Published in The Hill Times November 30, 2017
An awful lot has been happening in Saudi Arabia of late. There is a new sheriff-to-be in town, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – or MBS as he is known – and he is not wasting any time in making changes about the place. Scores of senior princes have been arrested on corruption charges, women have been allowed to drive, and there is even talk that the fairer sex will be able to go to stadiums and attend soccer matches. For an intensely conservative society these are all big deals.
On the terrorism front, MBS stated at a recent conference that he wanted a ‘moderate, balanced Islam’ open to the world and all religions. Why this is important is obvious: Islam has been associated, both fairly and unfairly, with terrorism of late and something has to be done. Any attempts to remove these links should be welcome, irrespective of who can untie the two. The question that remains, however, is whether the Saudis are the best placed to do so. US journalist Thomas Friedman expressed his optimism that the Kingdom had finally entered its own Arab Spring in a recent op-ed in the New York Times.
On this I am of two minds. Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy country with an important tie to Islam as the keeper of the faith’s two holiest sites (Mecca and Medina). It is also the home of a huge counter-radicalisation programme which, even if its success rate may be exaggerated, does provide some useful ideas for other efforts around the world. As the victim of terrorist attacks it has a keen interest in doing what it can to lessen the threat.
On the other hand, the Saudis are also not just victims: they are in many ways behind a lot of extremist ideology and it is hard to see how they will resolve this. The pact between the house of Al Sa’ud and the eponymous founder of Wahhabism that is the genesis of the state dates back to 1744 and it is clear that undoing this unholy agreement will not be easy in a realm where there are thousands of preachers of hate (although the government has made some progress in this regard). What the regime needs to do now is to keep muzzling these voices and also stop sending intolerant imams and literature to the four corners of the world where is serves to plant the seed of hate and terrorism in lands where is has little to no indigenous presence (southeast Asia is a very good example of this). The increased fundamentalism of Saudi society may have been exacerbated by the ill-conceived religious response to the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by millenarian extremists but it is also centuries in the making. This is a big task before the Saudis.
In addition, the Saudis need to stop their obsession with Shia Islam. The Wahhabi interpretation of Islam sees the Shia as apostates and Saudi security forces have over-reacted to a legitimate concern over violence in the predominantly Shia eastern province of Qatif. More critically, the Saudi-led war in Yemen supposedly targeted at crushing the Iran-sponsored Houthi Shia is a disaster on many fronts, most significantly of which is the tragedy of starvation and disease on millions of Yemeni civilians, including hundreds of thousands of children. We cannot ignore the worrying rise of Iranian influence in the region but the Saudi belief in a burgeoning religious war between Sunnis and Shias is without basis: the threat of faith-led violence is still in the Sunni Islamist extremist camp and will remain there for the foreseeable future.
Some have cynically said that all of MBS’ moves are nothing but a power grab and that nothing much will be different under his rule. That may well be but we should hope not. An engaged Saudi Arabia in the struggle against Islamist extremism (not the ‘War on Terror’!) is a welcome partner and we should do what we can to encourage their participation.