February 16th, 2009

One swallow does not make a summer: but there’s no summer without swallows. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has just reshuffled his government.

Out:

* Sheikh Salih Ibn al-Luhaydan, chief judge, who said last September that it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV channels which broadcast immoral programmes;

* Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the feared religious police organisation.

In:

* Norah al-Fayez, M.Ed (Utah), as deputy education minister for women’s education, the first woman ever named to a ministerial post in Saudi Arabia.

Several other hardline judges have also gone and the ulema is being made more liberal.

The storming of the Bastille this ain’t. But the reshuffle plainly marks a real policy shift towards the relative liberalism of the Gulf sheiks, not tokenism. Tokenism would have balanced the removal of the two hardliners with a policy concession to their tendency; instead the meaning is rammed home by the practically unimportant but symbolically powerful appointment of Ms. al-Fayez. Even absolute monarchs have to worry about palace coups, disgruntled cops, spooks and soldiers, and fanatic assassins. The king has just added to his personal threat level.

Big, risky changes like this are mostly driven by internal factors. But to the extent that foreign relations come into it, it’s easy to see that Bush’s shrill policies would have worked against the reforms. The King’s enemies would have portrayed him as weakly giving in to American pressure, mounted by a ghastly unbeliever coalition of Zionists, Christian fundamentalists, and neo-imperialists. Barack Obama’s radically new and eirenic tone makes reforms easier to sell.

Saudis will have noted what President Obama said in his first inaugural:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Were these just fine phrases, or solid promises of change? Abdullah has now made a move, as Saudi diplomats are now surely pointing out to HRC and George Mitchell. Will America reciprocate? I can’t see anything the Saudis could want to alter in American policy over energy or Iran. They have real worries over a Shia-dominated Iraq and don’t want to see the Iraqi Sunnis abandoned. But the big item is as always Palestine. It’s Obama’s turn now.

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