Saudi king removes senior cleric from Royal Court post

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King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has sremoved Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obeikan from his position as adviser to the Royal Court, the official Saudi Press Agency reported yesterday, citing a Royal Decree.

The decision to relieve Sheikh Abdulmohsen al-Obeikan of his position as royal adviser was made in a decree issued on the recommendation of Crown Prince Nayef, himself a reputed conservative.

The agency didn’t say why King Abdullah fired the conservative cleric from his post.

The move fits a pattern of recent years in which senior clerics who oppose the government’s cautious social reforms too openly have lost their jobs.

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

“He’s taken a lot of positions in the past against the royal family and this is another one,” Hossein Shobokshi, a Saudi newspaper columnist, told Reuters.

Under King Abdullah, the Kingdom has made it easier for women to work and study alongside men, and tried to promote more tolerant views of other religions.

In 2010 Obeikan stirred controversy for a ruling that a man could spend time unsupervised with an unrelated woman if he drank some of her breastmilk.

Earlier this year, the head of the religious police was replaced by a cleric who was seen to be more liberal, and in 2010 King Abdullah fired the judiciary head, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, for attacking a new university that was the centerpiece of government education reforms.

Most senior religious jobs in the kingdom are government appointments, including the positions of Grand Mufti and imam of the great mosques at Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest sites.

The government started trying to rein in what it saw as extremist viewpoints in the clergy after Islamist militant attacks inside the kingdom began in 2003, pushing hardline clerics to renounce al-Qaeda and violent tactics.

In 2010, King Abdullah also restricted the ability to pass fatwas, or religious edicts, to a small group of senior clerics, an important step in a country ruled by sharia, or Islamic law.