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Saudi Arabia's Silent Spring

Why there’s less to King Abdullah’s Valentine’s Day reform than meets the eye.

Three and a half years after succeeding to the throne, King Abdullah is being widely lauded as finally making good on his reputation as the champion of reform in Saudi Arabia. In a dramatic shake-up of the kingdom's cabinet and key religious institutions this past Valentine's Day, the venerable monarch made a series of personnel changes that have been heralded as the dawn of a Saudi spring, a watershed that some observers suggest will usher in an age of tolerance, moderation, and opportunity.

Don't count on it. It is simply too early to celebrate the king's move as the signal of a new political era. In reality, several of Abdullah's most important changes indicate that the king is more interested in shoring up the power of the central state than reforming it.

Abdullah's Valentine's Day initiative does possess elements of what might be considered a progressive shift, at least in Saudi Arabia. In a country better known for its draconian form of patriarchy and an intolerant Islamic orthodoxy, the king's shake-up seems to take on both. For the first time in the country's history, a woman will occupy a position in the king's cabinet. Noura al-Fayez, previously head of Saudi Arabia's National Dialogue, a program created in 2003 that is nominally aimed at promoting tolerance inside the kingdom, will assume the post of deputy minister of girls' education. The king also sacked two of the country's most senior religious figures, including the head of the country's feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the religious police. The commission has become an object of considerable public opprobrium in recent years as many Saudis have tired of its zealous enforcement of strict religious mores. Abdullah also fired the country's highest-ranking judge, Saleh al-Luhaydan, who recently embarrassed the country when he declared it permissible to kill owners of television stations that air programs that do not conform to his narrow view of Islamic morality.

Although the king's measures might appear revolutionary, in reality they reflect a conservative impulse and a shrewd sense of political opportunism. On neither front -- women's empowerment nor religious extremism -- is Abdullah setting a bold new agenda.

Fayez's appointment to the cabinet suggests the possibility of a radical change in the political status of women in Saudi Arabia. But on this end, Abdullah's move is particularly disappointing. In an age when women activists from across the kingdom have consistently demanded greater political rights and an end to a restrictive system of male guardianship (the driving issue, which garners so much attention in the West, is just the tip of the iceberg), the appointment of a well-respected official to a junior position with little executive authority hardly portends momentous change. The move is even more disappointing considering that 2009 was supposed to be the year when Saudi women received the right to vote in the next round of elections for the country's municipal councils. Instead, the kingdom has apparently scrapped the elections altogether.

While Abdullah's appointment of a woman to the Saudi cabinet is little more than a token gesture, his challenge to the religious establishment is more politically significant. But here, too, claims of Abdullah's reformist vision have been greatly exaggerated.

Historically, the House of Saud's political power has been tied in part to the clergy. In exchange for independent authority over religious and social affairs, Saudi Arabia's clerics have lent their backing, and thus religious legitimacy, to the royal family's hold on temporal political power. But though critics of the Saudi regime, especially those who emerged in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, point to the al-Sauds' close embrace of extremist religious scholars as evidence of the government's own dangerous inclinations, the truth is that the kingdom's leaders have long been discomfited by the potential perils of a powerful religious establishment.

Over the course of the 20th century, the royal family worked to bureaucratize the scholars, limit their ability to influence affairs beyond the religious, and subordinate them to the state. This process was interrupted in 1979 when a band of religious radicals led by Juhayman al-Utaybi besieged and occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The rebels never threatened the regime militarily, yet they did pose a significant ideological challenge, openly questioning the religious credibility of the ruling family. The al-Sauds responded by attacking the mosque, but not before seeking the support of the senior clergy, who exacted a heavy price. In exchange for religious rulings condoning the al-Saud's use of violence on holy ground, the clerics demanded and received expanded influence. In the latter part of the century, the Saudi government poured unprecedented amounts of resources into Islamic institutions to ward off religiously inspired dissent. Although the al-Sauds weathered the challenge to their power by the rebels in Mecca, the long-term costs have been considerable, with a powerful, contentious, and periodically embarrassing community of religious scholars acting as a significant check on the absolute authority of the royal family.

Things have indeed changed since Abdullah took power. The king seems determined to restore centralized power and eliminate threats to his and his successors' ultimate authority. This means taking on the clergy. In the last two years, he has called for sweeping reforms of the judiciary, the source of clerical power. In practice, Abdullah aims to professionalize the courts, standardize the training of judges, and eliminate opportunities for judicial abuse. Politically, this means once again subordinating the scholars and judges to the state and undoing the bargain of 1979. His decision to remove two of the country's most visible religious figures on Valentine's Day, including the chief religious cop and the chief judge, indicates that things are well underway.

Saudi citizens and observers from abroad may take some measure of relief in the marginalization of religious hard-liners. And Abdullah's efforts to sideline some of his country's most despicable characters merits encouragement, as does his decision to make the country's religious institutions more representative of the kingdom's actual religious landscape. But it is wrong to call this reform. Saudi citizens, including women, have not been granted the right to participate in the kingdom's political process. Abdullah has made no indication that he is ready to share power with those over whom his family rules. Nor will he.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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