- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Nora al-Fayez, Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking female official, is not ready to make big pronouncements. A month after King Abdullah named her deputy education minister for women as part of a sweeping Cabinet reshuffle, Ms. Fayez told The Washington Times that she “preferred not to talk much at this stage” about plans until she has time to formulate an approach to the new job.

Still, she said, “I can say that 99.9 percent of the people were happy about my appointment, especially that it deals with issues related to women.”

Asked why she was appointed, she said it reflected the views of both Saudi intellectuals and ordinary people and was not a response to external pressure.

“The Saudi leadership makes important decisions carefully,” she said. “It has to prepare the society for change.”

The Fayez appointment was part of the biggest Cabinet shake-up since Abdullah took the throne in 2005. The king replaced the heads of the country’s top judicial council and the religious police, and he named new members for a council of leading clerics whose interpretations of Islamic rules touch people’s daily lives. He also named new ministers for education, justice, health and information.

“The changes came after a time when people felt the talk about reforms was just cosmetic,” said Samr Fatan, a Saudi columnist based in the port city of Jidda. Now, she said she thinks “changes are not stoppable.”

So far, however, there appears to be little change in the behavior of the religious police, run by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Visitors to a women’s job training center in Mecca said that the police recently dragged a woman down the stairs of the building where she had sought shelter after being caught in a car with a man who was not a relative, the Associated Press reported.

In an another incident, Riyadh resident Mohammed al-Kahtani filed a complaint against the commission after he was beaten by religious police as he dropped off his wife at a mall. The police accused him of being with a woman who is not his wife, the AP also reported.

Last month, according to the Economist, a Saudi judge sentenced a 75-year-old widow to a four-month jail term and 40 lashes for inviting two young men into her home. One was a nephew of the woman’s late husband who said he was bringing his aunt some bread.

Saudi officials have been acutely aware of their country’s poor image abroad since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in which 15 of 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Internal calls for reform also have been growing over the past few years.

Religious hard-liners, who have had the upper hand in the judiciary and the main Islamic institutions, have been resisting reforms, angering people by their “harassing” attitude and frustrating them with their strict interpretations, Ms. Fatan said.

Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of the reformist Saudi newspaper Al Watan, said the Cabinet changes gave “indirectly a message to the society about the new state’s vision of the role of religious institutions. The message is that the state wants the institutions to be a partner in the decision making, and part of a team, but not a monitor or an obstacle.” The new team’s mission will be to “search for a better life for people … the pursuit of happiness,” he said.

The new appointees are also looking to alter religious broadcasting in the kingdom.

“The religious programs are among our top priorities,” Information Minister Abdul Aziz Al Khoja said recently on a live religious-social program on the Saudi-owned satellite television channel, MBC. “Muslims around the world are watching and waiting to hear what we say.”

He said his ministry is discussing with scholars and other experts how to interpret “our heritage and curriculums … how to communicate with our sons in a modern manner, while they have hundreds of channels and how to bring them back to our programs and to the right path.”

Mr. Khoja emphasized the need for the participation of intellectuals but urged them to differentiate between “positive and negative criticism.”

“If the writers, thinkers and scholars were not given the chance … how can we build our society?” he asked.

Reforms have been introduced after years of working behind the scenes and measuring the pulse of the public. During the past four years, Abdullah has initiated both internal dialogue among Muslim sects and sponsored international conferences on interfaith dialogue.

Though the changes were welcomed, female activists in particular are hoping for more rights in the religiously conservative kingdom, where women are not allowed to drive and the sexes are segregated in almost all aspects of public life.

“We are not only interested in improving our image abroad,” Ms. Fatan said. “We are also interested in our society’s progress and development, to have a better future.”

Educational reforms are likely, including changes in the curriculum to help better prepare Saudis for modern jobs.

Foreign workers still hold many skilled positions. According to official figures, 11 percent of Saudis are unemployed but unofficial rates are estimated at 20 percent.

• Jumana al-Tamimi is associate editor at the Gulf News newspaper, published in Dubai.

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