RIYADH – Saudis on Sunday cheered King Abdullah’s sweeping government shake-up as a bold step forward, a day after he named the country’s first-ever woman minister.
“Bold reform” Hayat newspaper said in its headline.
“Everything is fantastic. This is what we have been waiting for,” said Ibrahim Mugaiteeb, leader of the Human Rights First Society.
King Abdullah on Saturday announced the first major shake-up of the government since ascending the throne in August 2005, naming four new ministers, changing a number of top justice-sector jobs, naming new members to the consultative Shoura Council, and shaking up the Ulema Council. In major changes, King Abdullah replaced Supreme Judicial Council head Sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan. And the King replaced the Hayy’a head Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Ghaith.
Few were ready to predict just what changes on the ground could come from the King’s moves.
“It has taken the King three years to carefully plan this giant leap towards reform, but the development of the judiciary and education are still the biggest challenge ahead,” said Al-Watan Arabic newspaper.
“A deep look into the government’s shake-up reveals that the Royal Orders have come to fulfill the aspirations and ambitions of the Saudi people,” the paper added.
Women’s groups have demanded more rights and the breaking down of barriers that limit their career opportunities; the public has clamored for movies to be shown in cinemas, banned for 30 years; rights groups have criticized judges for extreme and inconsistent judgments.
And last week Princess Amira Al-Taweel, the wife of Saudi businessman Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, complained publicly that while she can drive anywhere in the world, she cannot take the wheel of a car in her own country, because women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.
But the symbolism of the King’s changes is bound to have an impact. The most symbolic was the naming of veteran educator Norah Al-Fayez as Deputy Education Minister for Girls’ Education Affairs – the most senior job ever granted to a woman in the Kingdom.
“She is one of the leading ladies of the country,” Mohammad Al-Zulfa, outgoing member of the Shoura council, told AFP.
Even so, the move for women did not go as far as some had expected. In January, media had reported that the new members of the Shoura Council would include six women, who have not been represented on the council in the past.
But none were present on the new list, making it likely that no women will be included in the legislature-like body, before 2013, the next time appointments are expected.
More fundamental were the changes to the country’s religious leadership, who dominate thinking in education, justice and social life. The King also named a number of new Ulema Council members, and has included representatives of all four Sunni Islam schools of religious thoughts. Previously only the Hanbali school was represented on the council. – AFP