- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia | In an apparent bid to reform the religious establishment, Saudi King Abdullah on Saturday dismissed the head of the feared religious police and a hard-line cleric who issued an edict last year saying it was permissible to kill owners of satellite TV stations that show “immoral” content.

Abdullah also appointed the first female deputy Cabinet minister, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

The changes were part of a surprise reshuffle in the Cabinet, the judiciary and the military.

The dismissals were seen as an attempt by the king to reform the religious establishment, which has come under persistent criticism especially because of the actions of the religious police and the judiciary.

The shake-up, the first major one since Abdullah came to power in August 2005, is significant because it dilutes the influence the hard-liners have had for decades on the religious establishment. The king, who has repeatedly spoken about the need for reform, has brought in a new group of officials and scholars who are younger and more in tune with the diversity of cultural Islam than their predecessors.

“They bring not only new blood, but also new ideas,” said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Al-Watan newspaper. “They are more moderate and many are also close to the reform agenda of the king, having worked closely with him.”

“The people now in charge are not being ordered to implement reform,” he added. “They believe in reform.”

Abdul-Aziz bin Humain will succeed Sheik Ibrahim al-Ghaith as head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which runs the religious police, according to the agency.

Mr. bin Humain, who is thought to be more moderate than Sheik al-Ghaith, will head a body whose members have been criticized by Saudis for their harsh enforcement.

Abdullah also removed Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan, chief of the kingdom’s highest tribunal, the Supreme Council of Justice. Sheik al-Lihedan’s edict, issued in September, was denounced across the Arab world. He was succeeded by Saleh bin Humaid, who until Saturday served as the head of the Consultative Council, the closest thing the kingdom has to a parliament.

Another major change targets education. The king appointed Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, his son-in-law, as education minister. Mr. Khashoggi said Prince Faisal has been working behind the scenes on plans to reform education.

Noura al-Fayez has been appointed Prince Faisal’s deputy for girls’ education - the first time a woman has been appointed a deputy minister.

Former Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Abdul-Aziz al-Khoja, will become information minister, according to the Saudi Press Agency. Abdullah al-Rabia, a surgeon who has carried out about a dozen surgeries separating conjoined twins, has been appointed health minister.

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