The Discontents of the Saudi “Moderate Islam” Project

by Eldar Mamedov

Expanding on his vision of a new Saudi Arabia, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) announced a pledge a few days ago to promote “moderate Islam” and “eradicate all remnants of extremism in the near future.”

Saudi officials and media have been busy amplifying this message, positioning the kingdom as a force for moderation, stability, and development in a turbulent region. This talk is supposed to translate into the relaxation of the rigid Wahhabi religious norms governing the country. For example, in addition to allowing women to drive (as of summer of 2018), the government has now also promised to admit them to sports stadiums. Officials talk about setting up tourism and entertainment industries, and even building an opera house and establishing a symphony orchestra.

It is tempting to see these efforts as merely a ploy by the Saudi authorities to airbrush the country’s international image, which took a severe hit in recent years as a consequence of the Saudi-led war in Yemen and growing awareness in the world of the Wahhabi ideological-religious roots of Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al-Qaeda terrorism. After all, the “moderate Islam” project does not involve any democratization of Saudi governance. To the contrary, Riyadh has been at the vanguard of a regional, post-Arab-Spring, counter-revolutionary pushback against grassroots movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. It certainly is not going to experiment with democratic reforms in its own country.

Even within the narrower perimeters of social liberalization, there is not much evidence of change beyond talk. Liberal secular dissidents such as Raif Badawi—a laureate of the Sakharov prize, the EU highest human rights award—are still in prison, even though they could be the government’s natural allies if it were serious about liberalization. The fundamentals of the male guardianship system, which effectively consigns Saudi women to the status of life-long minors, remain largely in place. And, as the country’s Shia residents and Christian guest workers can attest, the kingdom is still not showing more openness “to all religions,” as MBS vowed to do in his “moderate Islam” speech.

Still, despite this skepticism, it would be a mistake to completely dismiss the rhetoric of change. After all, Saudi society is evolving. With about 70% of the population younger than 35 and one of the highest per-capita rates of Twitter users in the world, Saudis are painfully aware of their country’s inadequacies. The old social contract—sustained by high oil prices and popular acquiescence to the absolute rule of the House of Saud, in alliance with the Wahhabi clergy—is eroding. There is a broad understanding that this order should be replaced by a new one, with more and better jobs and a measure of social and cultural, if not political, liberalization at its heart. The decision to rescind the drive ban for women, for instance, has met remarkably little conservative backlash so far. MBS, as the first crown prince of this young generation, seems to be responding to these winds of change. Young pro-reform Saudis, even those critical of the top-down, autocratic manner of the reforms, reckon that MBS may be their best bet to push for a liberalizing agenda.

For the prospects of reform to be bright, however, Saudi Arabia must enjoy a modicum of security and safety in its regional environment. Currently this is not the case. The exaggerated Saudi fear of Iran is one of the major factors contributing to such a state of affairs. The concept of “moderate Islam” itself is partly an ideological construct seeking to link all religious extremism in the region to the Iranian revolution of 1979, conveniently forgetting that the siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in the same year by Wahhabi fundamentalists, ideological precursors of al-Qaeda and IS had domestic Saudi roots. Obsession with the Iranian threat led Saudi Arabia to engage in impulsive, ill-conceived, and ultimately self-defeating adventures such as the war on Yemen, support for extremists in Syria, and meddling in Lebanon when a power-sharing agreement between the pro-Saudi and pro-Iranian forces in the country seemed to be working. This is a dangerous gamble, since Iran has amply demonstrated that it has both the will and capacity to retaliate when its core national interests are at stake.

Nor were the Saudi efforts to isolate Iran internationally successful. It’s only Israel’s right-wing government and elements within the Trump administration who agree with Riyadh in depicting Iran as the source of all trouble in the Middle East. Although welcoming cooperation with Saudi Arabia, other major players such as the European Union, Russia, China, India, Japan, and even some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are not ready to do so at the expense of their re-emerging post-JCPOA ties with Iran. Thus, Saudi insistence that its partners choose between Riyadh and Tehran is futile and counter-productive. It also siphons the energy and wealth needed for domestic reforms to geopolitical struggles Saudi Arabia has little chance of winning.

Ultimately, then, learning to share the region with Iran, in the words of former President Barack Obama, offers the Saudis a chance to prove the skeptics wrong and show that Mohammad Bin Salman’s reform vision is more than just a PR stunt.

Photo: Amnesty International Finland via Flickr.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. “Positioning the kingdom” is largely what the US and Israel demand. KSA has no other significant allies. So now it looks like US/Israel/Saudi vs. Russia/Turkey/Iraq/Iran/Syria and it will be focused on Hezbollah and Lebanon. Reform in the kingdom? Forget it. It’s the family in control of 33 million people, half of whom (females) have no rights, and the family either stays in full control or perishes.

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