The battle for the minds of young Saudis.

The new Minister of Education of Saudi Arabia, Prince Khalid al Feisal with Sheikh Abudlateef al Sheikh, the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice - al Haia, at their meeting on 1 January 2014, hailed by Saudi bloggers as a meeting of moderates

The new Minister of Education of Saudi Arabia, Oxford graduate, Prince Khalid al Feisal, with Sheikh Abudlateef al Sheikh, the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – al Haia, at their meeting on 1 January 2014. The meeting was hailed by Saudi bloggers as a meeting of “two moderates”.

There are high hopes that the recent appointment of a new Minister of Education in Saudi Arabia marks a significant attempt to modernise the country’s education system. In this op-ed, Dennis Sammut discusses the tasks ahead for Prince Khaled al Faisal as he walks a tightrope between reformists and religious conservatives.

The shuffling of a few princes between different government positions in Saudi Arabia does not often excite, either citizens in the Kingdom, or observers outside, unless the changes have a direct bearing on the Royal succession. The appointment of Prince Khaled bin Faisal al Saud as Minister of Education on 21 December was however a different matter altogether.

Prince Khaled al Feisal has long been considered as one of the more intelligent and open minded of the hundreds of grandsons of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia. A graduate of Oxford University, from 2007 until his appointment as Minister of Education on 21 December he held the position of Governor of Mecca. He is also the Chairman of the Arab Thought Foundation (FIKR), an initiative which he helped found in 2000.

The Governorship of Mecca is important politically and symbolically in the Kingdom, where the Holy Shrines of Islam are situated. Among the more significant tasks of the Governor of Mecca is the annual washing of the Kaaba on behalf of the King. So when King Abdullah replaced him with his son Mishaal some thought that this could be a demotion for Prince Khaled. But this is far from being the case.

The Ministry of Education is emerging as one of the most important and strategic ministries for Saudi Arabia, one where a process of change had been started some years ago, but where reform stalled in the face of stiff resistance from the religious establishment. The Ministry needed a new leader who will be able to stand firm in the face of opposition. Even if he has been in the job for only a short time it is already clear that Prince Khaled al Faisal  is a man with a mission. In the few days he has been in office he has been constantly talking of reform and renewal, and of “revamping the education system to create skilled future generations” and “so that the child of today becomes the strong and honest man of tomorrow”. This he says is the vision of King Abdullah which he has been entrusted to fulfill.

For a long time the Saudi leadership have understood that they had a problem in their education system. Tens of thousands of young Saudi passed through the education system over the last three decades learning mainly religious instruction from conservative clerics, who often give their own twist to religious teachings. The result has been an increased radicalisation of sections of Saudi youth, and in an opposite reaction, religious alienation by others. Apart from this thousands finish their education without any skills with which they could learn a living.

Prince Khaled has all the attributes to enable him to push through the changes that are necessary. It will not be easy, and he will need as many allies as possible in the task ahead. It is significant that one of the first meetings that the new Minister of Education has held was with Sheikh Abudlateef al Sheikh, the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – al Haia, otherwise known as the Kingdom’s notorious religious police. Sheikh Abdulatteef was himself appointed not so long ago with a task to rein in the Haia and discipline those who were considered exceeding their powers. This he has been able to do with a measure of success. That is why the meeting of the two “moderates” was welcomed by Saudi bloggers, desperate for an opening up of the Kingdom’s education system.

For the outside world these are small steps, but in the stuffy atmosphere of Saudi society and power politics these are extremely important developments. It will take time before any work that Prince Khalid initiates can bear results, but clearly we may be about to see the most significant attempt to modernise Saudi Arabia’s education system ever. The implications for the country, the region and indeed the world of the success and failure of this effort will be hugely significant. One can therefore only hope that Prince Khaled will succeed in this difficult task.

Dennis Sammut is co-ordinator of the Oxford Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum (dennis.sammut@spc.ox.ac.uk)

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