Saudi Arabia: a new era to come?

It all sounded so good. In an interview with the Guardian on 24th October, Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince and heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia, pledged to take the Kingdom away from its ultra-conservative state to a more ‘moderate Islam’. This came as part of bin Salman’s far-reaching 15-year programme of reform that will attempt to modernise his country by dragging it away from its economic dependency on oil revenue and improving the rights and freedoms of his citizens, especially women.

There is, however, cause for scepticism. It hinges around bin Salman’s claim that Saudi Arabia’s current religious conservatism is ‘not normal’, and was a consequence of the Iranian Revolution: ‘What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia … we are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.’

This is demonstrably untrue. The critical date to understanding the Kingdom’s current conservatism is not 1979, but 1744. In that year a theologian called Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab made a pact with a local ruler, Muhammad ibn Saud. Ibn Saud was the head of the House of Saud, and his descendants rule today. Al-Wahhab, meanwhile, was the leader of a religious movement, known now as Wahhabists. They subscribed to a puritanical interpretation that, crucially, taught that they alone followed the true form of Islam, and branded all other interpretations illegitimate and heretical. This marriage of political power and theological legitimacy has been the bedrock of the Saudi state (in its various guises) ever since.

The first Saudi State was established when Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Prince Muhammad bin Saud formed an alliance in 1744

Bin Salman’s apparent desire to end the Wahhabist influence in Saudi Arabia is nothing new.  The current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was created in 1932 with the help of a murderous band of fired-up Wahhabist Bedouin called the Ikhwan. However, the devout Ikhwan ­– so useful in war – soon proved a nightmare in the new state. They objected to everything from the use of automobiles to the establishment of a basic government bureaucracy, arguing that these were not permitted by Wahhabist dogma. The King lost patience. Their conquering function fulfilled, the Ikhwan were taken into the desert and machine-gunned.

The Ikhwan in 1911

Of course, it’s not always the case that an opposition group can be so easily eliminated. In 1979 Saudi men claiming allegiance to the Ikhwan seized the holiest site in Islam: The Great Mosque in Mecca. It was clear that the House of Saud had to find an alternative method of preventing their Wahhabist partners from setting their sights, once again, on the un-Wahhabist elements of the Saudi state.

Earlier that same year, the Iranian revolution toppled the Shah’s regime and installed Khomeini’s brand of fundamentalist Shi’ism in its place. Khomeini’s Iran promised to sponsor a global campaign of Shia resistance, an alarming prospect for Sunni states, especially those with minority Shi’i populations like Saudi Arabia.

To deal with both threats, the Saudis decided to channel Wahhabism outwards. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the subsequent hike in oil prices meant the Kingdom had the capital to fund the spread of their extremism abroad, and many of its citizens joined Saudi-funded groups fighting in Afghanistan, and later in Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria. It is estimated that Saudi Arabia has pumped more than $100 billion in foreign extremist groups since 1979. To put that in context, over 70 years the USSR spent around $7 billion exporting communism. In addition to funding military groups, Saudi chequebooks also provide for the building of new mosques across the globe and the dissemination of Saudi-written Wahhabist textbooks. This method of dissemination may be subtler than terrorism, but it is far-reaching: the Saudi King recently pledged to build ten ‘world-class’ mosques on the Maldives, and to provide 50 scholarships a year for promising Maldivians to study in the Kingdom.

Therefore, we have seen that, while 1979 marked the beginning of the era of Saudi-exported fundamentalism, inside the Kingdom Wahhabist conservatism and the House of Saud’s political power in fact go back more than two and a half centuries. The Iranian Revolution did indeed provoke the spread of Wahhabism, but this was also triggered by the siege of Mecca, an entirely Saudi affair.

Why, then, did bin Salman say otherwise? There appear to be two possible reasons. First, he may have no intention of ever tackling the Wahhabist element of the Kingdom. The social reforms he has championed – such as last month’s decree allowing women to drive – could be merely a necessary element of broader economic reform, aiming ‘to upgrade rather than abolish autocracy’, as James M. Dorsey put it. Second, he may have judged that his proposed programme of reform is ambitious enough without also having to take on the religious foundation of the state.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud

It is worth noting that bin Salman’s aims are nothing short of transformative: oil makes up over 90% of the Kingdom’s export earnings and budget revenues, and 70% of Saudis are employed in the industry. In the next ten years, the Guardian estimates that at least 5 million Saudis will enter the workforce, without knowing where they might find jobs. To attempt to move into a diverse economy in only 15 years is unprecedented.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is approaching a social turning point. The overwhelming majority of the country’s graduates are women, and 70% of the population is aged under 30. The current social conditions in the Kingdom, where men and women are largely prevented from socialising, men have a long-standing poor work ethic and women are forbidden from even opening their own bank account, will come under increasing pressure.

Even so, it is unclear whether bin Salman’s reforms, and their promise of change at such a rapid pace, are supported by the population. Indeed, one senior Saudi minister acknowledged that the country’s base may not be as progressive as the leadership.

So, was bin Salman’s false narrative an effort to postpone an inevitable showdown between the House of Saud and Wahhabism, or does it hint at his lack of stomach for the fight? Only time will tell for sure. However, his hawkish performance as defence minister since 2015, in which time he has taken Saudi Arabia into a costly war in Yemen and aggravated Iran, would suggest a rash youngster (he’s only 31) determined to make his mark, rather than a considered statesman who recognises the art of the possible.

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