RIYADH (Reuters) - A Saudi television show has illustrated problems plaguing the education system in the Islamic state, where reformers are locked in battle with religious conservatives over the future of the U.S. ally.
A recent episode of "Tash Ma Tash," a popular comedy during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, plowed into the debate over how to adapt Saudi education to meet the needs of a rapidly-growing population and finding them jobs.
Next week Saudi Arabia opens a state of the art university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), with top-class faculty in the sciences from around the world and a curriculum outside the influence of powerful clerics.
Tash ma Tash comedy star Nasser al-Qasabi meets with tough opposition from senior bureaucrats at the education ministry when he presents his ideas on reform.
"When you teach a student one single opinion and deprive him of plurality and diversity he then becomes a prisoner of that opinion. Plurality and diversity are the key aspects of Islam from its tolerant perspective," he tells a ministry panel.
The show's other star, Abdulah al-Sadhan, is having none of it. "Where did this (education reform) idea come from? It came only from the West and their little agents. Do they really want the best for us? Are you suggesting that religion needs to be developed? Are you with us or with them?"
A fresh graduate hoping to get a job as a teacher is grilled by a panel of religious sheikhs on his beliefs and background.
"What sort of books do you like to read? ... Do you listen to music?" says one who frowns upon music. "Grades are not everything. You are going to educate generations. We have to know how you think," another says.
Saudi education came under intense scrutiny after the September 11 attacks of 2001, after it emerged that 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis from al Qaeda, headed by Saudi Osama bin Laden.
Clerics have wide powers in Saudi Arabia to impose their puritanical version of Sunni Islam, dominating education, the judicial system, as well as controlling mosques and their own coercive apparatus in the form of a morality police squad.
In the comedy, a group of clerics have direct access to the minister of education, prompting the civil servant charged with developing reforms to consider resigning -- reflecting real life disputes in the ministry since 2001.
Offended at the clerics' threats of consequences, the minister shows them the door and tells Gasabi to tear up his resignation. "Nothing is impossible... There is only resolve and implementation of the blessed reform project."
Script writer Yahya al-Ameer said the happy ending reflected the desire of the government to push ahead with reforms. King Abdullah has championed "cautious reform" but faces challenges from senior princes, allied to the clerics.
"(Education reform) is a royal project that is important to Saudis and to the leadership. Of course, change becomes more difficult when you are faced at once with bureaucracy and puritanism," Ameer told Reuters.
Editing by Andrew Hammond and Samia Nakhoul