When Saudi King Abdullah appeared in a newspaper photo with 40 veiled women in April, he broke a taboo by mixing with the opposite sex in public.
Since then, the 86-year-old monarch has crimped the power of conservative Muslim clerics more than any of his five predecessors since the foundation of the kingdom in 1932. He prohibited unauthorized religious edicts, or fatwas, and shut some of the websites where they’re issued. In the past month, he backed supermarkets employing females for the first time.
“This is really a part of the struggle over who controls Saudi Arabia,” Robert Lacey, author of 2009 book ‘Inside the Kingdom,’ said in a telephone interview from the Saudi city of Jeddah. “Ten to 15 years ago, it would have been very difficult for a Saudi king to discipline the clergy.”
The friction between king and clerics underscores a shift in Saudi society away from the dominance of strict Islamic law. The king is spearheading the move by forging a Saudi national identity and bringing women into the workforce as part of an attempt to make the economy less dependent on oil.
As well as women appearing as cashiers in supermarkets, the Sept. 23 national day, initiated by King Abdullah in 2005 when he came to power, had men and women mingling together, flouting Saudi religious restrictions. The kingdom was founded after a 30-year campaign of conquest by the current king’s father, Abdulaziz, that extended the Al Saud family’s control beyond the ancestral home around Riyadh.
“The fatwa ban will allow the government to take more antagonizing economic measures, if needed, without fearing independent clerics,” Mohammed al-Qahtani, an economist working at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies in Riyadh, said in an interview. “It definitely silenced independent clerics.”
Under a pact dating back to 1744 between the Al Saud and Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, the kingdom maintains an austere brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, in return for the Sunni Muslim hierarchy’s acceptance of the crown.
Saudi Arabia depends on oil exports to expand its economy and provide social benefits to its people. The king wants to enhance job skills, and develop science and technology to diversify the economy.
The government announced in August a $385 billion, five-year spending plan as the kingdom tries to reduce a jobless rate of as high as 43 percent for Saudis between the ages of 20 and 24. The overall rate was 10.5 percent in 2009, according to data from the Central Department of Statistics and Information.
‘Message of Deterrence’
The same month, King Abdullah issued a royal decree allowing only the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars to issue religious edicts. The communications authority closed websites for violating the decree, Sultan al-Malik, a spokesman for the regulator, said in September.
“It sends a message of deterrence to clerics around the country to make them think twice before they issue a controversial statement or an inflammatory remark,” Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Oslo-based Norwegian Defense Research Establishment and the author of ‘Jihad in Saudi Arabia,’ published in April.
The Wahhabi clerical establishment had controlled the educational and legal systems, and influenced public opinion through their edicts. Their control intensified following the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by extremists demanding a stricter enforcement of Islamic law, as the government scrambled to bolster its religious credibility.
In 2002, religious police prohibited girls from leaving a burning school in Jeddah because their heads weren’t veiled. Fourteen died in the incident, causing uproar in the kingdom.
Incite to Fight
In the past, Saudi clerics could incite men to fight religious war or issue edicts on economic matters without government approval or regulations. In 2007, cleric Mohammed al-Ossaimi called on Muslims to shun the sale of shares by billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding Co. because its business was believed to be un-Islamic.
Videos posted on YouTube condemned Prince Alwaleed for encouraging women working in his office to take off the abaya, or black cloaks covering the body.
Clerics used their websites, text messages and radio shows to issue fatwas to the public. In February, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak called for supporters of the mixing of genders in the workplace and schools to be put to death.
Then in June, Sheikh Abdul-Mohsen al-Obeikan, an adviser to the royal court, issued a religious ruling saying unrelated women could mingle with an unrelated man if he drank her breast milk five times from a glass, a way around gender segregation. The fatwa was aimed at women who worked with unrelated men.
“Fatwas have gone from threatening to embarrassing,” said Lacey, a British historian.
Islam Today, run by the cleric Salman al-Oudah, closed the website’s fatwa section, which received 4,000 questions a day, Arab News reported in September.
Azizia Panda United Co., the supermarket unit of Saudi food producer Savola Group, started employing women in September. Marhaba, a supermarket chain in Jeddah, followed, Arab News reported, citing an unidentified women who was hired.
Azizia Panda received permission from the Ministry of Labor to hire women, the company said in a statement. “It was done to make more chances for women to work,” according to the statement.
An increase in the number of working women might give Saudi and international companies higher-skilled employees, since almost 60 percent of Saudi university students are women. Less than 15 percent of the labor force is female, according to a study by consulting company Booz & Co.
Help Minorities, Women
“The king’s ban on fatwas will be positive for minorities and women,” Ibrahim AlMugaiteeb, the president of the al-Khobar-based Human Rights First Society, said by telephone. “This isn’t something all clerics will agree on.”
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Asheikh, the most senior religious cleric, ordered preacher Youssef al-Ahmed to stop issuing unauthorized fatwas after he called on people to boycott Panda shops for employing women, Arab News reported.
During national day celebrations last month in Riyadh, women clad in abayas, with their heads covered in scarves, cheered and whistled as an all-male traditional Saudi band played instruments and danced on stage. Religious police later made no effort to separate mixed crowds of men and women as they looked at stalls selling souvenirs. Children wore green and white headbands, the color of the Saudi flag, with slogans, saying “The Nation is in Our Hearts.”
Under the strict interpretation of clerics, who demand that kings are buried in unmarked graves, all symbols, whether national or religious, are prohibited. The conservative clergy only recognize Islam’s two holidays after the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting from sundown to sun set.
For Hegghammer, the fatwa ban is just a question of who’s in charge. It’s “a means to facilitate state control over of the religious political arena,” he said.