* Saudi king's announcement may herald further change
* As monarchy seeks popular favour, clerics remain powerful
By Asma Alsharif and Angus McDowall
JEDDAH/DUBAI, Sept 26 (Reuters) - The right to vote in
elections in a country that remains an absolute monarchy, where
they still may not work nor travel without assent from a male
relative nor drive a car, may seem a small step for the women of
Yet King Abdullah's unexpected move was a momentous turn in
the culture wars that have marked his reign. It may presage more
change, not only for women but in the relationship between royal
house and clergy upon which the state was founded, and among
rivals within a ruling family that faces mounting demands from
subjects who see other Arabs pushing closer to democracy.
The king's announcement on Sunday in the Shura Council that
women would be allowed to join the hitherto all-male -- and
legally toothless -- advisory chamber, and to vote in municipal
elections, was welcomed as significant by women, who under Saudi
law occupy an explicitly subordinate role to men in society.
"These are chances for women, who think they can help in
pushing the wheel of development," said Lama al-Sulaiman, who as
vice president of the Jeddah chamber of commerce is among the
few Saudi women to hold such a prominent office.
Unique in the world, Saudi women may not drive. Concealing
attire is obligatory in public. In court, their testimony counts
for less than that of a man. And they must have a male
"guardian" to endorse major life decisions, from choosing to
marry to taking a job or travelling abroad.
Though Abdullah, who casts himself as a reformer, appointed
a woman as a deputy minister in 2009 -- for women's education --
no woman has full cabinet rank nor serves as an ambassador.
But Hamida Alireza, a resident of the prosperous commercial
hub of Jeddah, spoke for many Saudi women in saying that the
rate of change had been satisfactory over the decade or so in
which Abdullah has steered policy through an opaque political
process in which other princes and clerics also have a big say.
"I think the pace, as long as we stay at this pace, is very
good," she said. "Three years ago none of this was on the
The warm applause which greeted his five-minute speech in
the Shura Council, and the silence from senior clerics who have
voiced doubts in the past about women's rights, suggest that the
king had paved the way for this latest reform.
"Any opposition on a religious basis does not have any legs
to stand on because it was done according to Islamic teachings,"
said Hossein Shobokshi, a liberal Saudi newspaper columnist.
So far, the only opposition to the move has been in comments
posted on social networking sites by individual conservatives
convinced that Abdullah is corrupting their Islamic society.
"To Allah, to history and to our nation, King Abdullah's
reign has seen the most corruption in the history of al-Saud
with regard to women," Abdulrahman al-Luwaiheq posted on Twitter
a few hours after the announcement.
It is unclear how far such sentiments are shared by more
powerful clerics from the austere Wahhabi tradition, whose
collaboration with the ruling al-Saud family lies at the heart
of the Saudi kingdom, founded in its present form in the 1930s.
Previously stated positions among senior government-funded
sheikhs, reveal profound misgivings about women's rights.
The most senior, the Grand Mufti, in an undated web posting,
has warned that involving women in politics could mean "opening
the door to evil".
Such conservatism is widespread in Saudi society, though
state-sponsored restrictions on women have at times provoked
broad disapproval -- witness the popular outrage in 2002 when
religious police blocked schoolgirls fleeing a fire because they
were not fully dressed in the presence of men. Fifteen died.
Change -- and reaction -- are not new in Saudi Arabia, where
clerics have conferred an aura of piety upon a dynasty that was
quick to embrace the modern technologies its oil wealth bought,
while accepting a religious model of society more in keeping
with its tribal heritage than the gridlocked cities of 2011.
When King Faisal introduced education for girls in the
1960s, he suffered a conservative backlash. And when militants
seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 over perceived moral
decline, some clerics were sympathetic to them.
Though the al-Sauds may seem to many outsiders to run a
state that, as home to Islam's holiest sites, is a model of
piety and traditional morals, their rule -- and alliance with
the United States -- was an original cause of the hostility they
face from al Qaeda and its Saudi-born founder Osama bin Laden.
Even far from the violent extremes, there has been much
resistance to giving women greater freedom. Women's rights
activists faced criticism for campaigning for the right to vote
in this week's municipal elections -- the king's announcement
will give them that right only at the next opportunity.
And when women campaigned for the right to drive this summer
-- some of them taking to wheel in defiance of the law -- some
conservatives set up a social media group encouraging physical
attacks on any woman who dared to follow suit.
King Abdullah has countered resistance in various ways,
employing both carrot and stick.
Last year he decreed that only members of the country's top
religious council had the power to issue fatwas, or religious
edicts, a move that tried to sideline his most vocal critics.
And in 2009 he fired a senior scholar from an important post
after he criticised the first mixed-sex Saudi university and
spoke out against the teaching of evolution as an alien idea.
This year, the king has also encouraged clerical favour by
big spending on building mosques and on the morality police, as
well as by banning media criticism of senior clerics.
In a year when Arab Spring revolts have unseated secular
autocrats, the clergy remain a powerful support to the Saudi
monarchy, even as it seeks popular favour, too. Votes for women
are a significant development for Saudi society, but will not
rapidly diminish clerical influence over its politics.
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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