Moderate ideology: The silent Saudi revolution

Sports events, movie screenings, art exhibitions and music concerts are becoming increasingly common in the kingdom, and Saudi citizens are lapping them all up.

Published: 25th July 2023 12:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th July 2023 12:45 AM   |  A+A-


Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

It has been ‘work in progress’ for some time now. Saudi Arabia is changing the tone and texture of its ideology from what has always been considered obscurantist to something that keeps with the times. Sports events, movie screenings, art exhibitions and music concerts are becoming increasingly common in the kingdom, and Saudi citizens are lapping them all up.

The kingdom has rapidly secured its position as a centre for cultural events, art exhibitions and film screenings. The nation’s Vision 2030 envisages and fully supports the expansion of the entertainment market to SR30 billion. Almost every domain of entertainment for which Saudi citizens earlier travelled far and wide is now available at home. This is thanks to a break from the past that the de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the Crown Prince, has initiated. It makes eminent sense in a nation seeking to develop itself beyond the energy sector with three visionary themes: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and continuity in terms of ambition in comprehensive development.

All this translates into a modern civilisational outlook with technology, intellectualism, private investment, trade, tourism, academics and more, all becoming the prime domains of functioning. The traditional worldwide perception of Saudi Arabia as the centre of the obscurantist ideology of Islam and a nation with an anti-reformist outlook has persisted, and not without reason. A brief understanding of this is important to appreciate the degree of change that Prince MbS has been able to generate.

As the custodian of the Holy Shrines of Mecca and Medina and the land where Islam’s first message was delivered, the Saudi rulers and clergy have always been all-powerful, even more so after adopting the core ideology expounded by Saudi thinker Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. There is a long history behind this.

A virtual pact between the powerful clergy and the Royal Family has existed to promote the Wahhabi ideology in return for the powers that the Royals enjoyed. The pact saw enhanced clergy power after 1979 when the Shia Revolution occurred in Iran, the Saudi Ikhwan attempted a takeover of the Holy Shrine at Mecca, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Wahhabi ideology was about going back to the basics and making the faith much less tolerant by supporting ‘Takfir’, or the power of declaration of a believer as an apostate if Wahhabi tenets are not adhered to. The militant part of the ideology started to come to the fore after 1979. From segments of the Arab world to Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of India, Indonesia, Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, militancy promoting the Saudi brand flourished, giving rise to the notion of a clash of civilisations.

Saudi Arabia’s energy resources always dictated US policy. A grey zone existed here with simultaneous US support to Israel and Saudi Arabia, stacked primarily against Iran and the collective Arab will against Israel. A couple of factors brought the trigger for change. Among them were the discovery of shale gas in the US and the progressive decline in US dependency on Saudi energy resources. Second was the dwindling Saudi economy and the realisation that in an energy-based economy, without expansion into other domains of economic development, such as trade, technology, tourism, investments, entertainment and intellectual research, Saudi Arabia would waste its opportunities and resources. The tremendous advantage of being the centre of the Islamic world could give it enduring leadership status if it could neutralise the rising militancy within Islam. Nations all around, such as the UAE, had fully utilised their possessions and drawn major economic attraction due to pragmatism followed in all domains, including faith issues. The position of women in Saudi society, in particular, had a damning effect on the nation.

Nothing changes without a leader and a vision. Saudi Arabia was fortunate to get MbS, although his personal equation with the US has remained strained for various reasons, not the least being the Khashoggi factor. However, none of that has affected his intent of modernising the nation and for that, a more moderate form of Islam within the kingdom is necessary. To his credit, he has convinced the clergy of the need to follow his vision, which will also project Islam differently to many others who follow the Saudi guidelines on faith.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, from Saudi Arabia, who recently visited New Delhi for six days, is the Secretary General of the Muslim World League. The organisation was once at the forefront of promoting obscurantist ideology but is now transformed, as is evident from Sheikh al Issa’s message in New Delhi. The Sheikh’s belief which he transparently shared is that a whole generation of Muslims has grown up with an ideology that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own.

In his several meetings with intellectuals, leaders and clergy from diverse faiths in India, he emphasised the role of the clergy in any faith. He admitted that Islam had earned a bad name for itself due to the acts of a few and the refusal of the followers to condemn those acts. He spoke of the role of family and education and decried religious teachers’ unsupervised education of young Muslim children. He mentioned that when intolerance and militancy were rising, people feared confronting them. His most poignant argument was that such obscurantism and militancy cannot be eliminated in the typical military way; they have to be removed from the roots by narratives stronger than the ones expounded.

Sheikh Al-Issa’s visit to India was symbolic of what appears to be the fading of the intolerant and militant element of Islam, but we cannot read too much into this. That change is taking place at the ideological centre is positive, but there is no guarantee of permanency. It is also not necessary that the message from Saudi Arabia is gelling with the vast Muslim populations worldwide. These populations are enmeshed with their local cultures and unlikely to follow examples. What is true is that a message supporting reformation has emanated from the nation considered the custodian of the shrines and, by many, of the faith. Nurturing this and taking it beyond is now the challenge.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir


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