For decades, Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment wielded tremendous power, with bearded enforcers policing public behaviour, prominent sheikhs defining right and wrong, and religious associations using the kingdom’s oil wealth to promote their intolerant interpretation of Islam around the world.
Now, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing their power as part of his drive to impose his control on the kingdom and press for a more open brand of Islam.
Before the arrests on Saturday of his fellow royals and former ministers on corruption allegations, Prince Mohammed had stripped the religious police of their arrest powers and expanded the space for women in public life, including promising them the right to drive.
Dozens of hard-line clerics have been detained, while others were designated to speak publicly about respect for other religions, a topic once anathema to the kingdom’s religious apparatus.
If the changes take hold, they could mean a historic reordering of the Saudi state by diminishing the role of hard-line clerics in shaping policy. That shift could reverberate abroad by moderating the exportation of the kingdom’s uncompromising version of Islam, Wahhabism, which has been accused of fuelling intolerance and terrorism.
Bringing the religious establishment to heel is also a crucial part of the prince’s efforts to take the traditional levers of Saudi power under his control. The arrests on Saturday appeared to cripple potential rivals within the royal family and send a warning to the business community to toe the line.
As evidence of that, the kingdom’s chief religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, endorsed the arrests over the weekend, saying that Islamic law “instructs us to fight corruption and our national interest requires it”.
The 32-year-old crown prince outlined his religious goals at a recent investment conference in Riyadh, saying the kingdom needed a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples”.
But such top-down changes will face huge challenges in a deeply conservative society steeped in the idea that Saudi Arabia’s religious strictures set it apart from the rest of the world as a land of unadulterated Islam. Enforcing those changes will also require overhauling the state’s sprawling religious bureaucracy, many of whose employees fear that the kingdom is forsaking its principles.
“For sure, it does not make me comfortable,” a government cleric in Buraida, a conservative city north of Riyadh, said of the new acceptance of gender mixing and music at public events. “Anything that has sin in it, anything that angers the Almighty – it’s a problem.”
The government has tried to silence such sentiments by arresting clerics and warning members of the religious police not to speak publicly about the loss of their powers, according to their relatives.
“They did a pre-emptive strike,” one cleric said of the arrests. “All those who thought about saying no to the government got arrested.”
He acknowledged that many conservatives have reservations about the new direction but would go along, in part because Saudi Islam emphasises obedience to the ruler.
“It’s not like they held a referendum and said, ‘Do you want to go this way or that way?'” he said. “But in the end, people go through the door that you open for them.”
The clerics have long been subservient to the royal family, but their independence has eroded as they became government functionaries and have been forced to accept – and at times sanction – policies they disliked, like the arrival of American troops, whom they considered infidels, during the Gulf War in 1990.
“In a sense, Mohammed bin Salman is trying to fight with a religious establishment that is already weakened,” said Stéphane Lacroix, a scholar of political Islam at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies. “Most of the Wahhabi clerics are not happy with what is happening, but preserving the alliance with the monarchy is what matters most. They have much more to lose by protesting.”
In pushing the reforms, Crown Prince Mohammed is betting the kingdom’s large youth population cares more about entertainment and economic opportunities than religious dogma.
Many young Saudis have cheered the new direction, and would love to see the clerics banished from public life. But the changes have shocked conservatives.
Still, some find the recent moves encouraging.
“If they have to take serious measures to stamp out the uglier parts of Salafism that permeate Islam around the world, it could be on the whole quite a good thing,” said Cole Bunzel, a fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.