King Abdullah dismissed the head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Humain, on 13 January, replacing him with a more moderate cleric.

He is replaced by Sheikh Abdullatif Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh at the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, according to a royal decree, state-run Saudi Press Agency reports.

No reason was given for the change. Al-Humain had been appointed to lead the commission in 2009 by King Abdullah.

Al-Sheikh is noted for his liberal outlook. In a 2010 interview with the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Al-Sheikh said men and women were permitted to mix in public under certain conditions and has pushed for a ban on the marriage of minor girls.

“The wisdom behind the ban on meeting in private or undesirable gender mixing is to avoid creating situations that might lead to sin,” Al-Sheikh said in the interview.

Operating under direction from the Interior Ministry, the Commission is charged with ensuring the application of religious law.

According to one source in Riyadh, the Commission is granted greater autonomy in the city than Saudi Arabia’s other major cities, such as Jeddah in the west and Dammam in the Eastern province, where the authorities are less hard line. This is largely down to the conservatism of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, the governor of the Riyadh province from 1962 until November 2011, when he was appointed Defence Minister.

“Since King Abdullah held the reigns of power he promised to reform the Kingdom into a more moderate and modern state, maintaining the influence of sharia, but replacing extreme implementation with a more balanced one. He is, however, a reluctant and cautious reformer, hence the years it’s taken to see any progress,” says the source.