For decades, Saudi rulers have utilised religion to remain in power and gain regional dominance. Mohammed Bin Salman's attempt to shake that status quo could yield severe consequences
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, stated that his country was moving towards a "moderate, open" form of Islam. The statements, which triggered a mixed reaction among Saudis, reflect what amounts to a radical shift on the question of religion in the kingdom.
Many wondered what role religion is likely to play under king Mohammed bin Salman, particularly given the fact that previous Saudi rulers have invested heavily in creating the perception of the kingdom as the sole guardian of the Muslim faith.
Religion as a tool
Since the foundation of the Saudi state - and its takeover of the most sacred sites of Islam - religion not only served as an internal tool for the political elite to enforce authority, but also as an external tool used by the nascent state to impose its leadership and dominance over the Muslim world.
Over the past decades, one way to achieve this goal was investing billions of dollars in development projects in Islam's holy sites and their surrounding areas.
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Recently, King Salman's government announced the allocation of $100bn for new construction work. It is worth pointing out that this "generous" funding comes during hard times as economic austerity measures are imposed on Saudi citizens by cutting all government subsidies, marking up the prices of basic commodities, like fuel, water and electricity.
Additionally, the government is running an ongoing war in Yemen whose operational costs reportedly amount to $200m per day.
Such an outpouring of funds is by no means an innocent investment or one that can be viewed as simply a response to development needs. It is rather driven by a strategy of image creation of the Saudi monarchy as the defender of the faith.
This could also explain what came to be known as a Saudi tradition when every sitting king would initiate fresh plans for the holy sites and would even attempt to stretch the duration of these projects over his lifetime.
Committed to Islam?
The idea is to create a perception of an ongoing Saudi commitment to Islam by endlessly expanding its most sacred sites. So when it was announced that the Mataf (circumambulation) expansion project was finally completed after three years of work during the previous era of King Abdullah, his successor King Salman announced the initiation of new projects including - again - the expansion of the same Mataf area!
Salman obviously doesn't want to be seen as the king who does not respect the tradition. More importantly, a halt in expansion projects could tarnish the image of "the guardian of Islam" which the Saudi government claims to uphold. In reality, however, nobody really knows the extent or final goal of such projects.
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To the monarchy, it seems this is the only way for Saudi kings to "earn" the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques". Another sign of the politicisation of these investments is in the concentration of development projects in and around the Haram area.
For example, urban Mecca suffers from all kinds of impoverishment, underinvestment and deteriorating infrastructure. But since it's outside the scope of the pilgrims' radar, the government could not be any more indifferent to those needs.
Resource allocation is only prioritised by the consideration of the anticipated political return of any given project.
Also, Saudi rulers have traditionally used religion as an instrument to extend influence over the Islamic world as a whole. For example, the headquarters of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Islamic Development Bank are based not in Egypt, Turkey or Malaysia but in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh has always sought to dominate these institutions by funding their budgets and programmes in return for dominating their political will. For example, during the last summit held in Turkey, the Saudis managed to press for the final statement to be focused on the condemnation of Iran.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman appears committed to take the country to the other extreme
More recently, during its crisis with Qatar, Saudi Arabia deployed the religious stick - as always - as it blackmailed some African countries by threatening to limit their pilgrimage visa quotas if they did not cut ties with Doha. Then came the role of the Saudi grand mufti to bestow "his blessings" on the decision of the blockade against Qatar.
These are but a few examples of how the house of Saud uses - and abuses - religion and how the country has always been dependent on the political utilisation of religion.
Religion is therefore a coercive force to legitimise its rule internally and a tool for external intervention in foreign countries' affairs.
Inspired by Mohammed Bin Salman's statements, the key question thus becomes: is this likely to change when he becomes king? Salman stated: "We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness." Obviously, he is addressing the new generations of Saudis.
A kingdom in transition
The intertwined relationship between religion and state in Saudi Arabia is sensitive and deeply rooted. Any attempt to shake up this alliance must go through a process of inclusive, considerate and free public and intellectual dialogue. It must come as a result of public demand rather than a top-down imposition.
However, since Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed power, the state of religion in the country is on the decline. Bin Salman appears committed to take the country to the other extreme.
He seems to be working on stripping Saudi Arabia of anything to do with its religious heritage. He thinks that with the power of royal decrees he is capable of reversing the status quo. This is equivalent to waking up one morning only to find out that the US president has made an executive order to make sharia the law of the land.
He is effectively forcing secularism upon the public rather than persuading them into accepting what has traditionally been asserted as alien values and beliefs.
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For instance, just recently the government announced the Red Sea Project, an international style leisure resort on the western coast of the kingdom. As I mentioned in a previous article, a conservative and traditional society has been told that its government wants to create a resort where the rules of the land do not apply - including the segregation of the sexes and the "Islamic" dress code - just a few hundred kilometres from the most sacred sites in Islam.
This is not the outcome of a natural cultural evolution within society but a royal decision that, overnight, transmutes from strict, empty-headed, religious fanaticism. This is insulting to a significant segment of Saudi society who have bought into official religious propaganda over the decades.
This approach may have severe consequences. It is not only ethically wrong, but it could provide a justification for popular resistance which would not be unique in the country's history. On 20 November 1979, the first day of the Islamic year 1400, the Masjid al-Haram was seized by a well-organised group of 400 to 500 men under Juhayman al-Otaybi's leadership.
Al-Otaybi attacked the Wahhabi ulama for failing to protest against policies that (he believed) betrayed Islam, and accused them of accepting the rule of an infidel state and offering loyalty to corrupt rulers in exchange for honours and riches.
History may repeat itself if the current leadership under Mohammed bin Salman fails to learn its lessons.
I believe the protection of freedom of thought and expression can, in the long term, provide a context for liberal changes in the country. This would create a framework for ideas to mutate and enable the emergence of a tolerant society. It is for the common good to allow public dialogue to take place in advance and not to take society, as is happening now, by surprise.
Messages to UAE
Moreover, Saudi Arabia should never allow any discourse that views its interests in contradiction with that of the Muslim world in general to translate into real policy.
Abu Dhabi seems unaware of the implications of its push for forced secularisation in Saudi
It should send a clear message in this respect to the United Arab Emirates specifically. The UAE fails to grasp the full scope of the importance of religion to the kingdom's socio-political makeup. Abu Dhabi seems unaware of the implications of its push for forced secularisation in Saudi.
To that effect, Saudi Arabia has recently arrested intellectuals, writers and activists as a pre-emptive measure to hinder any potential protest against its policies. These arrests seem to be orchesterated by Abu Dhabi.
Finally, we should make a distinction between secularism and liberty. Some of the most brutal and fascist regimes the world has ever known were indeed secular and anti-religion including Lenin’s Russia and Hitler's Germany.
UAE's intended scheme for Saudi Arabia is no different. Saudi Arabia must define its path to freedom according to its people's aspirations not some sheikh’s in Abu Dhabi or a prince’s in Al-Salam Palace.
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Photo: Saudi Arabia's then deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman reacts upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, 24 June 2015 (Reuters)