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Saudi liberals see hope as clerics argue over women

RIYADH (Reuters) - Divisions among senior Saudi clerics over the legality of gender segregation could mark a new drive by reformers allied to King Abdullah to push social reforms in the puritanical Islamic state.

A file photo shows Saudi women praying during Eid al-Adha celebrations on a street in Riyadh November 27, 2009. Divisions among senior Saudi clerics over the legality of gender segregation could mark a new drive by reformers allied to King Abdullah to push social reforms in the puritanical Islamic state. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

The divisions came to the open when the kingdom’s morals police, or the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, reversed a decision to sack Ahmad al-Ghamdi, its regional head for the Mecca region.

Saudi analysts and diplomats say the reversal was dictated by King Abdullah’s entourage if not the king himself.

After the kingdom opened its first co-ed university in September -- a project sponsored by King Abdullah -- Ghamdi published a research paper that questioned the legality in Islam of gender segregation as enforced by the Commission.

“The commission was forced to cancel the decision to sack Ghamdi. This will strengthen the state’s role,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a prominent Saudi political writer.

“The state has been gaining influence while that of the religious establishment has been declining, simply because it has gradually been given a lesser say over decisions taken by the state,” he said.

The kingdom, a major U.S. ally, is ruled by Al Saud family in alliance with clerics from the austere Wahhabi school of Islam who oversee mosques, the judiciary and education, as well as run their own coercive apparatus, the morals police.

Interior ministry police work with the Commission to make sure unrelated men and women are kept apart, that women are covered from head to toe and that Sharia law is fully implemented including a ban on alcohol. Women are also not allowed to drive in the kingdom.

The rulers of the world’s top oil exporting country have wrestled with the issue of whether to moderate Wahhabism since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 on U.S. landmarks, carried out by mostly Saudi nationals, and the emergence of al Qaeda militancy against the Saudi government in 2003.

King Abdullah is seen as favouring reforms that water down some of Wahhabism’s more controversial tenets. Analysts and diplomats say he is opposed by other senior princes who are closely allied to the powerful religious establishment.


The octogenarian monarch, pressed by time to push reforms, dismissed a cleric from a top council of religious scholars in October after he demanded that religious scholars vet the curriculum at the new university.

A senior Saudi government official said Ghamdi’s views could get “something big rolling”. “I won’t be surprised if the king asks the Shura Council for advice on gender segregation and women driving issues. I think that’s the best way for the monarchy to avoid collision with the religious establishment”.

The Shura Council is a quasi-parliament that advises the government and examines draft legislation. Its members are appointed by the king and although its decisions are not binding, it has become a forum for debate.

Ghamdi defended his views with sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, but his critics argue he is not qualified to speak about religious matters. Ghamdi is an accounting graduate who climbed up the bureaucratic ladder within the commission.

Hardliners among the kingdom’s clerics are treating the issue of gender segregation -- which also requires a woman to be accompanied by a male “guardian” in public -- as a red line they will fight over.

In February, Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak -- a leading independent cleric -- called for opponents of the segregation to be put to death if they refuse to abandon their ideas.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh -- the state’s chief adviser and spokesman on religious affairs -- is seen as an ally of King Abdullah who has not been prepared to diverge from Wahhabi orthodoxy on segregation and guardianship.

“What is happening is a healthy debate within the commission,” said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of al-Watan newspaper. “This is an evolution. It’s a very positive thing for the whole kingdom.”

Editing by Andrew Hammond and Samia Nakhoul