All the talk in Saudi Arabia these days concerns change, renewal, and development, following King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz’s cabinet reshuffle in the administrative, judicial, and religious sectors.
Indeed, the people were taken by surprise at the King’s grand move which represents a shot of adrenalin into the heart of Saudi Arabia. Change is the secret to eternal life. For without the cells of a body continually and routinely growing and being renewed, that body would falter and age quickly. This is a natural rule of life that there is no alternative to.
Change, in itself, is beneficial, stimulating and energizing; for change is crucial and necessary in an age where there is no room for procrastination, indecision, or waiting for a problem to solve itself, for a problem will only ever be solved when one attempts to solve it themselves.
The talk surrounding the government reshuffle that took place in Saudi Arabia last Saturday is lengthy and complex, and there is much discussion surrounding the appointment of a woman to a high government position for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia. That is the appointment of Dr. Nora Al Fayez, to the position of Deputy Education Minister.
There is also the talk surrounding the new officials appointed to leadership positions in the judiciary after the winds of change swept through this sector. This is all part of King Abdullah’s grand plan to reform the judiciary, a significant part of which has already been implemented, while other parts [of this plan] are yet to be put into effect.
Then there is the talk surrounding the appointment of new Ministers at the Information and Culture Ministry, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education and the Health Ministry. A new figure was also given directorship of one of the most controversial agencies within or indeed outside of Saudi Arabia; I am talking of course about the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice [CPVPV]. This is not to mention the other new appointments made to the Council of Senior Ulama [Scholars], which is the highest religious body in the Kingdom.
In brief, the largest changes have taken place to the judicial and religious branches [of government]. Change has also occurred within the Education sector, with a complete change of leadership; the former Education Minister and his two deputies have been replaced by a new Minister and three deputies. The changes that took place occurred with the replacement of Ministers or Directors in order to foster development and reform.
In order to examine the main changes made in this [governmental] reshuffle, I will look at the relationship between religion and the state in Saudi Arabia which is an intimate and special one.
Everybody is aware that Saudi Arabia is the land of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and that Muslim pilgrims from all over the world make the journey there every year. This is the external religious characteristic of Saudi Arabia, while its internal religious characteristics are built into its very foundation, and in its actual political identity. Saudi Arabian social make-up is built upon a special link between religion and the state.
This [link first] occurred in the long-standing past, when Sheik Mohamed Bin Abdul Wahab allied with Muhammad Ibn Saud in 1744, this marked the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However everything flows and nothing stays, and new difficulties and challenges are ever being encountered. But what was challenging in the past is not necessarily a challenge today.
The [Saudi Arabian] challenge in the past was to plant the seeds of a political society built upon a definitive creed, and then ensure that this society endures and does not collapse. And this society did indeed take root and endure, surviving many challenges and threats, both external and internal. Saudi Arabia survived external threats such as the conquests of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the air-force of Jamal Abdul Nasser, and the armies of Saddam Hussein. While also surviving internal challenges, sometimes from revolutionary left-wing and nationalist trends, and at other times from religious trends, yet the ship of Saudi society endured all of these waves and thunderstorms, and has continued its journey towards calmer seas.
Saudi society is solid and firm, and has been strengthened by the challenges that it overcame. The discussion now is not regarding the identity of the state, or its society, for its identity is Saudi, Muslim, and Arab. I intentionally placed the word Muslim before the word Arab in the previous description, and I will explain why. For no mater how the supporters of the radical or nationalist trend clamor, and no matter how many doubts they cast over the merit of the Saudi state and its society, so long as Saudi Arabia maintains its Islamic and Arab association, such accusations are moot.
Since oil was discovered, the greatest challenge to Saudi society has been the creation of a moderate, productive, and confident Saudi individual. A Saudi individual that is capable of transforming the product of Saudi oil wealth into a permanent development of knowledge, and innovation in the creative and economic sectors. A Saudi individual that is intellectually and culturally undamaged, to stand in the face of those who mistakenly believe that Saudi Arabia is full of religious extremism, and social fanaticism. However this is not true. The Saudi individual, from the northern deserts to the southern mountains, from the sea in the East to the Gulf in the West, is full of hope, dreams, and adventure, especially since a large proportion of the Saudi population are youth.
The questions that the Saudis are asking, more precisely the questions the young Saudis are asking, all revolve around issues of the future, education, development, transparency [in actions], accountability, and open-mindedness. I do not think that many Saudis are preoccupied with questions like; is the state [correctly] implementing Shariaa Law or not? They are fully aware that this question is moot, since neither they nor the state can ever leave the bosom of Islam. For Islam is their past, their present, and their future, and is at the very heart of their identity.
A strong Muslim country is one that is successful in controlling the tone of the relationship between religion and the state in a way that serves public identity, and does not rip apart it’s own culture. Leaving issues to resolve themselves is one of the most dangerous things that can be done, and so the fear in the recent past was that that some religious hard-liners would deviate from the status quo in the name of religion. How many odd and abnormal fatwas have we witnessed being issued by hasty youths or by Sheiks with no official legitimacy? We also witnessed those that obstructed, rather than encouraged “renewal” which is a deeply-rooted Islamic principle. And so this renewal [governmental reshuffle] was necessary.
Therefore [the state] controlling the religious sphere, is beneficial both to the religious sector itself and to the political sector as well, both of which [work to] benefit society as a whole. It was for this reason that we saw scholars, Sheiks, and judges that speak in a language that is consistent with the responsibilities of their position, being appointed to religious posts.
For example, we heard the words of Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Humain, the new director of the CPVPV who confirmed in a television interview that under his directorship the CPVPV “will work under the principle of favorable judgment, and that originally a suspect is innocent until proven guilty.” While in an interview with Al-Iqtisadiyah newspaper on Sunday he said that CPVPV agents “will not be harsh [in its treatment of] the people.”
The new Justice Minster, Mohamed Al-Issa informed Al-Arabiya that “the new amendments show the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques keenness to have cultural diversity in the Kingdom.”
Sheik Saleh Bin Hamid, Chairman of the Higher Judicial Council, brought glad tidings with his announcement of a new judicial era, declaring that the door is open to qualified jurists provided that they undergo a specific judicial training course.
These new additions are useful and good, and with regards to the Council of Senior Ulama’s recent decision for membership of the CPVPV to expand to include all four Sunni Islamic Maddhab [School of Thought], this is in order to break a psychological barrier and help accustom Saudi Arabia to pluralism as a general principle.
This is because the Juristic Schools are not as influential now as they previously were during the prime of Al Azhar University [in Cairo], Zaytuna University [in Tunis], and other Islamic centers of learning. With the emergence of modern political Islam, we are [now] facing a new jurisprudence that is neither as sober as the old, nor as elegant as the new. We are now facing a jurisprudential rebellion, parallel to the political and social rebellion, but that’s another story.
What took place in Saudi Arabia is nothing short of a [political] renewal and revitalization; a shot of adrenalin into the heart of Saudi Arabia. These are what the headlines say. The most significant of the decisions made by King Abdullah is the re-emphasis on harmonization between politics and religion in this new Saudi era, which is something that we are [currently] witnessing, and we hope to continue to witness.