For years, we were used to the image of an elderly man sitting on the throne of Saudi Arabia, bringing with him the winds of old Arabia and its pre-oil times. The modern world stood afar from him like a movie on the screen, and the only thing that seemed familiar was the Saudi Royal palace that carried memories of the old generation.
Now, it’s a whole other story. Crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman is now attending Hollywood dinners, trading his traditional garment at times for a suit, and is smiling eagerly at the cameras, shrugging off the sands of Arabia behind him and looking towards the tall and futuristic skyscrapers ahead.
His mission? To root out extremism and return the kingdom back to “moderate Islam.” In an interview with the Guardian, Bin Salman blamed the Iranian revolution for exporting the rigid social doctrines, and that “changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world.” The most indicative example of this shift is the new ban on the Saudi religious police from arresting citizens and allowing women to drive.
Changing the world and the Arab region is indeed not unusual for Saudi Arabia. For over a decade, it has been responsible for pumping billions of cash to conservative religious leaders to help them spread a dated and harsh version of Islam – Wahhabism – in an attempt to counter the Iranian threat. Fast-forward to now, Bin Salman comes to put a barrier on the road and says, “now is the time to get rid of it.”
Yet this sparks many questions: why now? Why was it not done earlier? And can we ever trust the double-faced House of Saud?
On the one hand, John R. Bradley in his article says that the frankness of Bin Salman is exactly what the world needs. It is no longer just fleeting rhetoric, as previous rulers had done, but it is the real deal: Western intelligence services are receiving a Saudi initiative of ending support to Wahhabism and the elimination of the restrictions in the society are coming under way.
“We should back Bin Salman as he guides them away from the Wahhabi nightmare toward a freer and hopefully more prosperous future,” Bradley states.
While this sounds reasonable, and these reforms should not be completely shut down, it still omits the significance of the timing to start this new phase of reform. The Middle East today is nothing like how it was since the start of this century. The dice that pushed this whirlwind of events, starting from the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, to the Iraq war in 2003, to the Arab Spring and now the tragic Syrian war, left the region in complete ruins.
Now, the only ones standing are the wealthy, young and determined Gulf States, and whatever they do can either blow up the entire region or keep it firmly under their control.
Bin Salman’s mission to present Saudi Arabia as the emblem of ‘moderate Islam’ comes at a crucial period for a region that is yearning for a new leader, and this could not be filled unless the new Crown Prince wears his hero cape and ambitiously take out the society from its dark ages. It’s a dramatic show, but it’s all for the power.
The superficiality of his reforms can be identified by how he originates extremism to the Islamic revolution in Iran. It completely neglects the fact that the Saudi religious establishment rests on an extremist offshoot of Salafism stemming from Muhammed Ibn Abd-Al Wahhab, which needs a major reexamination. To link a domestic issue with power politics obscures any real intention of making true change.
Instead, H.A Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, pointed out that it is quite probable that just as many scholars depend on the government for their salaries, then their reassessment of religious texts will be limited to the needs of the Saudi state. It would not be a slow and deep theological reform, but a more shallow one that could backfire and create further divisions in the religion if not implemented carefully.
Lastly, the linkage between Islam as a religion and terrorism as a political activity is dangerous, as it allows the state to gain even more power and control over the religion in the name of ‘reform.’ This is utilizing the religion rather than leaving it to its own sphere, in the same way that it was utilized before to achieve other ends.
Olivier Roy argues in his article, ‘The transformation of the Arab world’ that religious tolerance came about in Europe not because the church wanted to promote secular values, but because it was the only way to maintain political influence.
This, however, should not be encouraged with enthusiasm, for not only did it mean brutal and savage religious wars, but also the weakening of the power of philosophy and theology to influence religion.