Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has sacked a senior conservative cleric after he decried recent and planned reforms. The sacking of Sheikh Abdulmohsen al-Obeikan as royal advisor, came reportedly at the recommendation of Crown Prince, Nayef, who is considered the leader of the conservative camp within the monarchy.


Although Obeikan has previously backed government positions on reforms including gender mixing at university, which was his main criticism, he recently gave a radio interview attacking the government for changing the position of women in society and the mixing of sexes.


In recent years, and at the initiative of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has made it easier for women to work and study alongside men, and tried to promote more tolerant views of other religions.


Most senior religious jobs in the conservative Islamic kingdom are appointments made by the King and Royal Family, including the positions of Grand Mufti and imam of the great mosques at Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites.


May 12, 2012



Analysis and Forecast: Increasing Risk


The sacking of the senior cleric itself is not a major event and does not, as a stand-alone sacking carry substantial risk. He is the third senior Saudi to be sacked in the past two years after criticizing the pace of reform. However, it reflects deep divisions on three levels:

  1. Within the Saudi establishment with the Royal Family united versus other non-Royals in the establishment;
  2. Within the conservative Saudi camp;
  3. Within Saudi society generally.

The way that the announcement was presented to portray a united front within the Royal Family conveys a particular sensitivity within the establishment. The main message that was being indirectly conveyed is that even with differences within the pro-reform and conservative camps in the Royal Family, those differences are put aside in the face of dissent, even if that came from the establishment itself.


Whilst a portray of a united front by the Royal Family to support reform, even from within the heart of the social conservatives represented by Prince Nayef, conveys a willingness to reform, the surrounding circumstances of the sacking reflect deep rifts within the establishment. They also convey fear within the Royal Family that they had to come out strongly.


In addition, the sacking will undoubtedly not only reflect a threat within the conservative camp, but will likely polarize this camp further and be a cause for further tension within and without the establishment.