By Nabil Mouline
July 3, 2018
The speed and magnitude of change in Saudi
Arabia has accelerated considerably after the consecration of Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman. To legitimize his ascent, fulfill his absolutist ambitions
and face various internal and external challenges, Prince Mohammed has
presented and positioned himself as the champion of “modernization.”
Several of the crown prince’s statements
and initiatives — calling for a moderate Islam, authorizing women to drive,
reopening cinemas — have been interpreted as his desire to break the historic
pact between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious establishment.
In the mid-18th century, the Saud embraced
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a revivalist preacher who advocated a narrow reading
of the Quran and the Hadith and attacked any deviations from or accretions to
the original practice. People who deviated from the Wahhabi doctrine were
excluded from Islam, and jihad was considered the only way to bring them back
to the right path.
The compact with Wahhab and his disciples
helped the Saud to legitimize an expansionist policy and create a durable state
in the early 20th century. The Saudi monarchy monopolized political and
military action; the Wahhabi clerics took charge of the religious, legal and
Prince Mohammed is unlikely to pull off a
break with the Wahhabi religious establishment because the clerics have proved
to be resilient and have displayed a great capacity to adapt to transitions and
vagaries of power. Attempts to marginalize the clerics date back to the early
When King Abd al-Aziz, the founder of the
modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who ruled from 1902 to 1953, set out to
monopolize power, work with Western partners and find acknowledgment from the
broader Muslim world, he felt the need to use Islamic reformism to weaken and
Wahhabi clerics preserved their authority
and even grew stronger by offering ideological concessions such as showing more
tolerance toward non-Wahhabis, allowing the presence of non-Muslims in Saudi
territory, and accepting modern education and administration.
In the post-oil period, between the 1950s
and the mid-1970s, under the reign of Saud bin Abd al-Aziz and then King Faisal
bin Abd al-Aziz, Saudi Arabia had to modernize very quickly. The old structures
of the kingdom were too archaic and personal to effectively control territory,
to satisfy the expectations of a growing and heterogeneous population, to
create new sources of legitimacy and to contain the hegemonic claims of
The religious establishment saw the
state-building and the concurrent changes as a threat but did not object to the
kingdom admitting girls to schools or introducing television and cinema.
Instead, the clerics took advantage of the Saudi conflict with pan-Arabism in
the 1950s and 1960s and the bounteous oil revenues to modernize the religious
establishment by creating new institutions such as the office of Grand Mufti, a
fatwa bureaucracy, and religious schools and universities like the Islamic
University of Medina and Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.
The clerics also created Islamic courts,
media organizations and pan-Islamic organizations such as the Muslim World
League. Petro-modernity helped the religious establishment to maintain its
influence in the kingdom and export its worldview.
The Islamic revolution in Iran, the attack
on the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Army
in 1979 tilted the scale in favour of the Wahhabi establishment.
To restore its credibility after the attack
on Mecca, to contain the Shiite revolutionary challenge and to fight Communism,
the Saudi monarchy proclaimed its attachment to Islam by applying Sharia
severely — inflicting corporal punishment, imposing gender segregation in
public spaces, shutting down cinemas, increasing the power of the religious
police, and providing financial and ideological support to jihadist groups in
Afghanistan and Sunni Islamist movements around the world.
In return, the clerics supported the House
of Saud against internal and external enemies such as Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, Saddam Hussein and the Muslim Brotherhood. Memorably, the clerics
issued a very unpopular fatwa in 1990 legitimizing the presence of American
troops in the kingdom.
The Sept. 11 attacks put Saudi Arabia in a
difficult position because Osama bin Laden and a majority of the hijackers were
Saudi nationals. The kingdom was forced to distinguish itself from jihadist
movements, allow criticism of Wahhabism, start an intrareligious and
interreligious dialogue and reduce the powers of the religious police, among
The clerics came to the monarchy’s aid —
and preserved their own interests as well — by sternly condemning Jihadism and
the Muslim Brotherhood through Fatwas, publishing articles to such effect in
newspapers and speaking on television networks. Even then some observers spoke
of a post-Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. As soon as the pressure eased, the clerical
establishment and monarchy questioned the opening process.
After the Arab uprisings of 2011, King
Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz requested the religious establishment’s support to
thwart the challenges that the uprisings posed to Saudi Arabia. The clerics
helped him out but got him to increase the budgets of religious institutions,
allowing greater repression of any breach of the Sharia in public space,
promoting anti-Shiite discourse and muzzling secularist ideas.
King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz’s accession to
the throne in 2015 led to the rise of Prince Mohammed. The crown prince’s
public denunciations of extremist ideas and promises to promote moderate Islam
have been interpreted as a renewed desire to break with Wahhabism. A closer
reading shows that Prince Mohammed primarily condemns the Muslim Brotherhood
and jihadists and exonerates Wahhabism.
The religious establishment has lent
unfailing support to Prince Mohammed and ratified his decisions by promulgating
fatwas such as the one authorizing women to drive.
The clerics yielded on subjects they deemed
secondary when the balance of power left them with little choice and managed to
preserve their authority.
Wahhabism is likely to remain a pillar of
the kingdom in the medium term. The religious establishment controls colossal
material and symbolic means — schools, universities, mosques, ministries,
international organizations and media groups — to defend its position. Any
confrontation between the children of Saud and the heirs of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab
will be destructive for both.
The historical pact between the monarchy
and the religious establishment has never been seriously challenged. It has
been reinterpreted and redesigned during times of transition or crisis to
better reflect changing power relations and enable partners to deal with challenges
To truly break the pact between the Saudi
monarchy and the Wahhabi religious establishment, it is necessary to have an
alternative social project, the unfailing support of the elites and the
population, a sound economic base and a very favorable context. Right now,
Prince Mohammed does not possess those assets despite his personal inclination.
Nabil Mouline, a senior researcher at the National Centre for Scientific
Research in Paris, is the author of “The Clerics of Islam: Religious Authority
and Political Power in Saudi Arabia.”