RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz threw down the royal gauntlet to reform-procrastinators last week, announcing a major overhaul of the country's top religious and political leadership.

His Feb. 14 royal decrees — which put in place officials known for their moderate religious outlook, commitment to reform and administrative competence — elated many Saudis and generated high hopes that long-desired changes are coming soon.

The Saudi press has been praising the king's move, which included the first-ever appointment of a Saudi woman as a deputy minister.

"Frankly, what happened was a revolution against traditional religious authority," said one government official. "The king sent a message: No group is above the state or above change."

It is undoubtedly true that King Abdullah, who also replaced four cabinet ministers and the head of the country's supreme court, has made it crystal clear that he wants the pace of reform in courts and schools speeded up.

But bringing change to the kingdom has always been akin to changing the course of a supertanker: It takes a while to shift direction, and even then, the new destination only shows up much later.

So while the king has set Saudi Arabia on a new direction, the new leadership will need time to implement changes, especially with a state bureaucracy that is peppered with religious ultra-conservatives.

One of the king's most welcome changes was the replacement of the hard-line leader of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as the religious police, with a more moderate sheikh.

Abdul Aziz Al Humain has said that he would take a gentler approach with the public, and he even appeared in a local paper with a half-smile on his face.

"The problems and concerns of citizens and expatriates are the same as those of all members of the [Commission]," Al Humain told the Saudi Gazette, adding that "a person is innocent until proved guilty."

The Commission, which patrols public places to ensure that Islamic values and dress codes are followed, has come under fire in recent years for excesses, sometimes involving violent attacks on alleged violators.

And its zealous enforcement of the country's strict gender segregation has sometimes caused problems. A few weeks ago, commission members raided a meeting of British university representatives who were speaking to prospective Saudi students and ordered the British women to leave.

Saudis have also been hailing the king's diversification of the Senior Ulema Council — the kingdom's top religious body — to include scholars who represent Islamic legal traditions other than Hanbali, the dominant school in Saudi Arabia.

"The new officials are known for their moderation and balanced views on legal and religious issues and will undoubtedly be able to modernize the establishments in which they will be working," Sami Sabbah, a faculty member at the College of Shari'a of the Umm Al-Qura University, told Arab News.

But some Saudis and Western experts expressed doubt that the newcomers would drastically change the tenor of the council's religious rulings. Despite their diverse legal traditions, the experts noted, the new appointees undoubtedly all share the same ultra-conservative religious perspective as the more veteran council members.

"They all belong to the Wahhabi school," said Tawfiq Alsaif, a spokesman for the Shiite minority, which was disappointed that no Shiite was appointed to any senior post. "We just came out with nothing," Alsaif added.

Removing Saleh Al Lihedan, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council, was widely applauded because the elderly sheikh had been seen as the major obstacle to judicial reforms ordered by the king two years ago.

His successor, Saleh Bin-Humaid, who is in his 50s, is younger, more moderate and equipped with the experience of having served as head of the Shura Council, the country's top advisory body.

In an education shakeup, the king promoted his U.S.-tutored son-in-law, Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad Al-Saud. As deputy chief of intelligence for the past five years, the prince, 59, is well aware of deficiencies in the Saudi system that contribute to religious extremism and is committed to modernizing education, observers said.

One of Prince Faisal's principal deputies will by Norah Al Fayez, whose elevation to deputy education minister for girls has electrified Saudi women. But they are also aware of the huge task she faces.

"She needs a lot of help from women and men in the ministry," said Hessa Al Sheikh, the women's dean at Al Yamamah College. "If they don't help her, if they don't work with her as a team, she will not be able to achieve her goals."

King Abdullah, Saudi analysts say, did a lot of preparatory work, including consulting with royal family members, before announcing his recent initiative. He needed a high level of confidence to move against the religious right-wing and their accomplices, who have been resisting change.

And yet, the monarch will still face the same challenge he always has: How to calibrate the new pace of change so that Saudi society is not factionalized or torn apart.

In one ear, King Abdullah will hear complaints from conservatives that Saudi Arabia's Islamic traditions are being trespassed upon.

And in his other ear, he will hear from people like Riyadh businessman Turki F. Al Rasheed, who has called for elected local governments and an elected parliament.

"This is a very big step forward," Rasheed said of the king's leadership revamp. "But we are anticipating a lot more. A lot more steps must be taken — and fast."


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