Does the rapid rise of Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) signal a new era in Saudi Arabia? Many unexpected acts and statements, especially since his designation as heir apparent last June, show his ambition to transform Saudi society and monopolise power. He wants to control politics, economy and diplomacy, but to achieve his grand dream he must also control the kingdom’s most important (symbolic) resource: religion.
Calling for a moderate Islam, giving women the right to drive cars, organising concerts and reopening cinemas have all been seen as portents of an unprecedented, even revolutionary project: the de-Wahhabisation of society and government. But it’s important to look beyond the hype and examine the historical and sociological factors that could jeopardise MBS’s apparent plans.
There have been attempts to trivialise or marginalise the Wahhabi movement throughout the kingdom’s turbulent history. The Saudi theocracy, established in the 18th century in central Arabia, was founded on a literalist interpretation of the Quran, and a rigorous, messianic doctrine intended to legitimise its hegemonic ambitions.
Wahhabism embodies the Hanbali school of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam: its founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (c 1703-92) held that the only path to success, in this world and the next, lay in strict adherence to Hanbali beliefs and practices. Those who failed to do so, notably followers of the mystic Sufi movements, were excluded from the community. In Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s eyes, jihad, in the sense of fighting to defend or propagate Islam, was the most important way of bringing those who had strayed back to the true path. This allowed the Saudi emirate to legitimise a policy of expansion in the late 18th and early 19th century that culminated in its control of most of Arabia.
After consolidating his community and spreading his doctrine in the Arabian peninsula, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab softened his positions, especially on the exclusion of his enemies from the community and salvation (takfir), in order to be accepted by other Muslims.
Now an Islamic power
His heirs, who quickly built up a religious establishment that controlled the established order, went further by toning down some aspects of their doctrine, especially its condemnation of Sufism and stigmatisation of other schools of Islam. They faced an unprecedented situation: the Saudi emirate was no longer a marginal entity but had become an Islamic power, thanks to its conquest of Mecca and Medina in the early 19th century. Wahhabism was no longer a peripheral phenomenon, but a reality of the umma, the community of Muslims.
This first attempt failed because of the struggle against the Ottoman empire, and a doctrinal hardening followed. To combat their Muslim rival and preserve the unity and homogeneity of a Saudi emirate on the defensive, the Wahhabi ulema developed ultra-conservative, exclusive ideas through the 19th century. Abdul Aziz, who, helped by favourable circumstances, made Saudi Arabia into a kingdom which he ruled until his death in 1953, was inspired by these ideas.
The steadfast alliance between Abdul Aziz and the Wahhabi ulema did not blind the monarch to the nature of the tradition he was defending, and its incompatibility with his new status as protector of Islam’s holy sites, head of one of the few independent Muslim countries at the time, and ruler of a land that was ethnically and religiously heterogeneous. To avoid any crisis, he adopted a dual approach: to make Wahhabism more acceptable and dilute it in a wider, more moderate and more modernist politico-religious movement, Islamic reformism.
Far from weakening the Saudi clerics, this attempt at remodelling demonstrated their adaptability. They were able to retain a central position in society with a few concessions on education and administration, and some doctrinal updates on jihad and relations with non-Muslims. This was no more than a reflection of the ethics of responsibility of Max Weber (1), the ability to think and act in accordance with circumstances and power relationships, to preserve the key elements of what one considers the truth. This flexibility enabled Wahhabism to overcome crises, consolidate its local domination and bolster its universal ambitions from the reign of Faisal (1964-75) on.
In the 1950s and 60s Saudi Arabia faced many internal and external challenges, especially the ambitions of Nasser’s Egypt. To survive, the monarchy modernised the state; but this conflicted with the interests of the Wahhabi clerics. Education for all (especially girls), a massive influx of foreign labour, mass entertainment (television and cinema), reductions in the budget and powers of the religious police, and the creation of spaces with fewer constraints, all led to friction between the historical partners. (The first television broadcasts led to riots that were harshly repressed.)
Profiting from unbelievers’ know-how
Once again the Wahhabi clerics downplayed the tensions, and avoided marginalisation through a strategy that combined concessions, equivocation and pressure. They benefited from the struggle against Egypt and the influx of oil money. Though ultraconservative, they absorbed the expertise of ‘unbelievers’, especially organisational know-how, building institutions able to withstand rampant modernity. Colleges, institutes, schools, administrative bodies, courts, civil society organisations and media all appeared in a few years. Wahhabi leaders also created pan-Islamic organisations (Muslim World League, Islamic University of Medina etc) to counter secularism and promote Wahhabism as the new Islamic orthodoxy.
The senior clerics took advantage of the dilemma facing the monarchy, torn between opposing paths, and gained influence, which they used whenever conditions allowed. In 1979 there was turmoil, with Iran’s Islamic revolution, a messianic group taking hostages at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Budget problems a year later didn’t improve matters. The Wahhabi clerics, supported by senior Muslim Brotherhood figures, who had been present in the country for years, deepened the kingdom’s traditionalism.
Saudi society became more restrictive with the closure of cinemas and greater insistence on gender segregation in public spaces; and further cross-pollination of Wahhabism and different Muslim Brotherhood currents produced Saudi Islamism (the Sahwa or Awakening movement) and jihadism, partly financed by private donations from wealthy families.
From 9/11 Saudi Arabia was in the line of fire. Social change, the falling price of oil, US pressure and the jihadist threat drove the authorities to adopt a policy of decompression, one pillar of which was the promotion of ‘moderate’, ‘open’ and ‘tolerant’ Islam. Some journalists and intellectuals were allowed to criticise Wahhabism openly, the powers of the religious police were reduced, an internal and external religious dialogue was launched, cohorts of students were sent to study abroad, the status of women was discussed, and even slightly improved, through greater access to higher education, new forms and places of entertainment appeared, spaces with fewer constraints were extended, and foreign researchers were tolerated.
Amid the euphoria, observers began to talk of a ‘Riyadh spring’ and ‘post-Wahhabism’, but they were to be disappointed: as the economy improved and the political situation became clearer, the regime gradually ended its liberal digression.
After 2011 this trend accelerated. Saudi Arabia embarked on a preventive counter-revolution, spearheaded by Wahhabism. Religious institutional budgets were increased, and the secular and Islamist oppositions muzzled. The regime also showed its respect for Wahhabi orthodoxy openly, notably through the death penalty and other corporal punishments, and promoting an anti-Shia discourse. The ulema made a small concession, just window-dressing: women were allowed to vote in municipal elections (the kingdom’s only elections) and be members of some government bodies.
Transforming the kingdom
Since 2015 there has been major political change. With his father’s help, MBS has managed to eliminate all rivals, at least temporarily, and achieve an unprecedented monopoly on power. To address challenges at home and abroad, and gain legitimacy, he has often said he intends to transform the kingdom, including the religious domain.
In 2018 women will be allowed to drive and cinemas will reopen after 35 years, though how this will be implemented is not yet known. On 24 October MBS denounced ‘extremist ideas’, promising to ‘destroy’ them, which he claims will allow the country to return to being ‘a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and peoples around the globe’ (2).
MBS has denounced ‘extremist ideas’ to allow a return to being ‘a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and peoples around the globe’
How should we interpret these words and actions, which some see as a break with Wahhabism, as important to Saudi Arabia as oil? At first, MBS talked of ‘moderate Islam’, which almost all the schools of Sunni Islam, especially the most rigorous, claim to represent, aiming to distance himself from the jihadists, but without specifying what moderate means. Later, he was much clearer, saying the sources of extremism lay in the events of 1979 and the Sahwa movement (a hybrid of Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood ideas). MBS wants to eradicate the Brotherhood and all its ramifications, especially in regard to jihad. That can only please the Wahhabis, as it will clean up their image.
MBS’s policy on women is driven by opportunism, and by structural constraints. Allowing women to drive, a continuation of King Abdallah’s policy (3), will win MBS the support of women and some Saudis, and brighten the regime’s image in the West. Excluding Saudi women from the labour market is wasteful: they are more and more educated and qualified, and could replace some foreign workers, especially in services.
The Wahhabis are adapting. The ulema could preserve their interests, temporal and spiritual, through a minor updating, agreeing to concessions in areas they see as of secondary importance, and setting their own conditions. Key clerics said some years ago that women driving is not a religious but a social issue that could evolve. For now, women will be allowed to drive if they have permission from their father or legal guardian.
It’s impossible to predict how relations between the monarchy and the religious establishment will evolve, but for now there is no challenge to their historical alliance – as MBS and the ulema stress. To survive the current authoritarian shift, the Wahhabi clerics seem to be agreeing, once again, to a few innovations – perhaps to prevent any real change.