Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is facing battles on many fronts – at home and in the wider Middle East – as he tries to consolidate power and reform his country. But his biggest battle may be with the Wahhabi religious establishment entrenched in the Kingdom’s history and on which his family’s rule has depended.
The 32-year-old Crown Prince, known as MbS, has broken with all Saudi political tradition and turned the House of Saud – his family’s tribal lineage – upside down. He’s launched a war against rebels in Yemen, apparently forced the premier of Lebanon to quit, and launched an anti-corruption campaign neutralizing rivals.
Understanding the centrality of the conservative Wahhabist movement to the Al-Saud family is the key to the biggest struggle the young prince is taking on.
Barak Barfi, a research fellow at think-tank New America, told WikiTribune that Mohammed bin Salman’s vision of a moderate Islam is “the only thing that matters” since, in Saudi Arabia, it goes “hand-in-hand” with strength of the royal family. “It remains to be seen whether the clerical establishment will fully support his reform program. And what he’s willing to offer them because he’s going to reduce their power substantially.”
Fighting on many fronts
Mohammed bin Salman was only 29 years old when he was elevated to Deputy Crown Prince in 2015. Then, at 31, he rose to the rank of Crown Prince in June 2017, replacing his cousin who is 26 years his senior. The move was surprising for a country which has historically appeared to consider maturity a prerequisite for seniority.
His father, King Salman, is 81 and – according to the Brookings Institute think tank – not in the best of health. MbS could, potentially, lead Saudi Arabia for decades if he follows his father, sooner or later.
MbS is also the youngest defense minister in the world, another position he was appointed to in 2015. His biggest foreign incursion in this role was the launch of Operation Decisive Storm, a Saudi-led coalition that is currently fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen.
The Economist, in MbS’ first on-the-record interview with the magazine in 2016, described him as the “architect of the war in Yemen”. The war, with no end in sight, has put the death toll at more than 10,000, with over 42,000 injured and around 18 million people in need of humanitarian help.
Since his ascension, MbS has overseen a series of daring gambles. In June, he led the blockade against Qatar, with support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, over its alleged support of terrorism. In September, prominent clerics and intellectuals were arrested at his behest.
‘He is the center of power’
Basheer Nafi, a historian and senior research fellow at the Qatar-funded think-tank Al Jazeera Institute for Studies, part of the Al Jazeera network Saudi Arabia wants shut down, told WikiTribune that no Saudi leader, past or present, has wielded as much power as MbS: “He’s basically the decision-maker. He is the center of power. And what he showed in the last six months is some degree of unpredictability in [his] decisions.”
In a major anti-corruption crackdown this month Mohammed bin Salman ordered the arrest of several hundred members of the Saudi Arabian political and business elites, among those were 11 princes and royal family members. The Wall Street Journal reported that his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Crown Prince, also had his bank account frozen along with many others.
The arrests were authorized by a new anti-corruption committee created by King Salman but with MbS in charge. The crackdown coincided with the resignation in Riyadh, rather than Beirut, of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, in what was widely seen as a Saudi-orchestrated move. Shortly before, a ballistic missile was fired towards the Saudi capital apparently by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Mohammed bin Salman declared it an “act of war” for which he blamed Iran and its Shia ally Hezbollah – the most potent armed force in Lebanese politics – hence the move on Hariri for apparently not doing enough to contain Hezbollah in the fragile political tapestry of Lebanon.
“The way [MbS] conducted himself in the last six months shows that very clearly he doesn’t lack courage”, said Nafi from Al Jazeera, adding that the chain of events suggested “he doesn’t calculate very well. He doesn’t read the situation very well. I mean, I’m not sure how much he is conscious or aware of the history and politics of the Middle East.”
It’s all about the Wahhabis
“MbS is a young man in a hurry,” Neil Partrick, author of Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation wrote on his personal blog. “Announcing, as MbS did this weekend, that a new state body will be formed to fight both state and private corruption, and then arresting people in the name of a body that by definition can only exist only on paper, is nothing to do with legal process.
“It is the arbitrary wielding of state power that foreign and domestic investors the world over fear.”
Mohammed bin Salman effectively controls the country’s economic, security, and political affairs – as shown in this report by intelligence platform Stratfor. Saudi Arabia itself is controlled by three main pillars: oil, the House of Saud, and Islam.
Last month, as part of his sweeping reform agenda, he told The Guardian that he would “moderate Islam” in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia,” he told the Guardian. “We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
The events in Iran in 1979 also marked another turning point in Saudi history. That year Islamic fundamentalists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks in an attempt to overthrow the House of Saud. The interim leader, King Khalid, reacted by implementing stricter enforcement of the religious establishment. This strengthened the grip of the Wahhabist movement already rooted in the foundation of the Kingdom.
From Wahhabism to a moderate Islam?
Wahhabism is an Islamic doctrine founded by Muhammad Ibn’ Abdul-Wahhab in the 18th century. In order to spread his religion, he made a pact with King Abdulaziz, or Ibn Saud – the founder of the Saudi state – to proselytize Wahhabism in return for political legitimacy from his followers.
This unwritten alliance between the House of Saud and Wahhabism is fortified to this day. However, MbS’ quest to moderate Islam indicates a desire to shift these tectonic plates of history and introduce reforms which have been thought impossible for decades.
In his efforts to restructure Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, MbS has reined in the mutaween (religious police) by stripping them of their power to arrest individuals, as reported by Al Jazeera. Women will be allowed to drive (read our analysis) and enter sport stadiums in 2018. More recently, three influential clerics were arrested for dissent. And in October, a council of scholars from around the world was set up by the King to combat extremist teachings worldwide.
‘Way over his head’
Bringing the religious establishment to heel, amongst other goals, is part of MbS’ plans to diversify the Kingdom’s economy and move it away from its dependence on oil.
A state-backed strategy document called Vision 2030 aims to create 1.2 million private sector jobs in the next five years and move the kingdom away from its reliance on public sector jobs by 2020. It also wants to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund by selling off a portion of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company. Mohammed bin Salman has also announced plans for a $500 billion futuristic city called NEOM.
Liberalizing Saudi society is also integral to MbS’ plans for modernization. In 2018, the Saudi government has said women will be allowed to drive for the first time, tourist visas will also be issued to visitors, as reported by CNN, potentially opening up a closed society. The Kingdom also announced that it will allow cinemas for the first time in more than 35 years.
MbS appears to have been emboldened by support, from young people at home – 70 percent of the population is under 30 – and abroad from the Trump administration.
I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2017
But his ambition comes at a time when the country faces challenges. Oil prices are lower than the country has planned for and socially, swift reforms risk alienating traditionalists as well as conservative sections of Saudi society.
Barbara Zollner, a lecturer in Middle East politics at Birkbeck University, told WikiTribune that she’s cautious about speaking of any Saudi attempt to moderate Islam in the Kingdom: “I think that’s all a liberal veneer of a regime which is still very much working within a very conservative country.”
“He’s trying to push this clerical caste out of domestic politics but he needs them for his regional politics,” she said.
Barfi, at New America, said that “if [Mohammed bin Salman] can’t get [the clerics] on board or he can’t muzzle them, it’s over for him.”
“So this is going to be the battle of whether he succeeds or not. He’s basically blind with no prior experience and no senior people to guide him into this uncharted, unprecedented era in Saudi history,” he added. “He’s way over his head.”