Saudi King ousts traditionalist cleric
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz issued a royal decree relieving senior cleric Sheikh Saad Bin Nasser Bin Abdul Aziz Al Shethri of his duties as member of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars and the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Ruling. The action against the scholar came a few days after he criticized the kingdom’s first co-educational institution, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which was officially opened by the king on 23 September in the presence of several world leaders and renowned scientists and academics. Al Shethri said mixing of sexes in Saudi Arabia was “unacceptable.”
He also wanted a Shariah committee to look into the studies being conducted at KAUST and their compatibility with Shariah law. Al Shethri’s comment drew widespread criticism.
Many Saudi writers and intellectuals opposed the cleric’s views and said the mixing of sexes should not be considered immoral.
Analysis and forecast: increasing risk
The divide between the reformist and traditionalist wings of the Saudi governing elite has been widening in the past months. The King is seen as the head of the reforming wing whilst his second deputy, Prince Nayef, the powerful interior minister, the head of the traditionalist wing. Militant Wahabi Islamists share a common ideology with the tradionalist wings, on social issues. However, as tensions grew between the government and the Al Qaeda, including an attack against the traditionalist deputy interior minister Prince Mohammed, the traditionalist wing has been finding itself gradually distanced from the mainstream. Even traditionalists supporters within the ruling elite are thought to be rethinking their attitude towards social traditionalism. Until a few years ago, the opening of a co-educational university was unthinkable in the Kingdom. Now, criticizing the opening of such a university has been dealt with sharply. The reformist wing, led by the King seems to have found greater strength as proponents of the traditionalist wing weaken. The move is seen as a clear indication that the somewhat slow moves towards reform in the kingdom will now proceed at a faster pace, and with much less opposition by the traditionalist. This will ultimately bring greater coherence to the Kingdom, as it moves to catch up with other Gulf states and as it positions its economy for greater diversification.