At a recent global investment event in Riyadh, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced his plans to build a global megacity, NEOM, on the northwestern coast of Saudi Arabia over the next 10 years. To increase investor confidence in the kingdom, he reassured the world that Saudis want to “return to a moderate Islam that had existed in the country prior to 1979.”
That pledge contained both a promise and a threat: The crown prince vowed an immediate end to extremist ideas and the reestablishment of a tolerant Saudi Arabia, while blaming Iran and its 1979 revolution for sparking Saudi Arabia’s turn toward state-sponsored radicalization of religious thought.
The double-sided comment tells us a lot about Mohammad’s goals, as well as how he plans to achieve them. Much like last weekend’s crackdown, which included the arrests of some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country in the name of cleaning up corruption, the prince’s liberalizing rhetoric cloaks far more sinister motives.
Attacks on extreme religion sound positive to people of all political stripes in the West, promising political liberalization and evoking the language of the “war on terror.” But it is the second half of Mohammad’s statement — his decision to single out the 1979 Iranian Revolution as the turning point in Saudi politics — that signals trouble for the region. It indicates his plans to escalate the conflict with Iran and its proxies as a way to shore up global backing after having failed to rally support at home (indeed, Saudi Arabia issued a bellicose warning to Iran on Monday, accusing its adversary of “an act of war”). That President Trump, the leader of the so-called free world, has endorsed the Saudi regime’s domestic crackdown, anti-Iran escalation and threat of war against Lebanon has only emboldened Mohammad.
Even as Western governments and media outlets sing his praises, the young crown prince is viewed domestically as an incompetent and corrupt ruler who hides behind liberalism, tolerance and anti-corruption rhetoric. This view is shared by ruling members of the monarchy, economic elites and the population at large, who see Mohammad as someone who has disturbed the status quo for the sake of massive personal enrichment and political aggrandizement.
Personal enrichment is a huge part of the NEOM project, which is an attempt to generate new revenue streams that would primarily benefit Mohammad, now that he has sidelined many of the country’s traditional economic elites.
But the announcement of NEOM and the alleged shift toward religious tolerance also contained a much-overlooked irony: The crown prince’s plan for a tolerant Saudi Arabia relies on decidedly intolerant sectarian appeals, casting Iran (and Shiite Islam) as the culprit for all things bad in the kingdom. Recall that 10 to 15 percent of the Saudi population is Shiite.
Potential investors overlooked this irony, focusing instead on the potential profits to be derived from the now-friendlier climate for foreign investment. But mainstream media outlets also let it slide, instead largely endorsing NEOM and hailing the crown prince’s critique of religious extremism — coming on the heels of the scheduled end of the ban on women driving in June 2018 — as indication of his serious commitment to liberal reform.
That interpretation, though, ignores the Saudi regime’s concerted and violent crackdown against all its critics, including religious scholars, secular intellectuals, Shiite activists, writers, bureaucrats and the religious establishment itself. Though the crackdown against the opposition has been in effect for some time, it only generated global headlines after the high-level arrests of the past several days.
These arrests, cloaked in populist rhetoric trumpeting a purported campaign to end corruption, actually aim to silence and disempower, if not to completely purge, bureaucrats and members of the ruling family who hold economic and political power and are still not on board with Salman’s rise to power.
The arrests benefit Mohammad in two ways. Politically, they upend the balance of power in the Saudi regime, leaving him with few rivals. Financially, they make it easier to claim his rivals’ assets as his own, part of a two-year effort to consolidate economic power.
Mohammad has been able to do all this by relying on a tried-and-true tactic for Saudi leaders: masking policies in positive-sounding and U.S.-friendly rhetoric. The distortion of past and present is central to Saudi power, which often uses globally popular frameworks like the war on terror, moderate religion and anti-corruption to crack down on political opponents. Likewise, deploying sectarianism and anti-Iranian rhetoric to do so has also been a staple of Saudi power.
Those tactics are evident in Mohammad’s claim that Saudi Arabia was a “moderate” Islamic state until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. His timeline is off by at least a decade. The very making of the Saudi state was premised on an intolerant and anti-Shiite reading of Islam. But it was the late King Faisal, in power from 1964 to 1975, who consolidated the conservative religious state we are familiar with today.
That consolidation was not a response to the Iranian Revolution, but rather to progressive domestic mobilizations that had threatened the Saudi monarchy as well as U.S. imperial interests in the 1960s. With U.S. support, Faisal’s regime crushed these movements, foreclosing secular political life in the kingdom.
With secular critics all but eliminated, popular struggle and anti-regime activism became increasingly religious in nature. After the 1973 oil embargo, Islamists became more critical of the regime because of its financial excesses and the strengthening Saudi-U.S. alliance.
Their discontent culminated in November 1979, when 100 non-establishment Wahhabi Islamists staged an armed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, an act meant to draw attention to the ways in which a corrupt Saudi regime had used religion and violence to maintain its own authoritarian rule. The same conditions also fueled peaceful civil unrest that led to the anti-regime Qatif Uprising in the oil rich Eastern Province that same month.
Under a complete media blackout and with the help of foreign troops, the regime militarily crushed two structurally different movements that fought against authoritarianism and a blindly pro-U.S. foreign policy and blamed both on Iran and Shiite radicalism.
Nowhere, however, is this pattern of repressing domestic critics more evident than in the case of the peaceful Sahwa, or Islamic Awakening, movement. The Sahwa movement, which emerged in opposition to authoritarianism and state-sponsored religion, gained unprecedented popularity in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. It has posed the single longest and most serious threat to Al Saud’s hold on power. Every single Saudi regime since then has taken various measures to curtail this movement, from coercion and co-optation to jailing and intimidating.
In recent months, Mohammad’s regime has imprisoned many of its leaders and foot soldiers alike in the name of ending radicalism, when these are, in reality, opponents of state authoritarianism, war mongering, corruption, economic mismanagement and the utter disregard for civil, human and political rights in Saudi Arabia. Mohammad is borrowing from his predecessors by framing this war as one between modernity and conservatism to obscure the opposition’s political critiques.
The younger generation of Al Saud rulers — represented by the recently appointed crown prince — have created the illusion of a “new” Saudi Arabia, one defined by youth, moderation and liberalization. But far from embodying a break with “traditional” Saudi rule, the new generation has simply doubled down on the tried and tested approaches to modern Saudi statecraft.
Like its predecessors, the current regime uses great repressive force to maintain its rule. It relies on the very same programs of reform and modernization to shore up international support while exacerbating sectarian tensions and violently crushing all forms of political opposition, including the very forces of moderation it purports to support.
The timing of these announcements speaks to the regime’s desperate need for a victory to cover up its many domestic and regional failures, to increase confidence in the regime’s commitment to reform and to provide fodder for its all-out war against domestic opposition and regional rivals. This is not to say that change in Saudi Arabia is not possible, nor to discount the efforts of thousands of Saudis who have risked so much to improve their living situations. But in the hands of relentless dictators in such an authoritarian context, “change” is elusive at best.