The growing threats to Saudi Arabia’s modernising leader

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 33, is seeking to improve his country’s austere image in the West. But his reforms have reignited unrest in the kingdom.

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On 12 July, Safar al-Hawali, one of Saudi Arabia’s most influential conservative clerics, was arrested by Saudi security forces. His arrest followed the online publication of his controversial new book, Muslims and Western Civilisation. Addressing Muslims worldwide and in particular those inside the kingdom, the cleric levels unprecedented criticism against the ruling Al Saud family and calls for its replacement.

Hawali suffered a stroke ten years ago and is rumoured to be dying. He rose to prominence in the 1990s as a leading voice in anti-US propaganda, opposing the presence of US troops on the Arabian Peninsula. He was jailed early in the decade for speaking out against the support his government gave to the American campaign to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the Gulf War.

Born in Al Bahah, a south-western city of Saudi Arabia, Hawali relocated to the holy city of Mecca, where he studied at Umm al-Qura University under Muhammad Qutb.  Muhammad’s brother, Sayyid Qutb, was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt before his 1966 execution for plotting to assassinate President Nasser. Muhammad Qutb subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia, where he dedicated his life to spreading his brother’s ideology.

Hawali became a leading figure in the Sahwa or Awakening movement founded in the early 1990s. A Salafi activist movement, it was groundbreaking for its fusion of political, anti-imperialist ideology imported from Egypt, with the conservative Wahhabi religious doctrine indigenous to the Najd region of today’s Saudi Arabia since the 18th century. The Sahwa movement challenged the ruling family’s authority and privilege. It called for improved transparency in the handling of public funds and the strict implementation of sharia (Islamic) law. It also sought to promote strict religious conservatism as a bulwark against encroaching Western cultural influences.

The influence that Hawali and another prominent Salafist cleric, Salman al-Awda, held over a generation of young Arab Muslims earned the duo the nickname, “the Awakening Sheikhs”. Hawali has been accused, both at home and in the West, of contributing to the rise of al-Qaeda and inspiring a campaign of violence against American interests in the kingdom.

Ill health had, in recent years, forced Hawali to maintain a much lower profile. His latest intervention is likely to be his final attack on the House of Saud, provoked by the 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS), and his ever-closer ties to Donald Trump’s America, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Hawali denounced MBS’s domestic, pro-liberal reform programme as a product of these hated alliances.

MBS is seeking to burnish Saudi Arabia’s austere, even fanatical, image in the West. There can be no doubt that the lifting of the ban on women driving in the kingdom, the reopening of cinemas and the greater prevalence of mixed gender activities have been welcomed by the Saudi young, deprived of the freedoms they see on the internet.

However, MBS’s reform agenda has reignited the feud between Salafist clerics leading the defence against creeping Westernisation and the ruling family they accuse of betraying Islam.

Tension between the religious establishment and the state flares up periodically, but Hawali’s arrest, which comes amid a wider crackdown on Islamist clerics in the kingdom, is another example of MBS’s zero-tolerance policy towards dissent. This extends beyond the Islamist “opposition”, to intellectuals, rights campaigners and competing royal factions, and compromises the liberal credentials of the reformist crown prince. Rights groups report that Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five human-rights activists, including the first female campaigner to face execution.

Hawali’s online book may also portend future instability in the kingdom. For now, the crackdown on dissent has largely succeeded in muting Islamist opposition. This was apparent from the conspicuously limited social media criticism in Saudi Arabia of the US embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which drove a tank (you could say literally as well as metaphorically) through decades of delicate diplomacy.

But if MBS maintains the same domestic policies and diplomatic alliances into the longer terms, al-Qaeda and other radical groups could capitalise on simmering discontent. This risk increases if further austerity measures are required to repair the economic damage caused by a period of low oil prices. Over the past year, fuel and electricity subsidies have been cut and VAT introduced.

Threats to stability may also lie in wait from disenfranchised but influential factions of the royal family. King Salman’s promotion of his young son to the role of crown prince and heir to the throne, together with a wider-ranging reshuffle, disrupted the line of succession and marginalised several powerful factions.

The consensus among Saudi’s urban intelligentsia is that the family’s respect for the 82-year-old King Salman will prevent strident opposition to MBS during his lifetime.  However, after his father’s death, the crown prince will become more vulnerable. Vulnerability in the king’s absence could be the reason that King Salman this year chose to remain in the kingdom rather than escaping the raging summer heat by going to Morocco, his preferred annual retreat.

Hawali is likely to be released to avoid the inevitable backlash that would follow if he died in prison. However, while his arrest reflects the price paid for dissent under MBS’s regime, his recent book exposes longer-term threats to stability in the kingdom, not least from conservative and radical elements opposed to MBS’s reforms. These are the challenges that the crown prince must navigate if he is to survive. 

Victoria Mackay is the director of business risk consultancy VLM Advisory and a former British diplomat

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic