For Middle East watchers, all eyes are on Saudi Arabia these days, particularly on the transformative Saudi Vision 2030 plan recently introduced by the young Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The plan envisions a Saudi Arabia with reinvigorated development, a diversified economy, and peace and security. It is a plan decidedly aimed at young Saudis, upon whom the future of the state rests. To assess its chances of success, however, observers would do well to watch the reaction of the ulama, the religious clerics who have an enormous impact on daily life in Saudi Arabia and whose alliance with the House of Saud is the bedrock upon which the modern Saudi state is built. Despite the Kingdom’s progressive plan, the clerics seem to be backsliding, and the internal dynamics between its leading members are shifting considerably.
In the 2000s, under the late King Abdullah, the clerical universe consisted of four broad categories: the Sahwa (or Islamic Awakening, a group of former oppositionist clerics that have come to fall in line behind the Saudi monarchy), the Islamic Liberals (including Shiite clerics), the Salafi-jihadists, and the establishment clerics. The bulk of these clerical classes were co-opted by the Saudi leadership to contribute to the fight against al-Qaida and as a means of diminishing Iran’s influence over the Saudi Shiite population. By 2009, a new group arose within the ulama; younger and more liberal than their contemporaries, these “Young Turks” had not yet been co-opted by the regime in the fight against extremism. A key figure in the rise of this group was Prince Khalid al-Faisal, currently the Saudi Minister of Education, who was formerly the governor of Mecca and, before that, Asir province.
With the ascension of King Salman to the throne last year, a more conservative religious outlook was supported at the highest levels of the monarchy, and the ulama took the cue. The unity between the king, his son the deputy crown prince, and conservative Wahhabist scholars is everywhere in evidence, including in stronger relations with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Qatar-based spiritual leader, Yousef Qaradawi, and the visible presence of the conservative cleric Shaykh Salih al-Luhaydan at the side of King Salman.
What to make of this retrenchment? It has real implications, particularly as the ulama must be seen as a tool of Saudi statecraft. Consider the fact that there has been, to date, no religious fatwa in Saudi Arabia against the Islamic State. The reason for this glaring omission is that the line between the ideological basis of Islamic State and the Wahhabist foundation of the Saudi state is exceedingly thin. A fatwa would thus be akin to self-denunciation, an unacceptable critique of Wahhabist identity that could undermine a key pillar of the Saudi power structure.
The fatwas and public remarks of Saudi clerics are now not only state-influenced—they are state-controlled. Take the recent cancellation of a lecture in Medina by a major Saudi cleric, Awad al-Qarni. The cleric claimed it was canceled due to an unspecified security threat from the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. The real reason is far more telling about Saudi Arabia’s new strategic considerations: There is an emerging nexus between Saudi Arabia and Israel as a joint effort against Shiite Iran, and the Saudi government did not want to give the unpredictable and controversial cleric a platform while it is seeking to build an alliance with Israel. Israel and Saudi Arabia both had harsh words for the U.S. when the Americans broke the alliance against Iran and struck a nuclear deal. Whether King Salman and the deputy crown prince face a backlash from the ulama over the incident will be a key test of state control over the clerics.
Other Saudi clerics have faced trouble outside the Kingdom for expressing views that run contrary to Saudi government interests. Last year, Sheikh Mohamed Al-Arifi, who has over 19 million followers on Facebook, canceled a lecture he was due to give in Morocco titled, “The Role of the Quran in Shaping the Human Being.” Arifi is best known for his February 2013 statements to Al Jazeera, saying, “Even al-Qaida leader Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, may his soul rest in peace, did not adopt many of the thoughts that are attributed to him today.” Those who opposed Arifi’s visit to Rabat claimed that the Saudi cleric “condones terrorism and supports al-Qaida in Syria.” This year, prominent Saudi clerics Sheikh Ayed al-Qarni and Sheikh Turki Assaegh, a preacher and an official with the Saudi embassy in the Philippines, were shot by assailants at Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga. Qarni was on an Islamic State assassination list published in its magazine Dabiq. He had previously advocated religious war against American troops in Iraq and against the Israeli army.
The ulama has come out firmly against Russian intervention in Syria, in alignment with government policy. In October 2015, 52 religious scholars called for jihad against the Kremlin. This statement was notable for its timing and vigor. Clearly, the document sent a strong signal that the Saudi leadership under King Salman, with its aggressive regional doctrine, was going to target the Levantine battlefield. It is no surprise that just two months later Mohammed bin Salman announced the Islamic Military Alliance with its overtly religious overtones in support of the king’s policies.
Now, with the deputy crown prince’s announcement of Saudi Vision 2030, support—some might even say compliance—from the Saudi ulama is more important than ever. It is notable that social issues linked to the economic arena are hardly addressed in the plan, which aims to otherwise introduce transformative economic reform in the Kingdom. Whether through tacit or explicit agreement, the Saudi ulama are going along with the plan because these religious scholars recognize that the Kingdom’s growth and stability—and thus, their own—is paramount in protecting its Wahhabist foundation.
One key question to ask going forward is: If Mohammed bin Salman’s plan for economic revival and transformation begins to affect the Wahhabi-influenced Saudi social model, will the ulama continue to support both the program and the Saudi government? The arrest of Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Tarifi may provide clues as to the nature of this relationship moving forward. Days prior to the announcement of Saudi Vision 2030 and the stripping of authority of the dreaded religious police, Saudi police arrested Tarifi for his tweet: “There are rulers who think that if they renounce their religion to satisfy apostates, the pressures on them will be stopped. Each time you renounce a bit, they push you to renounce more to make you follow their way.”
The longstanding compact between the House of Saud and the ulama—political legitimacy granted by the latter in exchange for a protected role for the clerics in Saudi religious and social life—is being severely stretched and tested. The months ahead will tell whether this alliance can endure or whether, like Saudi Arabia’s past reliance on petroleum and its formerly restrained foreign policy, it too will be set aside by the Kingdom’s new leaders.
Dr. Shehab Al Makahleh and Dr. Theodore Karasik are geo-strategists and political analysts in Middle Eastern Affairs based in the United Arab Emirates.