The Saudis take on radical Islam, face a long journey ahead

For the first time in four decades the ghosts haunting Saudi Arabia are in retreat.
Sunday 25/03/2018
A Saudi woman gestures as she sits in a car during a driving training at a university in Jeddah, on March 7. (Reuters)
First step on a long road. A Saudi woman gestures as she sits in a car during a driving training at a university in Jeddah, on March 7. (Reuters)

The year 1979 was a watershed for the Middle East. Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the shah, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and Sunni Islamic extremists tried to take over the Grand Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest shrine.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz hadn’t been born but he is fighting the ghosts of 1979 as he dramatically reforms the kingdom.

The attempted takeover of Mecca was a defining event in Saudi Arabia, mainly because of what happened next. Saudi rulers, fearing Iran’s revolutionary example, gave more space to the Salafi clerical establishment to counter the radicals.

Traditional Salafi preachers are neither violent nor political but they hold a rigid view of Islam. Their legal rulings and attempts to police morals made Saudi Arabia increasingly intolerant, setting back the gradual opening of the 1960s and ’70s.

In Saudi schools, education was largely in the hands of foreign nationals, many with Muslim Brotherhood backgrounds. In the 1960s and ’70s, Saudi Arabia was more concerned with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalism than with Islamist radicalism.

Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t much of a worry but the combination of the Brotherhood’s political outlook and the rigid Salafi doctrine injected a virus into the Saudi education system. That virus allowed Osama bin Laden to recruit 15 Saudis to take part in that terrible deed on September 11, 2001. We Saudis failed those young men and that failure had global implications.

Salafi clerics and Muslim Brotherhood imports worked in concert as they were given unsupervised access to private donations to fund mosques and madrasas from Karachi to Cairo, where they generally favoured the most conservative preachers.

The policymakers’ idea was simple: Give the political Islamists and their Salafi affiliates room to influence educational, judicial and religious affairs and we will continue to control foreign policy, the economy and defence. Saudi rulers were handling the hardware while radicals rewrote the country’s software. Saudi society and the Muslim world still reel from the effects.

Crown Prince Mohammed’s critics describe him as a young man in a hurry. They’re right — and he should be. As he told all of us in his cabinet constantly: “Time is our enemy. We cannot wait any longer to reform our country. The time is now.”

He is clear about the problem. “Political Islam — whether Sunni or Shia, Muslim Brotherhood or jihadi Salafist — has damaged Muslim countries,” he once told me. “It also gives Islam a bad name. Therefore, it is the role of Muslim countries to face these evil ideologies and groups and to stand with our world allies in the West and East to confront them once and for all.”

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed have ushered in some head-spinning changes. The crown prince has led the effort to roll back the powerful religious police. These self-righteous moralisers no longer have the right to stop anyone on the street or take matters into their own hands. They have been effectively marginalised.

The king and crown prince granted women their long-awaited rights to drive and attend sporting events. Women are no longer required to wear headscarves. I expect to see more women appointed to senior positions in government, even at the ministerial level. Once Saudi Arabia unleashes the potential of women, there is no telling how far the country can go.

Building on the past decade’s education reforms, Crown Prince Mohammed launched the MiSK Foundation to provide young Saudis with world-class skills training. He has led the way in normalising life in Saudi Arabia for young people, who are increasingly fed up with social restrictions. The new General Entertainment Authority is giving Saudis foreign concerts, theatre and cinemas and soon a Royal Opera House.

He has done something more intangible but also vital: bridged the deep generational divide between ruler and ruled. Like some three-fourths of Saudis, he is under 35. He speaks their language. He uses their apps. He knows their frustrations, including with corruption.

The recent crackdown on corruption should be seen in this light. Business as usual was not working and the crown prince was willing to pull up the carpet to clean the rot underneath.

At an October 2017 conference for international investors, Crown Prince Mohammed laid out his ideas for moderate Islam. “Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979,” he said. “We want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that’s open to all religions. We want to live a normal life… coexist and contribute to the world…. We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with these destructive ideas.”

During my time in office, I came to realise that, while Saudi Arabia will continue to face challenges, for the first time in four decades the ghosts haunting Saudi Arabia are in retreat. Mistakes are inevitable and there is no universal guidebook on how to reform a country but leaders like the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore show how far a country can go with the right policies.

Saudi Arabia has a long journey ahead. It will not be without bumps and bruises. Change never comes easy but Crown Prince Mohammed has raised expectations dramatically. The genie is out of the bottle and it can’t go back in.