, and an effort was made in 2007 to curb their power and hold them to account for their abusive behavior. That was the year the kingdom was roiled by the infamous "crime of Qatif" in which the mutawiyin supported punishment of a then-teenaged woman in an eastern Saudi city, with 200 lashes of a whip and a prison sentence after she was raped. The mutawiyin charged "the Qatif woman" with immorality.
But although King Abdullah has given indications of a dedication to reform, the "absolute" monarch of the Saudi domain has so far been prevented from simply decreeing a modernization. He is obstructed by powerful groups in his own family, as well as in the government and religious structures, who cleave to Wahhabi repression as a guarantee of the status quo. The most extreme and dangerous elements among the forces opposed to change have, predictably, been the state-subsidized Wahhabi clerics themselves.
Yet in a heartening development, King Abdullah's changes in the power system have not spared the Wahhabi religious functionaries. The new measures will include a reorganization of the official religious authority, restricting Wahhabi influence and opening up Islamic affairs to known moderates. The king also gained credibility by dismissing one of the most primitive and brutal figures in the regime, senior judge Shaykh Saleh Ibn Al-Laheedan. Al-Laheedan, among other examples of atrocious behavior under color of authority, issued an order in September 2008 that users of satellite television dishes who receive allegedly immoral programs could face capital punishment. Al-Laheedan then claimed he was misquoted, but his comments accurately reflected the "spirit of the laws" in a so-called judicial system based on improvised decisions founded in sharia.
As a ruler Abdullah has experienced consistent pressure from his subjects to lead Saudi Arabia away from its global reputation as a redoubt of Muslim backwardness. Visitors to the country have reported numerous signs of this broad sentiment. At the same time, the Saudi realm has felt the effects of the global financial crisis, with complaints of inflated prices during the Ramadan fasting and festivals last year, and calls in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for limitation on immigration of foreign workers--followed in Kuwait by protests in defense of the migrants' rights. Shia visitors to the country report that their coreligionists in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia express gratitude to King Abdullah for improving respect for Shia minority rights.
King Abdullah's reform measures are laudable. We will now see if he can accomplish the main challenges that have faced him since he took the throne in 2005. These appear separate but represent the same necessary task: to compel the Wahhabi fanatics to genuinely and irrevocably end their contribution to the financing of international radical Islamic terrorism, and to completely abolish their domestic monopoly on religious life. Abdullah is now 84, and though he appears youthful, time is short, for him and for the security of the world.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. London-based Irfan Al-Alawi is a close observer of events in Saudi Arabia .