Saudis concerned about the influence of the kingdom’s influential religious conservatives are celebrating King Abdullah’s appointment of a firm-minded provincial governor to head the kingdom’s education ministry, where grade-school textbooks and university classes still teach a stringent, non-inclusive version of Sunni Islam.
On Twitter, some posted a mocking photograph purporting to show religious conservatives fainting at the news of Mecca governor Prince Khaled al Faisal’s appointment Sunday night as education minister.
King Abdullah, who is believed to be around 90, also appointed his son Prince Mishaal as the new governor of Mecca, moving another of his sons into a high-profile position ahead of Saudi Arabia’s next succession.
The rush of Saudis turning to the state news agency’s website on Sunday appeared to crash the website for some time, as usually happens with big announcements from the royal court, signaling ordinary Saudis’ interest in the switch.
Prince Khalid’s work as governor on the large-scale redevelopment of Mecca and on other large projects have helped give him a reputation among some as an administrator who can get things done. Supporters see him as strict and serious about change; critics see him as too liberal.
Saudis expect him to tackle the influence of Saudi Arabia’s Sahwa al Islamiya (Islamic awakening) bloc, the kingdom’s officially unrecognized but still influential grouping of religious conservatives who follow a distinctly Saudi meld of beliefs of Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood followers.
As French academic Stephane Lacroix has highlighted, the Sahwa movement since the 1970s has had particular influence in the kingdom’s schools and university campuses.
To this day, some Saudi mothers point to sections in their children’s public school textbooks that urge against forming friendships with non-Muslims. Several university students describe sitting through religious classes that criticize the beliefs of Shiite Muslims, a substantial minority in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. And university graduates describe recruiting efforts by Sahwa followers on campus.
In a 2009 interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel, Prince Khalid said Saudi textbooks were injected with “jihadi and violent ideas that came from abroad”. A greater problem, he said, was teachers who spread extremist ideology secretly through schools and universities.
King Abdullah’s government has said it seeks to remove violent or extremist fundamentalist teachings from textbooks. The former education minister, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, was seen as less successful than expected in that goal.
On Twitter overnight, several supporters of the king’s move urged the new minister “to clean up the minds of our children from sectarianism and extremism“.
A leading fundamentalist cleric however reacted with dismay: “The happiness of liberals and the concern of pious people about the new education minister is something that does not honor any believer,” the cleric, Nasser al Omar, said in a tweet in Arabic.
Prince Mishaal, the new governor of Mecca province, which covers both Mecca and Jeddah, formerly was governor of the less-populous province of Najran on the border with Yemen. At 42, he is considered young by the standards of the Saudi royal family. As governor of Najran, home to the Ismaili minority, he worked to sooth sectarian tensions that led to the ousting of his predecessor.
King Abdullah now has moved two sons into some of the kingdom’s most prominent positions – Prince Mishal in Mecca and Prince Miteb as minister of the Saudi national guard. Another son, Prince Abdulaziz, is deputy foreign minister, and a fourth, Prince Turki, is deputy Riyadh governor.
“We see this as aimed at building their experience and testing their capability for future succession and leadership directions,” an analyst at investment bank EFG Hermes said in a client note.