SAUDI ARABIA. King Abdullah on Saturday made sweeping changes to his government, axing the head of the religious police and appointing Saudi Arabia's first-ever woman deputy minister in the biggest shakeup since he took over the throne.
Analysts said the changes continued Abdullah's cautious modernisation of the country's arch-conservative education, legal and social environments.
Such government reshuffles are rare in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah, who came to power in 2005, has for a long time had the reputation of a reformer - and the latest appointments have the makings of one of the biggest shake-ups in Saudi public life for many years.
The reshuffle included naming new education, justice, information and health ministers, a new leader of the consultative Shura council, new central bank chief and the appointment of a woman deputy education minister for female education affairs.
Norah al-Fayez, currently an official at the Saudi Institute for Public Administration, became the first holder of the new job, the most senior ever granted to a woman in the Muslim kingdom.
In another major change, Abdullah sacked hardliner Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the head of the Muttawa religious police, seen by many Saudis as a force opposed to some of the liberalisations proposed under his regime.
Under Ghaith, the Muttawa, who enforce Saudi Arabia's strict-but-eroding Islamic social mores, such as complete separation of unrelated members of the opposite sexes and Saudi women shrouding themselves completely in black while in public, have been widely feared.
Ghaith was replaced by Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Humain, who quickly gave notice of changes to come.
"We will try to be close to the heart of every citizen. Their concerns are ours," Humain told Al-Arabiya news channel.
"This is a turning point. It is the biggest change that happened in this country in 20 years," Mohammad al-Zulfa, a member of the Shura council, told AFP.
"It is a new start for King Abdullah. People are expecting changes," Zulfa said.
But the most powerful cabinet positions of defence, interior, and foreign affairs remained unchanged, remaining in the hands of the key princes of the royal family who have held the jobs for many years if not decades.
The changes announced Saturday included naming Ambassador to Lebanon Abdulaziz al-Khoja as information and culture minister, legal expert Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa as justice minister, and senior national guard official Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Saud as education minister.
At the central bank, Vice Governor Mohammed al-Jasser was named to replace outgoing Governor Hamad Saud al-Sayyari.
Other significant changes included naming a new leader of the official Saudi Human Rights Commission, which last submitted the country's record for review for the first time ever at the Geneva UN Human Rights Council.
A progressive board member of the council, Bandar al-Iban, was named to the post.
The country's justice apparatus, widely seen as stuck in archaic and inconsistent traditions based on Sharia Islamic law and targetted by King Abdullah for changes since he came to the throne, was also a focus of the reshuffle.
New heads of the administrative court, the supreme council of justice, and the supreme court were named.
"These are new faces who can bring change," said Zulfa.
"Some of the old people were not willing to change."