Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Saturday, 14 February 2009

Major reshuffle in Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
King Abdullah has a reputation as a reformer

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has sacked two powerful religious officials in a wide ranging shake-up of the cabinet and other government posts.

One of the dismissed men was the head of the controversial religious police force. The other was the country's most senior judge.

The king also appointed the country's first-ever female minister and replaced the head of the central bank.

Correspondents say 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 BBC's Arab affairs analyst Bob Trevelyan says the pace of change has been slow in the four years of the king's reign.

Despite the shake-up, our correspondent says the kingdom remains an absolute monarchy and real political change is not on the agenda.

Feared organisation

The sacked head judge, Sheikh Salih Ibn al-Luhaydan, caused controversy last September when he said it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV channels which broadcast immoral programmes.

Sheikh Salih Ibn al-Luhaydan said some "evil" entertainment programmes aired by the channels promoted debauchery.

Our correspondent says the sheikh may well be paying the price for airing his opinions.

The shake-up also affected the feared religious police organisation, known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith has lost his job as head of the commssion, which enforces Saudi Arabia's conservative brand of Islam, Wahhabism.

The commission has wide powers to search for alcohol and drugs, to crack down on prostitution and ensure shops are closed during prayer times.

But our correspondent says the religious police have been widely criticised recently over allegations of brutality - the kind of comments that could never have been made publicly a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Norah al-Faiz now holds the most senior official position a woman has held in Saudi Arabia. She has been appointed to the newly-created post of deputy education minister for women's affairs.

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