Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah last week replaced the hard-line leader of the country’s morality police with a less radical Muslim cleric who believes that Islamic law does not require a ban on the mixing of men and women, or on women from doing certain jobs in Saudi society.

The appointment of Sheik Abdulatif al-Sheikh to the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is the latest in a series of recent social reforms in Saudi Arabia, according to TrustLaw.

Many of the reforms reflect his desire to promote a more tolerant interpretation of Islam than that mandated by the ultra-conservative Wahhabi version previously enforced by the morality police, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Some of these moves have provided benefits and greater freedoms for women, although women still do not have the right to drive and are subject to male guardianship.

Last September King Abdullah granted women the right to vote in local elections and to serve as members of the country’s top advisory board.  Last week, a royal decree took effect banning men from selling women’s goods, such as lingerie, opening such jobs to women. A similar decree concerning cosmetics shops is due to take effect in July. 

Those changes affect more than 7,300 retail outlets and are expected to create job opportunities for more than 40,000 Saudi women, media reports quoted Labour Minister Adel Faqih as saying.

This certainly does sound like a small step in the right direction, but I will remain skeptical about its impact so long as I continue to spot news stories like this in my Google alerts:

A Saudi Arabian court sentenced a man to two years in prison and ordered him 200 lashes after he was caught alone with a woman in his apartment, English-language Emirates 24/7 news outlet reported Monday.