The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The king and the cabinet: Saudi political reshuffle explained

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah cleaned house Monday with the most sweeping cabinet shakeup in years. In many countries, changing faces of the political inner sanctum is simply a sign of careers on the upswing or in decline. In places such as Saudi Arabia, however, it’s a rare opportunity to peer – if only just a little – inside the priorities of a monarchy that holds its secrets tightly.

The first takeaway is that the cabinet reshuffle does not signal any deep alarm even as oil prices drop and Saudi authorities fear increasing threats from the Islamic State and other groups angered by Riyadh’s close ties to Washington. Key ministries such as oil, interior and defense were left unchanged.

That doesn’t mean the cabinet decrees, announced by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, are without importance.

They signal another step to open more political space for a younger generation, who have been waiting in the wings for decades as the 90-year-old Abdullah and the array of brothers and half-brothers – many now in their 80s – maintain their hold over the kingdom’s affairs.

Ministries such as culture, telecommunications, transportation, agriculture and others were put in relatively younger hands – apparently in response to demands to widen the political decision-making following the Arab Spring uprisings across the region.

But perhaps the move that offers the greatest insight was Abdullah’s decision to dump the longtime minister of Islamic affairs in favor of an academic and Islamic scholar named Suleiman Aba al-Khail, a former president of one of Saudi Arabia’s largest public universities, the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University.

The switch appears to reflect Abdullah’s frustration that the nation’s ultraconservative religious establishment is not doing enough to publicly denounce Islamist extremism.

But nothing involving Islamic affairs is easy in the country with the faith’s most holy sites. The hierarchy of Islamic clerics holds enormous influence. It gives the monarchy legitimacy to rule while also serving as guardians of Saudi Arabia’s strict brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, which enforces increasingly unpopular tenets such as banning women from driving.

Abdullah and other Saudi leaders, meanwhile, seek to apply more pressure on clerics to use Friday sermons and other outreach to oppose militancy. The worries have been amplified by Saudi support for the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State. A deadly attack last month on Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority has been blamed on an al-Qaeda-linked network.

It’s not certain how much the new Islamic affairs minister can set the agenda for the country’s powerful Islamic clerics, who are not accustomed to being muscled. Aba al-Khail, however, could assume a more international role as a Saudi envoy.

He has taken part in U.N.-backed forums on interfaith dialogue and spoke frequently at seminars trying to separate Wahhabism from more radical strains of Islam.