Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman is young, he is also a product of the times. But will he be the force to bring moderation to the Kingdom?
With Saudi Arabia’s siege of Yemen potentially creating one of the world’s most horrific humanitarian crises, as nearly 80% of the population are now food insecure, how should we view the claims of Saudi Arabia’s new leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, when he says that he wishes to return his Kingdom to a moderate Islam that is open to the world?
Salman is the youngest minister of defence in the world and due to his actions in Yemen, his hands are soaked with the blood of over 130 children who are dying each day as a result of the conflict. How much stock should be placed in an idea of the leader’s humanity (as is claimed by his implementation of socially progressive policies within Saudi Arabia, such as the right for women to drive) when he is willing to starve Yemen to death just to flush out his Shiite enemies?
In an investment conference in which he announced his $500 billion plan for a new economic zone on the border of Egypt, Salman seemed to immediately contradict himself when he reflected, “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” He revealed more of his character when he followed this statement with one that contained the vernacular more fitting of a dictator: “Honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”
These extremist thoughts Salman was referring to are the more fundamentalist leanings inherent in the political establishment in Saudi Arabia. Carrying out his threat, he recently locked up over 30 members of the royal family and political elite in the gilded prison of the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. This followed the suspected insidiousness in which he usurped his cousin, then Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in June this year. The New York Times reported it as a night in which Nayef was “held against his will and pressured for hours to give up his claim to the throne.”
Salman attributes his kingdom’s ills towards its inability to have properly dealt with the Iranian revolution of 1979, but it is clear that the powerful role Wahhabism has played within the patriarchal society poses a larger challenge than what just infrastructural investment can offset.
Considering his appropriation of dictatorial actions al-Wahhab was against, Salman publicly rejecting fundamentalism within Saudi Arabia must be taken with a grain of salt.
Wahhabism had its origins in a fundamentalist outlook that was much more rudimentary and benevolent than current interpretations of fundamentalism might allow for. The scholar Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1791), from which the movement bears its name, was a strong proponent for reinstating an idealised society where God, as Karen Armstrong notes in a 2014 article for New Statesman, “dominated the political order”.
Despite his unpopularity with rulers at the time, al-Wahhab found a large supporter in the chieftain Muhammad Ibn Saud, considered to be the founder of the First Saudi State and the Saud dynasty. Their union soon dissipated, however, following the scholar’s admonishment of the chieftain’s warlike tendencies, claiming that self-defence was the only excuse for military force, not personal profit. Al-Wahhab’s relative pacifism compared to modern Wahhabism is further pointed out by Armstrong.
“He also forbade the Arab custom of killing prisoners of war, the deliberate destruction of property and the slaughter of civilians, including women and children.”
Considering his clear appropriation of the sorts of dictatorial actions al-Wahhab was so fervently against, Salman’s sincerity in publicly rejecting fundamentalism within Saudi Arabia must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.
But al-Wahhab isn’t without blame. What he did do was promote the fundamentalist idea of the sole validity of his Islam against all other religions. Without going as far as endorsing the practice of takfir (declaring a Muslim an unbeliever), he had sown the seeds that would, following his death, promulgate intolerance; an intolerance from which leaders like Salman, cannot seem to escape.
The socio-religious rigidity that has come to be synonymous with Saudi Arabia mirrors much of what is present in some of the most violent modern manifestations of religious fundamentalism. Any efforts to curb it, such as Salman’s Saudi Arabia 2.0, should ostensibly be welcomed by the West. But as we watch his right hand moving the pack of cards, we shouldn’t lose sight of what his left is doing.
Under the auspices of the new Crown Prince, the potential for Saudi Arabia to be a stabilising force within the Middle East is quickly revealing its true form.