A new Saudi Arabia is undergoing a difficult and complicated rebirth. Two weeks before the arrest last Saturday of 11 Saudi princes, several ministers and entrepreneurs in an “anti-corruption” drive, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman organized a lavish global economic summit meeting in Riyadh to showcase his plans to diversify the Saudi economy beyond oil.
At the summit meeting, Prince Mohammed spoke of his plans to return Saudi Arabia to its original moderate Islam. So far his statements about moderate Islam seem to be a public relations exercise aimed at global investors.
Prince Mohammed also announced a $500 billion project to build a futuristic city on the Red Sea called Neom, which he said wasn’t meant to generate jobs for Saudi citizens but to serve regional interests and global capitalism. He linked this phantasmagoria to imposing moderate Islam on the Saudi people and ridding the country of many members of the wealthy elite, including princes and their profiteering clients.
Prince Mohammed described 1979 as the year when Saudi radicalization was born, as if the country had been an island of tolerance, moderation and liberal Islam earlier. That year will always be remembered for the Iranian revolution, a traumatic moment for Saudi Arabia. The founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran undermined Saudi Arabia’s claims of being the only authentic Islamic country.
As Iran began to Islamize its institutions and propagate an Islamic revolutionary rhetoric abroad, the Saudis felt nervous. They consequently revived their cherished radical version of Islam, namely Wahhabism, a puritanical sectarian movement that originated in 18th-century Arabia.
In 1979, Saudi Arabia’s own indigenous radical Islam unleashed its full potential when a group of so-called Unitarians seized the Mecca mosque and took hostages in protest against the government’s corruption, relations with the West, Westernization and other grievances.
The House of Saud realized the volatility of the state religion. But instead of trying to de-radicalize the radicals, the regime chose to indulge them and submit to their uncompromising agenda.
The Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1979 also troubled many Saudis. Consequently, Saudi Arabia together with other Arab countries boycotted Egypt under pressure from local groups.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 provided an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to outdo Iran’s Islamic republic in displaying Islamic credentials.
Saudi Arabia wanted to defuse the religious radicalism at home by letting its own jihadis seek martyrdom in Afghanistan. This eventually led to the emergence of global jihad under the leadership of Osama bin Laden.
Notwithstanding Prince Mohammed’s sweeping and inaccurate comments about Saudi religious moderation before 1979, it is not clear how moderate Islam is going to change the religious outlook. If he is serious about getting the country to embrace moderate Islam, he must allow Saudi clerics and thinkers of different denominations to debate foundational Islamic texts and norms in an open environment.
Instead, since September, Prince Mohammed has sent hundreds of clerics, intellectuals and Islamic thinkers to prison under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Many of those detained are not radical Islamists.
Saudi religious education is still based on the Wahhabi heritage and judges follow the Hanbali jurisprudence, the foundation of Wahhabi literal interpretations of Islam. The founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, is sacrosanct. When a scholar named Hijazi Hasan Farhan al-Maliki wrote a book suggesting that readers temper their unconditional endorsement of Wahhab, he was arrested.
Saudi Arabia is still the only country in the Muslim world where non-Muslim places of worship are not allowed. Even in neighboring Gulf countries, Hindu temples and Christian churches exist. The crown prince did not hint whether that would change under the new moderate Islam he envisages.
Islands of openness do exist, though. Inside the walled compound in Dhahran built by the oil company Saudi Aramco for its employees, churches flourish and women drive, swim and party. This model was replicated in compounds across the country for wealthy expats, but the regime never dared to let their lifestyles spread beyond the high walls of these enclosures.
Moderate Islam will not emerge in Saudi Arabia under a repressive regime whose foundation is based on purging theological difference and criminalizing the Muslim other. The regime’s main interest in religion is to gain legitimacy and pacify the Saudi population as Wahhabism justifies armed rebellion abroad against most Muslim leaders, but forbids Saudis from rising up against their own rulers.
The majority of Saudi clerics are conservative Wahhabis, but in recent years some have started engaging with moderate interpretations. Before his arrest in September, Salman al-Awah, a prominent cleric with millions of followers on social media, announced that homosexuals should not be prosecuted.
Sufi scholars and intellectuals in the Hijaz like the architect Sami Angawi, who documented the destruction of archaeological and religious sites in Mecca, are reluctantly tolerated, but any public display of Sufi rituals is still prohibited. The Shiites living in the oil-rich Eastern Province remain a marginalized minority, accused of being a fifth column loyal to Iran. Their jurisprudence is not represented in the Council of Higher Ulama, which advises the monarch on religious matters.
Only open debate will eventually lead to a kind of Islamic modernism and shrink the spaces where fundamentalism grows. But the regime will then be left without its raison d’être, as the protector of faith, defender of Muslims and the only truly Islamic state.
Prince Mohammed will need a new legitimacy narrative to sell absolute rule to the populace. Economic development and employment opportunities may be key but since the new city he’s promoting will rely more on robots than humans, there is little hope there for young Saudis in search of a livelihood.
The recent announcements about moderate Islam, the pervasive arrests, and the illusory hypermodern economic projects frame him as a ruthless modernizer, who is struggling to achieve too many things in too little time. But his motive is more about the consolidation of power than about corruption.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at London School of Economics, is the author, most recently, of Muted Modernists: The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia.