Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th President of the United States is having a galvanising effect 7,000 miles away in Saudi Arabia. Muhammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of the kingdom, has engaged in an abrupt series of policy corrections to divert the new administration from the less accommodating stance Biden and his team look to have inherited from the administration of Barack Obama, president until 2017. Where President Trump allowed the Saudi ruling family wide latitude, the Obama administration was much more sceptical. In an interview with The Atlantic magazine in 2016, for example, shortly before he departed from office, Obama described his relationship with the Saudis as “complicated” and urged them to “share” the Middle East with Iran, the kingdom’s regional rival.[i]
Four years on, Biden said in debates before his election that he would treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah”.[ii] In January, days after the president’s inauguration, the US said that it was suspending and reviewing arms shipments to Saudi Arabia.[iii] And Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said pointedly that the new administration prefers to deal directly with King Salman, the elderly king, rather than MBS, his son.
In an apparent attempt to pre-empt further action and placate the new team in the US, MBS has had the discriminatory Saudi school curriculum amended and publicised the fact[iv]; released Loujain al-Hathloul, a high-profile female rights activist, from prison; and moved to make peace with Qatar with whom Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been involved in an acrimonious diplomatic confrontation.[v]
MBS is gambling that these and other reforms are sufficient for the new administration to continue to give him the benefit of the doubt. He is widely believed to have ordered the murder of Jamal al-Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, and is associated with prosecuting a largely unsuccessful war in Yemen which has killed thousands of civilians and caused a humanitarian disaster. The Biden team has published intelligence assessments naming MBS as personally culpable in the Khashoggi killing.
Yet there is a great deal at stake. In the first place, US forces have returned to the Kingdom[vi], as have limited numbers of French[vii] and British troops[viii]. These have been deployed to provide air defence from missile threats from Iran and Iranian-backed militias in Yemen and Iraq. The presence of non-Muslim soldiers in the land of the Two Holy Mosques was a major affront to Usama bin Laden and religious Saudis and acted as a recruiting sergeant for Al-Qa’ida and others of the same worldview. Two decades on from 9/11, the presence of these forces has attracted much less controversy. The fact that the Western soldiers are for the most part engaged in air defence against Iranian threats has made a big difference compared to the 1990s when they were viewed (or portrayed) as an occupying force. There is also the prospect of Saudi recognition of Israel. A diplomatic contretemps may embolden Iran, imperil the position of the soldiers, and jeopardise a historic reconciliation in the Middle East.
For those beyond the region, reforms instituted by King Salman and his son to the hard-line clerical establishment amount to the most radical reengineering of the Saudi state since its foundation in 1932 and have serious implications for the outside world.
Saudi Arabia’s clerical class has enormous influence around the Sunni Muslim world as the guardians of the holy sites in Mecca and Madina, overseers of the Hajj pilgrimage, and proponents of an austere but undeniably authentic orthodoxy. Before the emergence of MBS as crown prince, the Al Saud family has been exceptionally cautious in how it dealt with the clerical class except when they directly threatened the ruling family’s claims to legitimacy. The family was aware that the clerics had credibility with a predominantly young population and that they were capable of galvanising a threat to the stability of the kingdom. The Al Saud dealt with politics and the economy – and took billions of dollars in stipends – while the clerics held sway over the courts, the education system and over public morality, including the status of women, and ran a parallel system of relations with other Muslim states.
That dispensation has changed. MBS appears to have been influenced by the rulers of the UAE[ix] and Egypt[x] in launching a campaign to suppress political Islam. In particular, he seems to be taking his cues from Muhammad bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi who has taken a draconian approach to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.[xi]
Muhammed bin Salman first came into the public consciousness six years ago when he became defence minister when his father succeeded as king in January 2016. In May of that year, the government set up the General Authority for Entertainment with the stated intention of opening cinemas and hosting dozens of public concerts and sporting events. For long term Saudi watchers such a development was unthinkable. For the clerics, even the word entertainment had been suspect. They had succeeded in forcing the closure of a small number of cinemas following the seizure in 1979 of the Great Mosque in Mecca by militants. Enforcing gender segregation has been another imperative for conservatives. In January 2017 Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, the Grand Mufti or chief religious authority in the kingdom, duly described films as “libertine, obscene, immoral, and atheist” and described concerts and movies as “a depravity” imported from the West whose intent was “to change our culture”.[xii][xiii]
Yet MBS and his father prevailed. By the end of the year the Greek musician Yanni had played a series of concerts across Saudi Arabia[xiv] with other entertainers having followed since. And in April 2018, the film ‘Black Panther’ was screened at a cinema in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District.[xv]
In October last year, King Salman issued a series of orders restructuring the Council of Senior Scholars, the highest religious body in the kingdom of which Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh is the head, along with the advisory shura council and the supreme court. The Al Sheikh, the family of the sheikh, have been indispensable allies of the Al Saud since the 18th century, providing the ruling family with religious legitimacy.
The king ordered a “reformation” of the Council and, in November, it then declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organisation which does not represent Islam.[xvi]
In February 2021, MBS impinged on another area of conservative control. He signalled further reforms to the judicial system aimed at introducing much needed consistency in the administration of justice. Four new laws including a personal status law, a civil transactions law, a penal code of discretionary sanctions and a law of evidence, are currently being finalised, according to a statement from the official press agency.[xvii]
These shifts developments after, in what is probably his most significant victory over the clerics, MBS moved against the Committee for the Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, otherwise known as the mutawa, the ha’ya, or religious police. Again, this had previously been unthinkable. The mutawa or volunteers, frequently armed with canes, were a major feature of public spaces. They enforced Islamic dress codes and observance of prayer times, shut down broadcasts of music in restaurants and policed strict gender segregation. Infamously in 2002 the mutawa prevented male firefighters from rescuing girls caught in a fire at their school in Mecca. Fifteen of the girls died because they were inappropriately attired.[xviii] Fast forward to April 2016. MBS then ordered that the mutawa be “gentle and humane” and they were prevented from arresting or interrogating suspects, effectively emasculating them.[xix]
MBS has also ordered a rebranding and redirection of the Muslim World League, a primary instrument of Saudi religious proselytization internationally. The League has long been the object of suspicions on the part of international regulatory agencies of spreading hardline propaganda and even of funding terrorism. In 2017, a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia named the League and the World Association of Muslim Youth, an associated organisation, as funding hardline mosques which act as precursors to terrorism.[xx] “The Saudis [have] not quite appreciated the impact their funding of a certain brand of Islam is having in the countries in which they do it – it is not just Britain and Europe,” the former ambassador said. “They are not funding terrorism …They are funding something else, which may down the road lead to individuals being radicalised and becoming fodder for terrorism.”
In the same vein, the New York Times reported in 2016 that Saudi funding of mosques in Kosovo had contributed directly to the flow of fighters from the Serbian breakaway province to the Iraq-Syria theatre to join Islamic State.[xxi] The so-called Saudi Cables, a hacking of diplomatic reports in 2015 by the Yemen Cyber Army, possibly an Iranian front, also revealed extensive Saudi funding of hardline mosques in India[xxii] and monitoring of Saudi students and fellow Muslims in Australia. In his 2016 interview with The Atlantic, President Obama noted that Saudi funding had led to a conservative strain of Islam becoming more noticeable in Indonesia.
Muhammed al-Issa, the League’s Secretary General since 2016, is a former minister of justice and a graduate of Muhammed bin Saud University, a centre of Wahhabi ideology. Al-Issa has, however, undergone a dramatic conversion and embarked on an energetic round of diplomatic and religious detente. In January 2020 he led a delegation of Muslim leaders in visiting Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp.[xxiii]
In September 2020, the League went on to sign the “Paris Agreement for the Abrahamic Family” with French Christian groups at a conference the League itself organised.[xxiv] The agreement aims to promote “peace and harmony in the face of extremist discourse, hatred, racism and incitement”. Al-Issa also travelled to Moscow where he met Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church[xxv] and visited the headquarters of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City.[xxvi] MBS himself has hosted US Christian evangelical leaders in the kingdom.
These initiatives seem to be more than rhetorical. In 2018, Saudi Arabia was reported as giving up its sponsorship through the Muslim World League of the largest mosque in Brussels, following representations from the Belgian government that preachers were inciting violence and separatism.[xxvii] If confirmed and sustained, the kingdom’s withdrawal from funding would make it a leader among Muslim states. Besides Belgium, European governments, notably in Austria, France and the Netherlands, have grown justifiably concerned about overseas funding of mosques and religious schools.
Other techniques used by MBS to change the ways of the clerics have been more traditional and less in keeping with international law.
Shortly before new year, a special criminal court sentenced Yusif al-Ahmad, a high profile religious scholar, to four years in prison and a travel ban. Al-Ahmad was detained in September 2017, shortly after MBS became crown prince. Charges against al-Ahmad included visiting prisoners and attending a book fair, according to Prisoners of Conscience, a group which reports on the status of clerics and other activists held in Saudi prisons. More realistically, according to one Twitter follower, al-Ahmad is “among the foremost opponents of secularisation and westernisation” and had criticised King Salman, when the latter was governor of Riyadh, for corruption and dissolution.
At the same time that al-Ahmad was detained, Salman al-Ouda and Awad al-Qarni, two other prominent religious leaders, were also arrested under terrorism legislation. Al-Ouda, who has 13.1 million followers on Twitter, had called for reconciliation with Qatar. Al-Qarni, meanwhile, has 19.8 million followers.[xxviii]
As the numbers of followers indicate, the influence of some of these scholars inside Saudi Arabia and beyond is huge. Muhammed Abdul Rahman al-Arifi for example, who expressed support for Muhammed Morsi, the late Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, has 20 million followers on Twitter.
Others have been in prison since at least 2004, usually detained because of earlier threats to the Al Saud. Nasir al-Fahd, a prominent preacher who (justifiably) criticised the “loose morals” of the then-interior minister’s wife and went on to endorse Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the late leader of Islamic State, has been in prison since 2003. Sulaiman al-Alwan, another ultra hardline cleric, has been detained since 2004. The Al Saud have also increased the repression of Shia activists since Salman became king in 2015, notably executing Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric, and 46 others in early 2016.
The campaign led by MBS is a work in progress and, as the treatment of al-Ouda and the other hardline clerics indicates, has not been pretty. In June 2018, the head of the general entertainment authority was sacked after footage of a Russian female circus performer in a tight outfit sparked outrage on social media. (29) Institutions such as the Muhammad bin Saud University, seedbeds of what elsewhere would be known as extremism, seem not to have been touched. There is little daylight between the world views espoused by the ideologues who graduate from Muhammed bin Saud and those who inspired the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The World Association of Muslim Youth, named by the former British ambassador alongside the Muslim World League as a vehicle for the propagation of extremist views, appears unchanged. But if reforming the clerical class and thereby transforming Saudi Arabia into a more moderate country are viewed as desirable, then MBS and his father have made more progress in the last several years than their predecessors did in decades.