The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed seeks to reduce influential clerics’ power

A woman walks in front of a banner showing Saudi King Salman, right, his Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and Saudi Arabia's founder late King Abdul Aziz Al Saud in Dammam, in the Kingdom's Eastern Province, in June 2021. (Amr Nabil/AP)

BEIRUT — In May, the Saudi government barred the use of loudspeakers to amplify prayers and sermons at mosques and ordered that the volume of the traditional call to prayer, which has long echoed across the kingdom five times a day, be turned down by two-thirds.

When a little-known religious leader penned an online article criticizing the decision by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, he was arrested, according to two Saudi human rights groups, and his once-active Twitter account went silent.

Then, last month, the head of the federation representing Saudi businesses announced that shops, restaurants and other enterprises would be allowed to remain open during prayer time — another major development in a country where businesses, for decades, have closed five times a day. “Those days of inconvenience are now over,” an article in the English-language Arab News said.

These changes represent the latest steps taken by Saudi Arabia under its influential crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to curtail the authority of the religious establishment. While many Saudis may cheer the moves as further evidence that Mohammed is liberalizing the kingdom, the developments also reflect his continuing effort to consolidate power and clip the wings of anyone who could challenge him.

Muslim clerics have long played a defining role in Saudi Arabia, an Islamic kingdom where religious leaders have passed edicts and made proclamations that rule the lives of millions of Saudis. The power of the clergy has also extended beyond the country’s borders, as many Muslims around the world look toward the kingdom for religious guidance and rulings.

But Mohammed, known by his initials as MBS, has repeatedly broken with the conservative clerics. Textbooks promoting radical Islamic views have been revised and the notoriously harsh powers of the religious police curbed. Women have been granted the right to drive and attend sporting events, and restaurants are no longer segregated by gender.

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The erosion of clerical influence is particularly apparent at the Justice, Islamic Affairs and Education ministries, where the religious establishment has long played an outsize role.

Hard-line clerics and other conservative Saudis have been pushing back. After the government ordered that the volume of the call to prayer be lowered, the hashtag “the sound of prayer is a popular demand” trended on Saudi Twitter, and users posted videos including the chanted call.

Omar Abdullah al-Saadoun — the cleric who was later reportedly arrested — wrote in his article about the demands of Saudis to reverse the government decision and warned of its dangers. He said, for example, that worshipers may now break covid-19 restrictions by crowding into mosques to hear sermons no longer audible outside.

“Houses will no longer hear [Koran] recitation and sermons, and what’s more this quietude has weakened some people’s motivation to go to group prayer,” Saadoun wrote, ending his piece by beseeching the Islamic affairs minister to retract the decision.

Islamic Affairs Minister Abdullatif Al al-Sheikh described critics of the decision as “enemies of the kingdom who want to stir up public opinion and cast doubt on government decisions and dismantle national cohesion.”

This has become the pattern in Mohammed’s Saudi Arabia: the introduction of liberalizing changes but in an authoritarian manner. Arrests are common among liberal and conservative critics alike, ranging from women’s rights activists to hard-line clerics.

“We’ve known since MBS embarked on this dual journey of new reforms and increased repression that this was a strictly top-down approach, that the reforms are not meant to be seen as a response to popular demands but as steps MBS himself wanted to take,” said Hiba Zayadin, a Saudi researcher with Human Rights Watch. She added, “Anyone who speaks out does so at great risk not just to themselves but to their families and close circles as well.”

Since 2017, both liberal and hard-line religious leaders have been swept up in arrests, with the government making clear that clerics from any and all schools of thought will be targeted unless they toe the government line.

In December, the government fired “many” prayer leaders for not following an official directive to preach against the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political movement that Saudi Arabia has designated as a terrorist group, Saudi media reported.

Al al-Sheikh said that while these religious leaders were not necessarily sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, the government was sending a message “to those who do not implement directives or were slow in implementing it: [that they] would be dispensed with and replaced by those who are prepared and those who meet the conditions.”

The Justice Ministry has been the place where religious leaders have traditionally set out rules for everyday life by interpreting the Koran and the hadith, the accounts of sayings by the prophet Muhammad used by devout Muslims as guidance. But in 2017, significant judicial powers were scooped out of the ministry and placed under a newly created body that reports directly to Mohammed’s father, King Salman.

When Saudi authorities rounded up previously untouchable royals, billionaires and other business tycoons and detained them in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel as part of what the government said was a crackdown on corruption, the Justice Ministry’s judges, trained in Islamic jurisprudence, were swept aside. The traditional keepers of the Saudi legal system had no say.

The religious police had been defanged a year earlier, stripped of their powers to arrest people. Officially called the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, these police traditionally ruled the streets, terrorizing residents for dressing or acting in a manner deemed inappropriate.

The Islamic Affairs Ministry, meanwhile, has gotten behind the new government line, staying silent when clerics and other notables have been detained and enforcing decisions that sweep aside dissent. The ministry’s role in Islamic affairs has been partly eclipsed by another body, the Muslim World League, which has taken over the responsibility for overseas Islamic activities.

By weakening these agencies, Mohammed is rewriting the longtime power-sharing arrangement between the ruling family and the clerical establishment — a partnership that created the kingdom. Islam has remained a cornerstone of Saudi identity; the kingdom is the birthplace of the religion and hosts its two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. The king’s official title is the custodian of the two holy mosques.

In some quarters, fears abound that the fabric of the kingdom is now unraveling. But those fears are rarely shared anymore, lest there be more arrests.

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