Saudi Arabia is trying to change its image, at home and abroad. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has unveiled an array of high-profile social reforms, including measures to open movie theaters in the country, to allow women to drive and to rein in the religious police. He also has announced plans to rid the kingdom's schools and universities of radical Islamist thought. Changing the ways in which Saudis practice Islam in public life, along with the other reforms, is a part of the kingdom's economic and social strategy to survive the 21st century. And like these other changes, it will attempt to accomplish an array of strategic goals for the monarchy.
Islam has always been an important source of legitimacy for Saudi Arabia's monarchy, which strictly controls its definition of the religion to suit its strategic purposes. True to form, Riyadh is once again shaping Saudi Islam to achieve the goals of the king and crown prince as it works to advance the social and economic reforms it needs to survive the 21st century.
A Strategic Tool
Islam is central to the history and politics of Saudi Arabia. At the modern-day kingdom's founding, the Saud family allied itself with the followers of Muhammad ibn Abdel-Wahhab to overcome the tribal and regional divisions that had long stymied unification. The strategy worked: Wahhabi warriors gave the Saudi tribal forces discipline and motivation, while clerics preached the religious duty of submission to the king to the various tribes and regions of the Arabian Peninsula.
Once the monarchy had secured the kingdom under its reign, the Wahhabi warriors became a strategic liability for the Saudi king. The fighters, in the depths of their religious conviction, wanted to take on the British Empire in nearby Kuwait and Iraq — a conflict that could have easily destroyed the kingdom. To avoid that fate, the Saudis turned on the Wahhabi warriors in the Ikhwan revolt from 1927 to 1930, destroying them as a force. It was only the first time that modern Saudi Arabia would use Islam to suit its strategic needs.
In 1979, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the siege by Sunni militants of the Grand Mosque in Mecca shook the House of Saud, prompting it to once again change tack. The Saudi leadership began to support and enforce a more conservative form of Islam to fend off threats from Iran, from the menace of communism and from Sunnis in the kingdom who claimed the monarchy had veered too far from Islam. The strategy has kept the monarchy safely in power for nearly 40 years, but it is starting to show signs of strain.
The Benefits of Change
Changing the role of Islam in public life offers Riyadh numerous advantages. For one thing, it will enable the king to strengthen his rule. The Saudi monarchy has no formal checks on its power, but the royal family and the clerical class traditionally have had some say with it. Since becoming crown prince in June 2017, Salman has steadily chipped away at his family's influence, leaving the clerics as the last informal restraint on the king's authority. Loosening the application of Islamic law in the public sphere and encouraging a more relaxed religious practice will reduce their clout, too. The government already has rolled back the religious police's power to enforce public behavior standards.
Their authority curtailed, the clerics must now rely more on the power of the pulpit, though changes in Saudi society over the past few decades have reduced its prestige as well. Younger Saudis — those born since 1980, including the crown prince himself — have grown up in an environment far different from that of their parents and grandparents. Technological advancement, and the quiet cultural change it has caused, has been a constant feature of their lives, exposing them to foreign lifestyles and cultures at a younger age. The result is that younger generations are more tapped in to the rest of the world — and less bound to the kingdom's social and religious conventions. The 2016 Arab Youth Survey found that 62 percent of young people in the Gulf region thought religion played too large a role in daily life.
In light of this trend, the government's efforts to change the place of religion in the kingdom, however slightly, is likely to appeal to younger Saudis. Adapting the country's policies to fit the current cultural climate — and the reality that most young people in Saudi Arabia are living — will win the monarchy some popularity points. To maximize their political gains with young Saudis, the king and crown prince will use the Muslim Brotherhood as a scapegoat for the religious overpolicing, hard-line religious laws and fundamentalist school curriculum of the past. Pinning the blame on the group also will help reinforce the king's legitimacy by illustrating his authority over even powerful clerics.
Younger generations are more tapped in to the rest of the world — and less bound to the kingdom's social and religious conventions.
Putting Friends and Neighbors at Ease
Beyond the domestic benefits of adjusting Islam's role in the kingdom, the initiative will yield advantages for Saudi international relations, too. Saudi Arabia depends on global markets, trade routes and foreign relationships for its very survival. Preserving them means reassuring the United States and its allies that the kingdom neither harbors nor encourages extremists. Since the United States passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act in 2016, the Saudi government faces the prospect of potential lawsuits and perhaps the seizure of its U.S. assets for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks. The law, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support despite President Barack Obama's veto, has made the kingdom wary that a sanctions regime against it could follow, a remote but not inconceivable possibility. Hoping to avoid that outcome, Saudi Arabia is striving to clean up its image on the global stage.
Furthermore, revising its relationship with Islam may help Saudi Arabia strengthen its budding relationship with Israel. Israel could make a powerful ally against Iran should the United States once again try to improve its relations with the Islamic republic. In addition, the deeper links with Israel that Saudi Arabia could forge by toning down its official support for Islam could enable the two countries to cooperate more closely to protect against mutual threats.
Striking the Right Balance
Despite the benefits they could yield for the Saudi government, Riyadh's religious reforms will not fundamentally alter the kingdom. The king and crown prince won't try to change their country's core values, not only for fear of public backlash but also out of a deep-seated belief in these principles. Instead, they will focus on addressing religious practices and customs that threaten their strategic relationships, be they domestic or international. Criminals found guilty of crimes such as drug smuggling will still face harsh punishments in accordance with Sharia, and women will still be encouraged, though not required, to cover themselves from head to toe in public.
But without reliable opinion polls to go on, Riyadh will have a hard time gauging how the public views its religious reforms. Conservatives may once again rise up against the monarchy's drift away from what they consider the true form of Islam, as they did in 1979. Younger Saudis, on the other hand, may think the government's changes are too modest. The rift between conservatives and liberals could widen, creating enmity especially between rural and urban Saudis, who lead drastically different lives. In that case, the monarchy may find itself making compromises that please no one — an inevitable dilemma in the kingdom's push toward social and economic transformation. The challenge for the monarchy will be to do as it always has done: navigate the debates over Saudi Arabia's future, embrace the ideas that strengthen it and crush the ones that don't.