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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The makeup of the Council of Senior Scholars included Muhammad al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, who visited the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland last January.
A 2017 file picture shows Muhammad al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League, at the Vatican with Pope Francis. (AP)
RIYADH – Major changes introduced by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the Council of Senior Scholars, the Shura Council and the Supreme Court reflect the kingdom’s commitment to anchoring support for reform and openness, especially within important advisory institutions.
On Sunday evening, King Salman issued a royal decree to “reconstitute the Council of Senior Scholars, headed by Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh.”
The list of the council’s new members drew fierce criticism on social media sites by supporters of the Sururi current and the Muslim Brotherhood, which confirms that it stands against their agendas and calculations.
Extremist groups are concerned with losing their influence as the council is tasked with opening a file examining their grip on religious and media platforms and can suggest broad changes to educational programmes that are still dominated by extremist ideas even though they no longer rely on Brotherhood literature as references.
Observers of Saudi affairs say that restructuring the Council of Scholars to include figures known to support reform is an important step, as it rids the institution of extremists — whether those known for their loyalty to militant groups or those who have consistently issued fatwas contradicting the path of reforms aimed at liberating the kingdom from ideologies that reject the other.
Reforms introduced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz encouraging openness by strengthening tourism, entertainment and cultural activities will remain under threat unless they are supported by the appropriate fatwas issued by a body of open-minded scholars that can counter the arguments and ideas of militants who promote the notion that reform jeopardises the kingdom’s Islamic identity.
Observers, however, still wonder whether these scholars, who declare their loyalty to reform and the path advocated by the crown prince, are genuinely ready to get rid of the militant legacy and support jurisprudence adapted to new Saudi orientations, or whether they are just showing loyalty to the monarch regardless of his orientation.
Observers noted that the new composition of the Council of Senior Scholars included Saud al-Mujib, attorney general in the Jamal Khashoggi case. Mujib conducted the trial for those accused in the Kashoggi case, showing that the Saudi judiciary can handle such cases and blocking Turkish ambitions and plots on the matter.
The new body also included Mohammed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, who visited the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland in January to participate in the 75th anniversary of its liberation. Issa’s participation was considered a message that, contrary to impressions promoted for decades by the militant ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sururi current, Saudi Arabia is not hostile to Jews or Judaism.
In press statements at Auschwitz, Issa said, “Being here with the children of the victims of the genocide, and members of the Jewish and Islamic communities, is a sacred duty and a great honour.”
Issa is a former justice minister and is often attacked by pro-Brotherhood media. His appointment to the Council of Senior Scholars seems to indicate that Saudi Arabia is not closed off to the idea of normalisation with Israel, which could occur at the right time and under the right circumstances. It also shows that the kingdom is not opposed to indirect contact with Israel.
These new Saudi policies based on openness have drawn the ire of extremist currents. ISIS, for example, recently called on its supporters to target Westerners, oil pipelines and the economic infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.
“You have multiple targets in front of view. Start with striking at the oil pipelines, factories and facilities that are the source of revenues of this repressive government,” said ISIS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Muhajir in a recorded message broadcast by the organisation’s official channel on the Telegram messaging app.
He added that the kingdom has already supported normalisation with Israel by opening its airspace to Israeli flights to neighbouring Gulf states.
Saudi activists, however, dismissed the statements and attributed them to hardliners’ anxiety and concern about losing their influence inside the kingdom because of the reforms, which have allowed new Saudi generations to liberate themselves from the grip of the intellectual and social closemindedness imposed on them for decades by ultra-conservatives, while at the same time paving the way for them to open up to different cultures.
Along with making new appointments to the Council of Senior Scholars, the Saudi monarch also made changes in the Shura Council, expanding the circle of reform supporters and demonstrating the kingdom’s interest in upholding and supporting the role of women in public life. The decisions granting women the right to travel and to drive are part of a long path of reforms in which women will be recognised as major social, economic and public actors.
A royal decree was issued to reconstitute the Shura Council and appoint Hanan bint Abdul Rahim al-Ahmadi as a high-level assistant to the speaker of the Shura Council, and Mishaal bin Fahm al-Salami as deputy-speaker with the rank of minister.
Ahmadi, a Saudi academic spcialising in public health economics and administration, was one of the first women appointed to the Shura Council seven years ago and is now the first woman in the kingdom’s history to hold this high-level public office.
A statement issued by the Saudi Royal Court said, “The Shura Council consists of Sheikh Dr. Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Ibrahim Aal al-Sheikh as Chairman and 150 members.”
The new council includes eighteen new female members in addition to twelve female members already in place, bringing the total number of Saudi women on the council to 30.
All of the new female members of the Shura Council hail from the academic world, holding advanced degrees in various fields. They come from different regions of the kingdom and include one royal princess.
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