King Renders Me Speechless

On the second week of February every year, the international media is usually full of stories about the assault on Valentine’s Day in Saudi Arabia by the infamous Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice aka the religious police. However, the biggest news on V-Day this year wasn’t the Commission and their war against all things red. On the morning of last Saturday, February 14th, the air in Riyadh was filled not with love but rather with rumors about some upcoming changes in the Saudi government. Around midday, news finally began to materialize and royal decrees started hitting the wire one after another.

Considering that King Abdullah has not made any big changes in his government since he ascended the throne in 2005, it was expected that we were going to see some changes this year, although many speculated it wouldn’t happen until the summer. I think the cabinet shuffle was not surprising in itself, but rather in its scale and some of the details.

In areas like education and health care, changes seemed inevitable because despite the massive government spending, both sectors were at the center of negative attention as the public grew increasingly dissatisfied with their services.

The new minister of health Dr. Abdullah al-Rabia is a bright surgeon who has an international reputation, and was the head of the health services department at the National Guard. He has led his medical team successfully in complex operations to separate conjoined twins, but some people have questioned his managerial skills. There is no doubt that he is facing an enormous challenge, especially at a time when the government is trying to implement a new national health insurance scheme.

The picture is more interesting at the ministry of education with three new appointments. The government has been trying to implement a huge plan to reform the educational system through a new vision, and Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, the new minister, is not just a member of the royal family. He is the King’s son-in-law and is said to be very close to him.

It is worth noting, however, that he has no background in education.
He used to work for the National Guard and most recently he worked as Assistant Director of General Intelligence. But he is also the chairman of Al-Aghar Group think tank, which is credited with many of the reform plans in the country, including the aforementioned Tatweer program.

The second change in MOE was the appointment of Faisal bin Mummar, the former SG of King Abdul-Aziz Center for National Dialogue as a new deputy minister.

The third change, and the one that by far grabbed the most attention, was the appointment of Nora al-Faiz as the new deputy minister for girls’ education. It is the first time that a Saudi woman was chosen for a senior position in the government, and many saw this as a sign of reform as well as recognition of the effort of Saudi women who have worked very hard over the years and contributed to the development of the country.

Interestingly, Mrs. Al-Faiz gave a long interview to Al-Watan daily last week where she said she was immensely upset because her photo was published in the media. “It is well known that I am a Saudi woman from Najd and thus I wear a niqab,” she said. She added that she has no intention of visiting men’s office buildings in the ministry. I found her statements strange to say the least, but it could be that she does not want to anger the conservatives on her first few days on the job.

Many observers, including Khalid al-Dakhil believe that the most important aspect of this reshuffle relates to changes in the justice system. We are finally witnessing the end of Sheikh Saleh al-Lhuaidan’s reign (good riddance!), which will pave the way for more fundamental reforms in the judiciary. Establishing the new supreme court is a great step in that direction, and hopefully many other steps will soon follow.

Now coming to the ministry of information, I did not expect to see Iyad Madani shown the door. It is true that the conservatives were very unhappy with what they considered an extreme liberalization of official media, but the word on the street was that Madani is one of the King’s men. Another explanation for the change at MOI surfaced last week, and argues that the decision to give the position to Abdul-Aziz Khoja was made to reward him for his outstanding work as Ambassador to Lebanon during the recent crises, and not due to dissatisfaction with Madani’s performance.

I guess I was not the only to see the irony in kicking out Sheikh Saleh al-Ghaith, head of the Commission, on Valentine’s Day. Al-Ghaith was often criticized for being weak and therefore not able to control his men, which led to many horrible incidents involving the Commission over the past few years. Unfortunately, they were never held accountable for any of their actions, even when the results were very disastrous and included the loss of life. Can the new man, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Humayen, exercise more control and constraint over the so-called lions? Let’s wait and see.

There were also some changes in the Council of Senior Ulama, which will include for the first time scholars from other schools beside the Hanbali school. I even read some speculations that the council might include Shia scholars in the near future, which is expected to be part of larger reforms and will have greater effect on shaping the policies and culture of the country. I have to say that this sounds like a very long shot to me, but who knows?

The cabinet reshuffle was well received by the people here, but I could not help but sense that some people are being overly optimistic about what kind of change these new appointments can bring. It is usually not enough to change faces, because there is only so much one person can do when you have a system that is dysfunctional and has been like that for years. Newspapers have enjoyed their hoopla for a week now, so I think it is time now for all of us to sit back and watch what these new guys (and woman) are going to do over the course of the next few months. As I always say, I’m not holding my breath.

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37 thoughts on “King Renders Me Speechless

  1. He has led his medical team successfully in complex operations to separate conjoined twins, but some people have questioned his managerial skills.

    I guess the above statement says it all. If he has “led the team successfully”, then why would anyone question his managerial skills?

    On a whole, it is definitely welcoming.

  2. I join you in “not holding” my breath as well. But I must say that I don’t have that much of hope for dramatic change over the next few months or years even, the people have been fed with the “old way” of doing things that they would resist change and reform specially in the so called “religious police” issues.

  3. “I could not help but sense that some people are being overly optimistic about what kind of change these new appointments can bring.”
    I agree. I get the feeling that nothing good will come out of these changes, and even if there were to be some improvements, they wouldn’t be major ones. we’re moving at a slow pace, so I think that by the time we started being a little bit civilized, I’d be in my late eighties.

    And as much as I like the appointment of a female official among those guys, I also get the feeling that she’d make the lives of the female teachers and students a living hell.

    speculation is no use, but I wouldn’t expect much. what I’m worried about now are my employment papers which will be delayed for another whole semester (of work without payment) because a new dean was appointed :/

  4. I’m not optimistic, another political arrangement of loyalty and not the comptence, the only woman picked mainly because of role in the Kingdom schools “known for upper class kids”, many notable and more deserving women & men were ignored…However, the steps would satisfy the media and the international organization for a while…

  5. Question, not comment.

    Do you think, anyone, that the recent replacement of individuals is designed to introduce true reforms or to strengthen Abdullah and his wing of the family’s hands and weaken the Sudairi branch? Based on your answer, what kind of future do you see for the country?

  6. Hala actually she wasn’t chosen because of the time she spent as head of kingdom schools. It’s rumoured that she was semi-fired from that job. She really is highly-qualified and a person of integrity and morals.

  7. Saudi woman,
    Maybe, I looked up her resume, and quite honestly can’t find much contribution to administration, public speaking, contribution or education fields, I don’t question here her morals or integrity as I don’t know her personality, I question her selection criteria, how about more qualified women with similar integrity and morals?… relationships jumb to mind as a possible reason…

  8. Ahmed, I must say that is a really well-researched post. It seems like either you are a brilliant googler/researchr, are extremely well-informed, or just have access to all the publications about the Kingdom, even if it’s just in the vaguest sense.

    Congrats on a great post :)

  9. Hala
    Even if her relationships were the cause, so what? Networking is part of Human nature, it’s not specific to Saudis. Al Faiz spent years as director of the huge administration institute (http://www.ipa.edu.sa/)here in Riyadh and she did really well there. Her own daughters go to public schools so she has first hand experience of what its like as a student, teacher, supervisor and now mother of students in our education system. who do you suggest as more qualified?

  10. I can list some charactersitics but not names:
    1. Strong communication skills, a trait not yet shown on the candidate in her early media interviews
    2. Ability to portray a progressive image of professional woman nationally and abroad (to be seen, but according to her statement: she’s a lady from Najd who covers her face, she’s not ready to appear in Public)
    3. History of motivation, dedication to causes and active involvement in the field/ society (She stated that she’s not yet aware of the status of the education system and would take her time to assess it, not expected from a lady with first hand experience)
    4. Being the first Saudi woman ever to hold a public office, I think I was expecting more in terms of caliber and professional reputation.

    But you’re right, why should we be hard on her, other male ministers are of similar caliber…

    N.B.
    I wish she can prove me wrong & rise up to the status by active involvement and not by shying away…

  11. I hope we see some change especially in the health care side and education. Yet, I am surprised by the new education minister since he does not seem to have that much of expierence in the educational field. On the other hand, I tried to look up the new minister deputy of education resume and I saw that she has a Masters degree from the U.S. There is nothing in her resume refers to a Ph.D degree; thereofere, why would we see always the D. letter in front of her name here and there?

    I agree with Hala that we are still way far from competitiveness. Overall, it seems like what has happened is sort of roles and positions changing rather than a real reform, of course except for Alrabi’a selection.

  12. One more thing, I see Ahmad that you are putting lots of efforts and time referring to so many articles regarding the Baqei’ thing. I think I would have to reconsider your objectiveness again!!!

  13. What should render your speechless is Shia Muslims being killed outside the Prophet’s (s) mosque and Wahabi authorities filming Shia women outside Baqi. What should render you speechless is the wanton oppression and injustice committed against Saudi Shia in Medina and the absolute silence of the Sauid press on the matter. Even so called Saudi ‘liberals’ are saying the Religious police were just ‘doing their job.”

  14. Hey ,,

    I really liked what happened to the Dog’s aka Shia today , and you say there is a speculations that the council might include them .. LOL

    btw can I have fun with your mother and you
    know what i mean ( :

  15. what renders me speechless not this repositioning but reading how our brothers in religion and blood talking about their Shiites brother as if they came from Mars, even during the Gaza war i couldn’t hear any one talking about Israels this way,
    what renders me speechless how even the so-called liberal sided with the religious police against shiia for the first time in history…

    what renders me speechless is the the upside down coverage to the drastic events by the official press and reversing facts we all saw on youtube!!!

    We need to define our rights instead of holding our breath by slight changes would offer us nothing but talk,,we need real change to feel we are respected and alive and not third-class citizens

    Abdul rahman, what is wrong with stupid Wahhabis and sex?! they interpret any text, voice, image erotically , how pathetic..

  16. I find it so shocking that the “Muslims” that the other Muslims in the world look up to would behave in such a dastardly manner. We look up usually to the Arabs since they live where Islam was founded, but with regard to what’s happening right now, this is just too disappointing!

    May Allah bring everybody back to their senses….

  17. Interesting post. What amazes me how daft Saudi youth have become. No national pride or spirit whatever westerners you want to do. Its like watching a monkey in training. Valentines day?! Why do you need to ape a consumerist tradition of the West? I mean seriously, whats next? Halloween parties? The Muttawa can be real idiots but are you really that much better with your lack of critical thinking?
    Seems to me many of you just want to be copy cats of Europe and be happy house niggers. You region is being robbed by them yet you can do nothing but imitate them.
    Pathetic.

  18. Change? you do realize that change will be accompanied by deviation from the majority inflicting further retarded damages <_<

    Things will never change, deep within both of us we know why.

  19. The Mac:

    To your question: “Why do you need to ape a consumerist tradition of the West?” I would offer the thought that our young people would likely support an indigenous festival that celebrates romantic love in a materialist way.

    However, as you know, we would be forbidden to create any such day of celebration by the ulemaa.

    However, failing that, they will import one.

    If your objection is to the whole notion of a “consumerist” celebration, I would offer the thought that many are tired of ulemaa supporters who preach non-materialism, while their own personal lives speak of a love of material excess.

    Consumerism can have positive attributes, as for example an appreciation of art, or film, is viewed by some as consumerism.

    Similarly, if providing flowers and some sweet goods to a beloved person is viewed unfavorably, as being “consumerist” then I believe this is an unreasonably narrow prescription for the lives of those who experience romantic love.

    Finally, I would offer the view that using a racial epithet towards Saudis is just another way to denigrate us.

    Saudis are not to be denigrated.

    We have the inherent right to be consumerist if we choose, just as we have the right to be non-materialist.

    And both choices should be ours as individuals to choose.

    We as Saudis should NEVER be denigrated as “niggers” or any other hate-filled term.

    We deserve and merit respect!

  20. Andrew,

    You make an interesting point. Having been born and brought up in the UK, not once have I celebrated Valentines Day. This is mainly because it all seems really fake to me.

    Although the intentions may have been good to start of with, it has (along with the Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter) become driven by material excesses, where large extravagant gifts are better than small, meaningful and love-filled ones. If a celebration can be made where real romance and love is celebrated, I would embrace it fully (I don’t know about your Saudi Ulemaa though, they seem really extreme).

    As for the King’s reforms, they’re a step in the right direction but I get the feeling it’s too little too late. Saudi needs some big reforms such as allowing women to drive (this should have happened a long time ago) and being a lot more conciliatory towards the Shia (what happened last week was a disgrace).

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