A shift to moderate Islam would be Saudi Arabia's biggest victory

Saudi Arabia will find it hard to achieve the changes it seeks without eradicating religious extremism.
Sunday 04/03/2018
A Saudi man and a child read a copy of the Quran, Islam's holy book, inside a mosque.(AFP)
Moderate interpretation. A Saudi man and a child read a copy of the Quran, Islam's holy book, inside a mosque. (AFP)

Will the new millennial generation of Saudi leadership transcend the legacy of the country’s founders?

Are we witnessing the birth of a new Saudi model, more modern and up-to-date?

Is 20th-century Saudi Arabia over the hill and is the birth of a stronger, more vigorous and enduring Saudi Arabia unavoidable?

The answer to these questions is: Yes. This is the dawn of the fourth Saudi kingdom.

The change within the Saudi military aims to give the kingdom a new military reality away from the traditions of a conservative society. The reshuffle of the leadership was needed so the quiet and gradual changes in Saudi military society could be implemented.

There seems to be in motion a plan to secularise military institutions and prepare them to accept modernisation programmes. More concretely, the military should accept and respond to the new plans for a local military industry and, therefore, needs to be open to new technologies.

It won’t be possible to free the Saudi military from extremist religious ideas except through a greater role for women. That Saudi women are allowed to join the armed forces will help transform Saudi society in much the same way as having mixed-gender schools. Starting with the army, Saudi Arabia is moving towards the required level of normalisation of male-female relations.

This normalisation remains incomplete and insufficient to introduce a social revolution. Political and economic reforms are not always sufficient to bring about fundamental changes in a country’s capacities. The real engine for social change is social reforms. These reforms are in their infancy in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia will find it hard to achieve the qualitative changes that it seeks without getting rid of religious extremism, for it is through religious extremism that the world knows Saudi Arabia and it is through exactly this prism that Saudis identify their country.

For decades, Saudi Arabia was the beacon of the most conservative and traditionalist forms of Islamic jurisprudence. During the 1970s, a strong wave of religious conservatism known as the “Islamic renaissance” swept through the kingdom unchecked and uncontrolled. It became impossible to control the spread of the wave in the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world alike. Its intellectual charge was not clear then, which perhaps accounted for its non-political flavour, but its effects were devastating.

Saudi religious conservatism ebbed and waned and affected the region in an inconsistent way. When it gained strength, Saudi monarchs, such as King Fahd, tried to confront it and clip its wings. Such confrontations, however, were mostly carried out through advancing alternative views and interpretations with no real effect on Saudi reality.

Salafist groups use religion to control the society at large. They survived and protected themselves by accommodating the mood of local authorities, so much so that no Islamic country was free of Salafist strongholds. These strongholds were real ambassadors for Saudi Salafist dogmas. Such was the world’s view of Saudi Arabia.

Now, the winds of change are blowing over Saudi Arabia. There is a real determination to face problems rather than sweep them under the rug. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was wise enough to realise the nature of his role and its momentous fatality to take Saudi Arabia out of the culture of the 1930s, when it was founded, and into a different world.

Saudi Arabia of the previous millennium is giving way to Crown Prince Mohammed’s new Saudi Arabia where the role of women looms large.

Those revolutionary decisions — to allow women to drive, attend football games, concerts, festivals and national celebrations — will remain at the embryonic stage unless religious extremists are confronted and called to order. Some Salafist extremists and Muslim Brothers are media stars and are active in mosques and social media. Others remain hidden under the cover of official religious institutions.

Changes in the Saudi military were timely. The war in Yemen has become long-drawn-out with no sign of a clear victory over Iran-supported Houthis.

However, a shift towards moderate Islam would constitute Saudi Arabia’s biggest victory.