By Angus McDowall
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has sacked a senior cleric after he decried cautious reforms in the world's top oil exporter that allowed women to mix with unmarried men, Saudi Gazette reported on Saturday.
The decision to relieve Sheikh Abdulmohsen al-Obeikan of his position as royal adviser was made in a decree issued on the recommendation of Crown Prince Nayef, himself a reputed conservative.
The move fits a pattern of recent years in which senior clerics who oppose the government's cautious social reforms too openly have lost their jobs.
Although Obeikan has previously backed government positions on reforms including gender mixing at university, he recently gave a radio interview attacking the government for changing the position of women in society.
"He's taken a lot of positions in the past against the royal family and this is another one," said Hossein Shobokshi, a Saudi newspaper columnist.
Under King Abdullah, the ultra-conservative Islamic state has made it easier for women to work and study alongside men, and tried to promote more tolerant views of other religions.
Earlier this year, the head of the religious police was replaced by a cleric who was seen to be more liberal, and in 2010 King Abdullah fired the judiciary head, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, for attacking a new university that was the centerpiece of government education reforms.
Most senior religious jobs in the conservative Islamic kingdom are government appointments, including the positions of Grand Mufti and imam of the great mosques at Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites.
The government started trying to rein in what it saw as extremist viewpoints in the clergy after Islamist militant attacks inside the kingdom began in 2003, pushing hardline clerics to renounce al Qaeda and violent tactics.
In 2010, King Abdullah also restricted the ability to pass fatwas, or religious edicts, to a small group of senior clerics, an important step in a country ruled by sharia, or Islamic law.
However, the government and the ruling Al Saud family have to tread carefully to avoid angering religious conservatives.
"Abdullah has to reckon with the political and social weight these guys carry. Although it is the very opposite of their image outside the country, inside the country the Al Saud are seen by conservatives as dangerous modernists who are undermining the traditional values of Saudi society," said Robert Lacey, author of "Inside the Kingdom".
Obeikan stirred controversy for his 2010 ruling that a man could spend time unsupervised with an unrelated woman if he drank some of her breastmilk.
The Al Saud have always retained a close alliance with clerics of the strict Wahhabi school of Islam, which controls the judiciary and parts of the education system in the world's largest oil exporter.
Wahhabis endorse a political philosophy that demands obedience to the ruler and have issued fatwas banning anti-government protests, but they have themselves opposed many of King Abdullah's social reforms.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Sophie Hares)