The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is presently undergoing dramatic changes in the sociopolitical domain. The drive to modernise the kingdom and open it to the world is spearheaded by the young and ambitious Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS). He is seen as the mastermind behind Riyadh’s strategy to revamp the Saudi economy and limit the power of the clerics over state affairs.
“We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” MBS said to international investors in Riyadh in October 2017.
Explaining his ambition to “return” Saudi Arabia to the path of moderate Islam, the crown prince told the Guardian that “what happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia.” He explicitly blamed the kingdom’s turn towards ultraconservatism on the Iranian revolution in 1979 and Tehran’s attempts to spread the revolution across the Middle East.
These comments are remarkable for two reasons: first, because they acknowledge that moderation is lacking in the interpretation of Islam that the Saudi state has followed; second, because they reflect the notion that the religious system currently in place hinders socioeconomic development and is not compatible with the demands of the young generation.
Yet they are also somewhat misleading as they try to deflect responsibility for the situation inside Saudi Arabia to external factors, namely the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But was it really revolutionary Iran that pushed Saudi Arabia towards ultraconservatism?
Saudi Arabia in 1979
1979 is a significant year in Saudi history by all accounts. It is famously known for the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of insurgents whose goal was to overthrow the House of Saud for its perceived corruption and emulation of the West.
On November 20, around 500 armed men, led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, a Saudi Bedouin and former National Guard serviceman, seized the Grand Mosque and proclaimed that his brother-in-law Mohammed al-Qahtani was the Mahdi, or the saviour, who would cleanse the Muslim world of Western corruption.
During a two-week siege, hundreds of pilgrims, fighters and members of the Saudi security forces were killed. Following the revolution in Iran earlier the same year, there was a great deal of speculation that the seizure of the Grand Mosque was directed from Tehran, a suspicion that was later dispelled. The self-proclaimed Mahdi, Mohammad al-Qahtani, and the leader of the mosque takeover, al-Otaybi, could not have been inspired by the events in Iran simply because they considered the Shia heretics and their religious ambitions were irrelevant to them.
At the time when the Grand Mosque seizure took place, the Saudi monarchy was facing a spate of instability. Four years earlier, King Faisal (ruled 1964-1975), who had pushed for modernisation of the kingdom, launching the first television broadcast, implementing soicioeconomic reforms and promoting public education (including girls’ schools), had been assassinated by one of his nephews. Most of Saudi’s religious establishment had not welcomed these modernisation initiatives.
The seizure of the Grand Mosque shook the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And when Ayatollah Khomeini, who had just overseen the passing of an Islamic republic constitution in Iran, blamed the seizure on the US and Israel, and people across the Muslim world listened to him launching deadly protests, the House of Saud was terrified. These were signs that its authority in the Muslim world as the protector of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina was under threat.
The House of Saud’s response to the crisis was to roll back King Faisal’s modernisation initiatives and empower the religious authorities. The government began enforcing a strict religious code, the police cracked down on businesses not closing for the five prayers and women were virtually excluded again from public life. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, commonly known as the religious police, visibly benefitted from the injections of government cash and took on a more prominent role in monitoring the lives of ordinary Saudis.
Although the events of the 1970s indeed affected Saudi Arabia, the country did not become ultraconservative then. Its embrace of rigid interpretations of Islam goes as far back as the 18th century when the Saud family struck a deal with an ultraconservative Islamic scholar.
The Wahhab-Saud pact
Wahhabism, cited as the official Saudi religious doctrine for which the country’s leadership has been so vehemently criticised and which MBS is looking to rebrand, is based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792).
Abd al-Wahhab was an Islamic scholar from the Nejd region of the Arabian Peninsula, an avid traveller and the author of The Book of Unity, which was rejected by most of his contemporaries in Mecca and Medina. Abd al-Wahhab preached returning to the Quran and the Hadith, rejected religious innovation (bidaa) and advocated eliminating practices (such as Sufi rites and veneration of saints) that are not grounded in the Quran. He even accused other Muslims of being infidels for following practices that were, in his opinion, un-Islamic and called for strict adherence to traditional Islamic law (sharia).
There was nothing new in Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings which were based on some old ideas and constituted a revival of the Hanbali doctrine in the most ultraconservative form. It was, however, his religious zeal that ultimately drove him close to the Saud family.
Muhammad ibn Saud ruled over the area of al-Diriya, today on the outskirts of Riyadh, around the time when Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was unsuccessfully preaching in Mecca and elsewhere across the Middle East. In 1744, fleeing from Medina, Abd Al-Wahhab arrived in al-Diriya and sought protection from ibn Saud. The two formed an alliance dividing power and responsibilities: ibn Saud ruling over the military and political matters and Abd al-Wahab over the religious ones. Armed with religious legitimacy, ibn Saud expanded his rule beyond al-Diriya, establishing the first Saudi state.
The death of Abd al-Wahhab did not impact the power-sharing arrangement that had been solidified during his lifetime. The descendants of Abd al-Wahhab (the Sheikh family) remained in charge of religious affairs under Saudi rule. To this day, they legitimise the political power of the House of Saud by approving succession and endorsing the king’s decisions. In exchange, the Sheikh family enjoys a privileged position in the state structures and plays a key role in the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
A ‘moderate’ Saudi Arabia?
The Wahhab-Saud pact survived more than 250 years, guaranteeing religious legitimacy for Saudi power in the Arabian Peninsula. So has its time finally come? Has it run its course and is no longer needed by the House of Saud?
In the past few years, the Saudi authorities have been gradually and cautiously limiting the extent of the Sheikh family’s power. In August 2010, for example, the late King Abdullah issued a decree that only state-vetted scholars were allowed to issue fatwas.
Under King Salman, and his son – MBS, more drastic measures have been taken. In April 2016, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was stripped of arresting powers which curbed its policing functions. In December 2016, the king appointed more moderate clerics to the Council of Senior Scholars, the highest religious body in the country. And in 2017, music concerts were allowed, mixed public events for both genders were held, and cinemas were scheduled to reopen after 35 years.
However, the most monumental shifts are yet to take place in the Saudi power structure. The country’s legal system operates within Islamic law, which is the ultimate source of legislation in Saudi Arabia. Strictly abiding by traditional interpretations of Islamic law is a crucial element of the worldview Abd al-Wahhab introduced. This is why, in simplified terms, breaking the Saudi-Wahhabi pact would mean breaking up with this traditional interpretation and potentially codifying law rather than relying on judges to interpret it.
A more important question at this point is whether the country needs to part with its Wahhabi roots at all in order to implement reforms and open up to foreigners. The diminishing significance of religious authorities is a general trend across Gulf monarchies and it seems that Saudi Arabia is set to slowly embrace a similar model.
The Saudi religious establishment has been publicly supportive of the crown prince’s war on corruption and the weakening of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice even if they feel disadvantaged as a result of these developments. The centuries-old monolithic religious structure might turn out to be a paper tiger whose fate is in the hands of the monarch.
Yet, MBS breaking up with the decades-long policy of cosying up to the religious elites in favour of modernisation, could provoke some to call it corruption and an embrace of Western influence again. It is also likely that the policies MBS is introducing would force a lot of dissenters among the clerics underground. Discontent could simmer for years before surfacing in some form or another.
MBS’s policies are catering to young Saudis, but they do not hold the key to power. It is the older generation that has lived through decades of conservative rule, the disenfranchised princes whose access to power has shrunk and the vast religious elites who are now in a position of vassals that legitimise the Saudi royal family.
Many of them feel marginalised which could drive them to extremes and bring about a repeat of 1979.
Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council covering the Middle East and North Africa.