Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) rise to power has resulted in what are arguably some of the most significant political transformations in the kingdom since its establishment in 1932. Following his father Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s ascension to the throne in 2015, MbS quickly emerged as the dominant political actor in the country after sidelining his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef and becoming heir apparent in 2017. He has presented himself as a reformer, pushing Saudi Arabia toward a new future, especially in regard to religion, by fundamentally challenging the historical ruling pact between Wahhabi ulema and the Al Saud family. MbS has vowed to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam,” claiming that Riyadh’s turn toward radicalization occurred as a result of the Iranian Revolution. This was compounded by the American desire to have regional partners such as Saudi Arabia use religion as a mechanism to counter the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the Middle East during the Cold War.
This selective reading of history aside, there have indeed been a number of significant changes within Saudi Arabia in the past several years. These changes included attempting to distance official Saudi Arabian history from Wahhabism; allowing women to drive, live alone, and travel without a male guardian; limiting the religious police’s powers; permitting public entertainment venues such as cinemas and concerts; and arresting religious clerics and scholars labeled as “extremists” by the regime. These are in addition to the introduction of the so-called Vision 2030 plan to revamp the Saudi economy and fundamentally alter state-society relations.
Mohammed bin Salman’s alliance with the official religious establishment remains intact and he has not sought to fundamentally reform Wahhabi doctrine and teachings.
To be sure, these developments ultimately represent MbS’s desire to consolidate absolute authority and eliminate alternative power centers capable of challenging his rule. What is occurring in Saudi Arabia is best understood as the restructuring of religion toward this end: religious authority is being centralized under the authority of MbS and brought under the direct control of the monarchy. Moreover, there is an ongoing effort to transition away from religion as the sole central pillar upon which the government seeks to derive its legitimacy (as it has done historically) and move toward a more overt form of nationalism that is being propagated and encouraged by the regime. However, this does not mean that MbS no longer sees utility in religion as a political instrument: Islam continues to be used domestically and abroad in the pursuit of power and legitimacy. Mohammed bin Salman’s alliance with the official religious establishment remains intact and he has not sought to fundamentally reform Wahhabi doctrine and teachings. Rather, the regime has sought to repurpose these resources to better suit its interests amidst changing domestic, regional, and world contexts.
MbS, Religion, and the Centralization of Power
The so-called religious reforms taking place across Saudi Arabia represent one of the strategies by which Mohammed bin Salman seeks to centralize power under his sole authority while reworking the old social contract that has overlaid contemporary Saudi politics, economics, and society. This campaign to eliminate alternative centers of power and authority and silence dissenting voices extends beyond religion and encompasses the entire country, as evidenced by the regime’s targeting of fellow royals and other elites, journalists, human rights activists, women’s rights advocates, judges, and many others. Specifically within the religious sphere, MbS is consolidating religious authority and discourse under the sole supervision of the royal palace. As Annelle Sheline and Kristian Ulrichsen argue, “where MbS has truncated the power of the religious establishment, it is to consolidate power into the central state and specifically, to boost his own control.” The endeavor to return Saudi Arabia to so-called “moderate Islam” is instead a comprehensive effort by the state to eliminate all independent or dissenting religious voices capable of challenging MbS’s desired monopoly on Islam in Saudi Arabia. Likewise, the effort to battle “extremist” clerics inside the country represents an offensive against those religious figures who challenge either MbS’s absolute authority or his policies, not an assault on the religious establishment per se or Wahhabism itself. Indeed, this is not a matter of extremism: many religious figures who continue to produce more radical content remain in good favor with MbS and still serve in the country’s religious establishment. Instead, this is about loyalty and the centralization of religious power.
The endeavor to return Saudi Arabia to so-called “moderate Islam” is instead a comprehensive effort by the state to eliminate all independent or dissenting religious voices capable of challenging MbS’s desired monopoly on Islam in Saudi Arabia.
This process is not new: it has been underway for over a decade and accelerated dramatically following both the 2011 Arab Uprisings and the rise of King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman. In 2010, the late King Abdullah decreed that only the state-sponsored Council of Senior Scholars could issue public fatwas, ushering in what Abdullah Alaoudh refers to as “the current phase of the Saudi state fatwa policy by restricting and dictating the content of the council’s fatwas in furtherance of the state’s own goals.” Within Saudi Arabia, Islam has historically been the primary language through which social and political rivalries have been expressed. When the 2011 Arab Uprisings occurred, individuals associated with and influenced by the Saudi al-sahwa al-islamiyya movement (Muslim Awakening) constituted the body most capable of challenging the regime.
The Sahwa Movement blended Wahhabism and the political ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. With its origins in the large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood members who traveled to Saudi Arabia from the 1950s to the 1970s due to increased repression in places such as Egypt and Syria, the Sahwa expanded its influence throughout Saudi Arabia primarily through educational institutions. After the eruption of the Arab uprisings, individuals historically associated with the Sahwa—such as Sheikh Salman al-Odah—expressed their support for reform in Saudi Arabia and denounced attempts by governments across the region to crush the wave of peaceful protests taking place. The Sahwa, and Islamism in general, quickly came to be viewed by the regime as an existential threat. Many of these individuals, including al-Odah, have been arrested in an ongoing sweep by the state to eliminate all criticism of the state and its policies. Across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia—alongside such states as Egypt and the UAE—embarked upon a campaign to target and curtail mainstream Islamism. For example, the Council of Senior Scholars has denounced the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist group,” arguing that it does not represent Islam and follows only “partisan objectives.” Yet, it is not just the Brotherhood as an organization that is being targeted, but rather the coupling of Islam and politics in general. The label of being associated with the Brotherhood has turned into a convenient scapegoat used by Riyadh and others to justify their repressive actions.
The Sahwa, and Islamism in general, quickly came to be viewed by the regime as an existential threat.
This new approach is not equivalent to a break between the Saudi state and religion or the religious establishment, but rather a comprehensive campaign against religious actors and narratives who reside outside of the official institutions and narratives directed by the regime. This has occurred alongside a broader regional effort to bring Islamic discourse and activity under the strict authority of the state. It is not that Arab governments seek to remove religion as a source of authority and legitimacy or to fundamentally reform religious doctrines; rather, they seek to remove dissenting voices within the religious community that challenge their absolute authority and are capable of mobilization against the regimes.
Nationalism on the Rise
On February 22, 2022, and for the first time in its history, Saudi Arabia held celebrations to commemorate a new official holiday known as “Founding Day.” The holiday, to be held every year, commemorates “the commencement of the reign of Imam Muhammad bin Saud,” and drew widespread attention primarily due to the year that was selected to represent the emergence of the first Saudi state: 1727. As Aziz El Yaakoubi explains, “The anniversary marks the day in 1727 when Mohammed bin Saud, founder of the first Saudi state, took over the emirate of Diriyah,” which is roughly “18 years before what historians generally consider as the beginning of the Saudi state when bin Saud, a tribal leader, forged an alliance with Islamic preacher Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab.” The celebration of this holiday is emblematic of a broader change underway within Saudi Arabia and is the latest example of what Daniel Brumberg has previously referred to as a “reworking of the old ruling bargain.”
A new hypernationalism is being actively nurtured by the state as the regime attempts to transition popular identity away from a purely Islamic one to a Saudi national identity. In other words, the regime is attempting to substitute a strong Saudi nationalism as the primary legitimizing and unifying force in the country which has historically been rooted in religion. Textbooks are being rewritten by the state to buttress this new national narrative. Madawi Al-Rasheed states that the new national narrative “celebrates the new Saudi citizen, who is committed to the development of his country economically, rather than the previously cherished pious Saudi who memorised the Qu’ran, spread Islam around the globe and supported Muslim causes.”
A new hypernationalism is being actively nurtured by the state as the regime attempts to transition popular identity away from a purely Islamic one to a Saudi national identity.
This drive toward a new ultranationalism is directed primarily toward Saudi Arabia’s young population: it is estimated that over 50% of the population is under the age of 25. Hence the importance of social media for the dissemination of these new narratives: the regime has mobilized an online army of loyalists and automated accounts to promote this new nationalism and the policies pursued by MbS. Vision 2030 is the bedrock of this new nationalist discourse and identity and constitutes the state’s promise to its youth of a new economic and social path forward for Saudi Arabia. In such a new nationalistic environment, there has been a considerable increase in the use of the accusations of being a “traitor” and a threat to the nation as a mechanism to target those who challenge either this new state-promoted nationalism, the absolute authority of MbS, or his policies.
Religion Remains a Powerful Political Instrument
As MbS drives to establish political primacy in Saudi Arabia, he recognizes the strategic benefits of maintaining the regime’s alliance with members of the religious establishment, but not those who criticize his policies or question his absolute authority. Religion remains a powerful political instrument and is wielded by a centralized state apparatus consisting of individuals and institutions such as the Grand Mufti and the Council of Senior Scholars domestically, and the Muslim World League (MWL) internationally. Mohammed bin Salman “has been praised by state ‘ulama’ as a “modernizer” (muhaddith) and a “renewer” (mujaddid)”; the Council of Senior Scholars has justified his arrests of other royals as well as dissenting clerics and scholars; and the state has exploited anti-Shia sentiments and rhetoric amidst its ongoing military campaign in Yemen. Religion also continues to be used by the state as a tool of counterrevolution both at home and abroad.
In the period following the 2011 Arab Uprisings, the state has relied upon the religious establishment to discredit protests and calls for reform. For example, following the outbreak of protests in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Sheikh denounced them as “planned and organized by the enemies of the umma,” and warned that “Islam strictly prohibits protests in the kingdom because the ruler here rules by God’s will.” Likewise, in 2017, the Grand Mufti issued more than eight fatwas and statements asserting the need to maintain allegiance to the ruler. Religion remains a mechanism by which the monarchy attempts to delegitimize popular uprisings and maintain the status quo at home and in the broader region.
Saudi Arabia also continues to use the promotion of so-called “moderate Islam” to advance its strategic objectives abroad.
Saudi Arabia also continues to use the promotion of so-called “moderate Islam” to advance its strategic objectives abroad. The state has used the MWL to promote an image of tolerance and coexistence abroad, while also using it to curry favor with influential demographics within the United States and connected with Israel, such as Christian Evangelicals and the American Jewish community. In November 2018, Saudi Arabia hosted a delegation of Christian Evangelical leaders from the United States, who were received by MbS and the secretary-general of the MWL, Mohammed Al-Issa. A similar delegation visited the kingdom again in September 2019. In January 2020, Mohammed Al-Issa led a delegation of Islamic scholars in an unprecedented visit to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, accompanied by representatives of the American Jewish Committee. A year later, Mohammed Al-Issa was received by Pope Francis at the Vatican. These efforts should be viewed as the strategic use of religious soft power by the Saudi state to portray a global image of itself as “moderate” and “tolerant” while simultaneously cultivating relationships with various influential actors.
Riyadh’s use of Islam abroad has also come to reflect the broader multipolar global order, evidenced by the dramatic increase in religious outreach between Saudi Arabia and Russia and China. Religion has served as a lucrative tool of soft power for Riyadh to complement its increased economic and security relationships with Moscow and Beijing. Both Russia and China are home to large Muslim populations that have historic links to and interests in the Middle East, and many of these communities have historically been forcefully incorporated via fiercely contested and challenged imperial expansion. Russia and China share with Saudi Arabia the objective of constructing a state-controlled religious discourse favorable to their regimes. Therefore, cooperation on religious matters between these three states have increased considerably.
Riyadh has avoided to criticize Beijing’s draconian actions against its Uyghur Muslim population.
Riyadh has used outreach with Putin-loyalist Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadyrov to strengthen its relationship with the Kremlin. In 2018, Kadyrov was received in Saudi Arabia for Eid al-Adha “with all the diplomatic honors accorded to the representative of a major international partner,” and in 2019, the MWL hosted a conference on peace and coexistence in Moscow with Kadyrov present. Likewise, Saudi Arabia and China have increased their religious cooperation considerably alongside Beijing’s forceful efforts to “Sinicize Islam.” Riyadh has avoided to criticize Beijing’s draconian actions against its Uyghur Muslim population. The kingdom had cosigned a 2019 letter that was delivered to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council praising China’s “contribution to the international human rights cause” and claiming that China has restored “peace and security” after facing “terrorism, separatism, and extremism.” Additionally, MbS visited China in 2019, where he “justified Beijing’s actions against the Uyghurs and declared that ‘China has the right to take anti-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security.’” The Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation has also praised China for “providing care to its Muslim citizens.”
As Mohammed bin Salman moves forward with his ultimate objective of power consolidation, Saudi Arabia will likely continue to see the centralization of religious authority and the further elimination of alternative religious discourses and centers of authority. The state will continue to nurture and promote a new ultranationalist identity and narrative directed primarily toward Saudi youth, while maintaining the use of Islam as a political instrument at home and abroad when it suits the interests of the regime. Yet, as MbS attempts to transition away from religion as the sole central pillar from which the Saudi government seeks to derive its legitimacy and move toward a new hypernationalism, the success of such a campaign depends heavily on whether the state can follow through on its promises of economic success. Just as Saudi Arabia sought to harness the power of religious fundamentalism, nationalism too can quickly generate forces beyond the control of the state. If the regime fails to achieve the economic success it has promised as the bedrock of this new ultranationalist project—embodied by Vision 2030—it risks being targeted by the very nationalist forces it is actively encouraging.