Reforming Saudi Arabia
Over one and a half billion Muslims—Sufis, Sunnis, and Shias, and their offshoots, the Ahmadiyyas, Alawites, Bahais, and Ismailis—live peacefully as good neighbors and valued global citizens. Unfortunately, a sect, Wahhabism, has long encouraged virulently anti-Western ideas and became what The Economist terms “a petri dish for jihadism.”
Wahhabi clerics have been close to the al Saud dynasty since the mid-18th century, offering Islamic legitimacy in exchange for control over mosques and universities.
The Saudi-American alliance began in early 1945 when King Abdul-Aziz al Saud met with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. The Saudis guaranteed access to oil; the United States guaranteed Saudi Arabia’s security from foreign enemies.
In the 1950s, the CIA teamed up with the Muslim Brotherhood, then backed by Saudi Arabia, to weaken secular Arab nationalism. In the 1980s, the two countries became major supporters of the Mujahedeen’s struggle to end the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan.
Jihadist textbooks were disseminated to Afghan school children in Pakistani refugee camps, encouraging violence against infidels and the Soviet Union in the name of Islam.
During his recent trip to the United States, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, known as “MBS,” indicated that Saudi Arabia’s Western allies had urged it to invest in mosques and madrassas overseas during the Cold War (1947-1991) to prevent encroachment in Muslim countries by the Soviet Union. Billions of Saudi oil dollars helped to spread Wahhabism globally.
MBS aims to diversify the Saudi economy by transforming the petro-state into an open economy open to U.S. investments. Having consolidated his influence in the Gulf kingdom, he wants his Vision 2030 to move the kingdom from an oil-dependent economy to a hub of international trade and commerce.
Both President Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and Middle East adviser, support the Saud regime, but Trump told it at a summit last May to stop funding Islamic terrorism. In what New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof calls “an unholy alliance,” Washington announced that it would sell the Saudis about $110 billion worth of arms. Last month, it concluded a $670 million arms sale; numerous other deals arose from the Saudi-US CEO Forum in late March.
U.S. foreign policy today involves working with the Saudis to pursue counter-terror policies and to break with the past on religious extremism. MBS understandably wants to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s image in American minds. At the Future Investment Initiative (FIT) summit in Riyadh last October, MBS stressed: “We want … a moderate Islam … open to all religions … and people.”
His father, King Salman, ordered by decree a new authority to scrutinize uses of the “hadith”—accounts of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad. Some preachers have interpreted hadiths to justify violence. Sunni Islamists, including Muslim Brotherhood associates—banned as a terrorist organization since 2014—have been the largest group of activists. The new authority will monitor hadiths and prevent them from being used to justify terrorism.
The Muslim World League says that it will now “wipe out extremist thinking”—in contrast to its past interpretation of Islam. The Saudi government, which vets clerics in 70,000 mosques, has dismissed extremists. In December, Saudi officials told the Washington Institute’s Riyadh delegation about their accelerated policies to counter extremism.
Two government bodies are now addressing extremism and promoting a more moderate interpretation of Islam: the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (ETIDAL) to combat, expose, and refute extremist ideology globally, and the Ideological Warfare Center.
The Saudis could also tighten teacher training/supervision over religious figures traveling internationally for work and control religious materials sent abroad—thereby restricting the export of extremist ideology and accelerating the removal of extremist content from Saudi schoolbooks.
Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy. Its lobbying apparatus supports its rivalry with Iran and combats negative press related to Riyadh’s U.S.-backed war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. However, to its credit, it is now curbing extremism, and will attend the first annual meeting of the U.S.-Saudi Strategic Joint Consultative Group (SJCG) later this year.
MBS has taken some unquestionably positive steps, particularly his declaration that he intends to lead Saudi Arabia to practice a less fanatic and more tolerant interpretation of Islam, notably in terms of its attitude toward Christians and Jews. Thomas Friedman, foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times states that if MBS’s reforms succeed, they “will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe.”
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chrétien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Latin America and Africa) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
By David Kilgour