RIYADH Saudi judges who enforce sharia (Islamic law) have condemned what they see as "the stench of Western ideas" in sweeping legal reforms pushed by King Abdullah, underscoring friction between government modernisers and religious hardliners.
In a letter to Justice Minister Mohammed al-Issa seen by Reuters, eight judges complained about foreign trainers who shave their beards contrary to purist Islam, the minister's meetings with diplomats of "infidel" states and plans to let women practise as lawyers.
The authenticity of the letter, which did not directly criticise either the king or Issa, was confirmed by a source in the Justice Ministry who said it was sent late last month.
Saudi lawyers and political analysts say the judicial reforms announced by King Abdullah in 2007 and supported by Issa are needed to make the legal system more efficient and modern.
"The system deters investors, who find the judiciary opaque. Outdated administrative procedures and inadequate judicial training remain problems," the U.S. embassy said in an assessment in 2009 revealed by WikiLeaks.
Since becoming de facto regent while he was crown prince in 1995, Abdullah has pursued cautious reforms aimed at modernising Saudi Arabia's economy and making it more socially open, but he has often been blocked by powerful religious conservatives.
The world's top oil exporter has no written legal code or system of precedent, and judges determine cases based on their own interpretation of sharia.
Lawyers say this means similar cases often yield starkly different verdicts and sentences. In some cases King Abdullah has stepped in to annul decisions seen as embarrassing to the country, such as the 2007 jailing of a rape victim on charges of consorting with unrelated men.
However, the reforms have made scant progress five years after being announced, according to lawyers and the ministry source, a delay they blamed on conservatives in the Justice Ministry and within the judiciary.
"I think the majority of judges are in favour. They want to see development both as professionals and for society. But there's another 30 percent. They fight (Issa) day and night, trying to slow down what he is doing," said the ministry source.
Saudi society and government remain very religious and socially conservative. Women are barred from driving, only Islam can be practised in public and morality police patrol the streets to enforce compliance with social and dress codes.
EXTENSIVE LEGAL REFORM PLAN
Issa, a former senior judge and top cleric but regarded as a moderate and one of the architects of the reforms, was appointed by King Abdullah in 2009 and tasked with accelerating the changes.
"It needs a lot of work to create these courts and I don't believe they're working as fast as we need. Commercial cases especially need things to be done quickly," said Jassem al-Attiyah, a well-known lawyer.
The plans entail setting up a supreme court, specialised criminal, commercial, labour and family courts and expanding the number of appeals courts as well as establishing a record of precedent to help guide lawyers and judges.
What for conservatives was more controversial was introducing non-sharia training for judges and allowing them to use other schools of Islamic law besides the very strict one traditionally followed in the kingdom.
In their letter to Issa, the judges said teachers at judicial schools were unqualified and complained about their unbearded appearance and habit of smoking cigarettes, characteristics frowned upon by very strict Muslims.
Earlier this year in a move intended to strengthen Issa's position, King Abdullah appointed him to head the Supreme Judicial Council, which controls the judiciary, a position previously held by conservatives.
In recent years the monarch has also sacked senior state-employed religious figures who publicly opposed reforms, including heads of the judiciary and morality police.
The conservative kingdom was founded by an alliance of the al-Saud ruling family and clerics of the strict Wahhabi school of Islam, and successive kings have based their legitimacy in part on their credentials as religious leaders.
"In an Islamic country if you lobby as Islamic you find a lot of supporters," said the ministry source. "Commercial law is very difficult when you have a judge who doesn't study principles of law but principles of religion."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)