THE de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, spoke only half the truth when he admitted in an interview to the Washington Post that his country had funded the spread of Wahhabism at the behest of Western powers to help counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. What the prince failed to acknowledge was that this hard-line Islamic doctrine has been the pivot responsible for the rise to power of the House of Saud.
Now the young prince is seeking to change direction by leading the conservative kingdom, the only absolute monarchy left in the world, to the path of modernisation. He has opened up Saudi society, and lifted restrictions on women by allowing them to drive and to participate in economic activities along with men.
This is, indeed, a huge stride forward in the conservative society and anathema to the Wahhabi clerics who still enjoy strong influence in the holy land. Belonging to the third generation of the House of Saud, Mohammed bin Salman also seeks to transform the Saudi economy, which has remained overwhelmingly dependent on oil revenue, under Vision 2030 launched by the Saudi government. Perhaps the move to open up Saudi Arabia may be popular with the restive young population and women. But it will certainly not go down well with the religious establishment.
The crown prince is walking a tightrope in a country where conservative ideology is deeply entrenched. Even minor social reforms have been resisted by the clerics and members of the royal family in the past. In an interview with the Washington Post, the prince said that a “shock” was also needed to check Islamist extremism in the kingdom.
Many observers warn that things could implode if the crown prince moves too fast on his reform agenda.
Some analysts describe all this as ‘an Arab spring from above’. The description may be highly exaggerated as there has not been any indication of economic and social reform leading to political openness that would give ordinary Saudis greater democracy and ensure their human rights.
True, there has not been any evidence of a major conservative backlash as yet against the wide-ranging social and economic reform programme initiated by the prince that promises tectonic political and social changes not only in Saudi Arabia but also in other Muslim countries affected by the Saudi-financed doctrine of Wahhabism. Nevertheless, many observers warn that things could implode if the prince moves too fast on his reform agenda.
It is apparent that the clerics will not readily give up their religious hold over the kingdom. It also remains to be seen how the members of the royal family who resented the meteoric rise of the young prince will react to the radical reforms he is embarking on. The recent anti-corruption drive against some senior royal family members may add to the opposition to the ‘pretender’ to the throne.
Scores of princes were apparently detained and only released after a negotiated settlement under which they agreed to return part of their allegedly ill-gotten wealth. The crown prince will also be constrained in fulfilling his ambition to change course and break the stranglehold of Wahhabi influence in view of his militaristic approach to counter the growing Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Over the past two years, Saudi forces have been engaged in a war in Yemen that has caused thousands of civilian casualties in the impoverished, war-torn country. The ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence has intensified the sectarian divide in the Middle East. Riyadh has formed an alliance of 34 Muslim nations also referred to as a Sunni alliance.
That raises serious question about the prince’s move to break the hold of the powerful religious establishment. Societal reform may weaken the clergy but what also matters is the conservative ideology on which the kingdom was founded. While Mohammed bin Salman declared that his government is no more providing funds for the spread of Wahhabism, he did admit that private Saudi charities were still patronising madressahs and mosques across the world. There is no evidence as yet of the kingdom blocking these sources of funding.
Wahhabism, founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in 1744, is an austere form of faith preaching a return to ‘pure’ Islam. Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family, cut a deal with the Wahhabi clerics in the 19th century that helped the family establish its rule in Saudi Arabia. In return, the monarchy endorsed Wahhabism. The religious-political alliance endures in Saudi Arabia.
There is no denying that radical Islam was used by the West as a bulwark in the fight against communism and that the Saudi petrodollar came in handy in promoting Wahhabism across the Muslim world. But it was also used by the kingdom as an instrument in the regional power game in the Middle East.
Billions of dollars were invested in madressahs and mosques espousing the radical ideology overseas even after the end of the Cold War following the disintegration of the communist bloc. The rise of militant Islam in Pakistan largely owed to Saudi support starting with the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation.
Financed by Saudi money, thousands of madressahs were established along the border areas. Wahhabism became the most effective ideology in motivating radical Muslims for waging jihad against the ‘godless communists’. Saudi Arabia and the US agreed to contribute equal amounts to finance the Afghan war against the Soviets.
Thousands of young Saudis were sent to fight alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan for the next decade; some 45,000 young Saudi volunteers trekked to Afghanistan to wage holy war. The same jihadist ideology that the West used to counter communism has now come back to haunt it.
Saudi funding for hard-line Sunni groups increased manifold in the wake of the Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Consequently, Pakistan became the centre of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The rise of militant Islam now threatens Muslim societies. One has to wait and and see what happens to the reform programme initiated by the young but ruthless Saudi crown prince.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2018