A Promise of Reform in Saudi Arabia -- NY Times Editorial, February 25, 2009

NY Times Editorial, February 25, 2009

Saudi Arabia is notoriously change-averse, but four years after assuming the crown, King Abdullah may finally be ready to fulfill his promise to lead his country toward greater tolerance and modernity.

We welcome his decision to name several reformers to top posts in his government — and his even more surprising decision to oust certain hard-line leaders of the country’s powerful religious establishment. We hope it means that Saudi Arabia will soon grant full civil and legal rights to women and all who reside in the kingdom.

Most of the attention has centered on the king’s appointment of the first female deputy minister, who will focus on women’s education. That is an important first step. But there is still a very long way to go before women have anything approaching equality.

Saudi women need permission from their husbands or fathers to work, travel, study or even receive health care. They cannot drive. While more than half of the university students are women, their job prospects are severely limited.

The ordeal of the “Qatif girl” is a horrifying reminder of the insecurity and injustice of women’s lives in Saudi Arabia. In 2006, the young woman was gang-raped and later was nearly victimized again when the religious-dominated justice system sentenced her to 200 lashes for being alone in a car with a man to whom she was not married. She was only spared after King Abdullah heeded international protests and pardoned her.

Last week, King Abdullah challenged the conservative establishment even more directly, firing the chief of the widely feared religious police and the leader of the kingdom’s highest tribunal, the Supreme Council of Justice. The ousted chief justice issued a ruling last September saying that it would be permissible to kill the owners of TV channels broadcasting “immorality.”

Moderates also were added to the Grand Ulema Commission, an influential body of religious scholars from all branches of Sunni Islam. Regrettably, the king stopped short of adding minority Shiites to the mix.

Since the 9/11 attacks — 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis — Saudi Arabia has pledged to reform a hard-line religious-based education system that is seen as encouraging extremism. And Saudi officials say that the king’s new education minister, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, is a committed reformer. He also is the king’s son-in-law, so there can be no more excuses if Saudi textbooks continue to spew hateful views of non-Muslims.

King Abdullah has demonstrated a laudable desire for change, but he must make even bolder changes to meet the needs of his people and to set an example of moderation and tolerance for the rest of the Arab world.

For that, he will have to carve out more space for political debate and citizen participation and create modern political institutions. That is the only way to ensure his reforms will continue no matter who is advising the king in years to come — or who is king.

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