By Asma Alsharif
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - One of Saudi Arabia's most senior clerics said he was not consulted about King Abdullah's decision to grant women more political rights, one of the first signs of discontent from powerful conservatives since the reform was announced.
In a speech last week the Saudi monarch announced that women would vote and run in future municipal council elections and serve in the appointed Shura Council which advises the king on policy.
King Abdullah said his decision was made after consultation with the country's most senior clerics, who have extensive political and social influence.
"I wish the king did not say that he consulted senior clerics... When I heard the speech and what was said about consultation, without a doubt I had no knowledge of it before hearing the king's speech," Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, a member of the senior clerics council, said on the al-Majd television channel on Friday. A recording of the broadcast was available on YouTube.
The cleric was careful in his remarks not to criticize the king's decision directly, and did not say whether or not he supported the reform. But he referred to an Arabic proverb which warns that "the thread between a leader and his people" will snap if it is pulled too hard.
Saudi Arabia's clerics, who are generally conservative, are said to be less than pleased about the reformist ideas of the king. A senior cleric criticized the kingdom's first mixed-gender university after its launch in 2009 and was immediately relieved from his position.
Lohaidan himself was removed from his position as chief of the kingdom's highest tribunal, the supreme council of justice, after he issued a religious edict that called for the killing of some television executives. He remained as a member of the senior clerics council, which has about 20 members.
"I am a member of the senior clerics council and (am one of two clerics left) who have been members since the council's first meeting," he said, attesting to his status and influence.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, applies the austere Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam.
The kingdom's ruling al-Saud family have always run the kingdom in close alliance with Wahhabi clerics, trading state support for legitimacy. During the Arab uprisings this year, the clerics backed the government's ban on political parties and protests.
King Abdullah has promised cautious reforms since he ascended the throne in 2005, but the pace of change has been slow.
Women's rights in particular are a sensitive subject, provoking impassioned opposition from many of the country's conservatives, and the decision to allow women to vote came as a surprise.
Women in Saudi Arabia are legally regarded as minors. They cannot travel, work or even undergo certain surgeries without the written permission of a male relative officially recognized as their guardian. They are not allowed to drive.
Earlier this year, a campaign calling for an end to the ban on driving was met by calls for men to assault women who got behind the wheel in public.
On Tuesday a judge in Jeddah sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for driving, which some activists interpreted as an expression of the unhappiness of conservatives over the reform.
"The king is not expected to ask every single cleric... what I am concerned with is that this questions the king's decision and this is a very serious thing to do. He is a government employee," said Hussein Shobokshi, a liberal Saudi analyst.
"Why is this done vocally, publicly and in a TV channel based in Saudi Arabia? This is a worrying sign because this is unprecedented... Usually the clerics don't voice out in public. They do it privately," Shobokshi told Reuters.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Angus McDowall and Sonya Hepinstall)