When the Saud family reshuffled the line of succession to put Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the heir apparent in July, it prompted questions about the direction of the ultraconservative Wahhabis. The reversal of the ban on driving by women came as another surprise, even with the delay on implementation into next year. Today, bin Salman insists that Saudi Arabia wants to be a force for moderation in Islam, and pledges to open his country to people of all faiths:
Powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged a “moderate, open” Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, breaking with ultra-conservative clerics in favour of an image catering to foreign investors and Saudi youth.
“We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” he said at an economic forum in Riyadh.
“We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today,” he added.
“We will end extremism very soon.”
This seems … ambitious. Right now, Christians have very limited access to worship in Saudi Arabia. Jews can’t even set foot in the country. In fact, anyone who has an entry stamp from Israel in their passport can expect a significant amount of resistance to entry. If that changes, great, but don’t hold your breath, and hang on to your passport.
It may be more destabilizing than ambitious, assuming bin Salman isn’t just paying lip service to Western critics. The Saudis have long fostered Wahhabi clerics, not just at home but also abroad. Schools around the world financed by the Saudis teach the same ultraconservative strain of Islam on which their nation was based, and on which it operates to this day. The Sauds are absolute monarchs, but the imams they have long supported are not without influence either. If bin Salman is serious about this effort, it might touch off a war within the kingdom, or at least raise the level of civil unrest enough to where the Sauds will have to clamp down even further on civil liberties.
Bloomberg’s Donna Abu-Nasr and Vivian Nereim throw some cold water on the prospects for real change:
Saudi Arabia still enforces gender segregation in many public places and women remain marginalized in the workplace. It has also been criticized over its export of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that has inspired extremist groups including al-Qaeda and Islamic State. And it’s not clear the prince can deliver on his promises.
“The risk here is that you can’t just throw away the old fundamentals of support of the kingdom. It’s like jumping off one train that’s still moving and trying to get on another one,” said Kamran Bokhari, a senior analyst with Geopolitical Futures and a senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy. “The political system of the kingdom is dependent on the religious establishment.”
The years-long slump in oil revenue has transformed free-spending Saudi Arabia into a country as stagnant economically as it is politically. With revenues falling sharply, there isn’t enough to mollify all of the interest groups that could cause problems for an absolute monarchy, says Bokhari, which means that the future king has to start choosing sides. Bokhari says bin Salman is at least attempting to placate the youth of Saudi Arabia, but doesn’t have much optimism for success:
“So what do you do?” said Bokhari. “You can’t make everyone happy so you say I’ll go with the youth, I’ll go with the women and I’ll go with the people who are modern and inshallah (God willing) enough of the religious scholars will give me a rubber stamp for what I am doing. It’s not going to work.”
That’s one danger. The other danger is that it might work too well. There is a risk in giving people a small amount of liberty; they tend to realize how much they still don’t have, and start pressing for more. As we have seen in other regimes in the region, that can reach a boiling point faster than anyone imagines. If Prince Mohammed bin Salman expects to survive, he’d better acquire the requisite skills to ride tidal waves. Otherwise, extremism will find a way to end him.
Let’s start with small steps. The US should take this opportunity to ask bin Salman to stop funding ultraconservative madrassas in other countries. That, at least, would not create much pushback at home while giving a real signal about how seriously the crown prince takes reform.