Credit: Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images

November 14, 2017   7 mins

Since 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old son of doddery 81-year-old King Salman, has been the power behind the Saudi Arabian throne. And though MbS has had almost no experience of any other country, the ‘Prince Everything’ has rapidly marginalised older and more experienced rivals – most recently the ministers of defence, interior and now the head of the National Guard. He has billed himself a religious reformer, but can he curb the power of the Wahhabi?

First, some history

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was based on a key pact between two men in the 18th century, long before the state of Saudi Arabia existed from 1932 onwards.

One was Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, a religious leader and theologian from the remote Nejd region of Arabia. He adopted the austere and intolerant creed of the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya, who was a controversially puritanical figure even in his own medieval lifetime – think Jan Hus on steroids.

Wahhab opposed Muslims paying their respects to the tombs of the Prophet and his companions (the original ‘salafi’) or hoping for saints to intercede on their behalf, which he condemned as polytheism. With views like these Wahhab needed political protection, much like Luther and Calvin had in early modern Europe.

In 1744, Wahhab took an oath of allegiance to the ruler Muhammad bin Saud. Saud, in Riyadh, would rule his modest tribal domain according to Wahhab’s interpretation of Islam. Wahhab, in turn, would preside over the Saudi clerical hierarchy or ulema, as they still do today.

With views like these Wahhab needed political protection, as had early Protestant reformers like Luther and Calvin in early modern Europe.

Eventually a descendant of Saud called Ibn Saud wrested Saudi Arabia from the Ottomans, aided by a fanatic army which espoused Wahhab’s ideas. He slaughtered the army shortly after.1

Black gold

Oil production took off in Saudi Arabia with the formation of the Arabian American Oil Company. Over several decades, the Saudis increased their revenue share of the company until 1988 when they finally secured 100% control and called it Saudi Aramco. One of the few parts of the Kingdom to run with clockwork efficiency is the huge Aramco compound at Dhahran, where 11,000 expats live.2

Not all Saudis have been content with these developments, or the hedonistic lifestyle that took hold. Wealth is very unevenly spread and the Kingdom is notoriously corrupt. A few years ago, for example, billions were spent on a sewer network in Jeddah. In reality, after the funding was embezzled, manhole covers were laid without adding pipework below ground, and the city was flooded in waste.3

The flooding in Jeddah in 2009 led to the deaths of 122 people with many more missing. Credit: Rami Awad, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1986 the Saud family opportunistically decided to change their royal title to ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Places’ and began to invest in propagating Wahhabism abroad. The main vehicle for this was, and is, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which also appoints murky clerical ‘diplomats’ within the Saudi diplomatic service.

Experts estimate that $6 billion has been spent building Wahhabist-influenced mosques and madrassa schools the world over, not to mention books from the world’s largest press. From Nigeria to Malaysia and via London and Birmingham, these inculcate Wahhabism through rote learning of the Koran. It’s telling that when ISIS needed school textbooks for schools in the erstwhile Caliphate, it used Saudi imports without altering a line.4

With a sizeable constituency of religious zealots at home, Saudi policy has been to simply export them. The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan after December 1979 was a good opportunity for this, especially with the West eager to arm these ‘mujahadeen’. Some of the mujahedeen evolved into Al Qaeda, under their Saudi warlord Osama bin Laden. It was inevitable that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. 5

Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan after fighting with the Western and Saudi armed Mujahideen. Credit: I.Khodzhayev, Boris Yusupov/Tass/PA Images

Little or none of which has impacted on the West’s official view of the Saudis as swing oil producers and customers for enormous arms sales. And since western human rights NGOs keep harping on about the repressive aspects of Saudi Arabia (there is a Chop-Chop Square in Riyadh, not to mention floggings and stonings), the ruling dynasty periodically essays modernizing reforms. Most have been cosmetic.

Where we are now

MbS is a self-styled technocratic reformer, keen to diversify the Kingdom away from hydrocarbons, and towards what is outlined in a revamped McKinsey report called ‘Saudi Vision 2030.’ One chronic problem is a bloated public sector in which people are paid for doing nothing. MbS’s aim is to create private sector work for the many idle young Saudi hands, in finance, entertainment, tourism and so on, while reducing the 11 million strong army of expats and dependents.

Other issues are the absence of working women (they need male chaperones) and an acute lack of affordable housing, which since marriage depends on a home, means many frustrated young males without partners.6

It is amazing to see what a couple of £800,000 supplements of PR guff can buy by way of coverage in the opinion pages.

At the same time, MbS wants to undermine the social power of the joyless Wahhabi clergy and the ubiquitous Muttaween religious police who serve the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice.

Although MbS has struck at a few freelance Islamist clerics with huge Twitter followings, he has not laid a glove on the Establishment whose stipends his regime pays, and nor has he curtailed the money spent globally propagating Wahhabism. Has he rescinded school textbooks which advocate killing apostates and ‘sorcerors’, or a jihad against all infidels? Has he told the clergy to desist from calling the oppressed Saudi Shia in the oil rich Eastern Province ‘heretical snakes’ and the like? Of course not. What his calls for a ‘moderate’ Islam mean are actually an apolitical version under a revamped authoritarian monarchy for MbS says nothing about representation and consent.7

Instead, MbS’s latest (preposterous) gambit is to entice foreign investors to help him fund a $500 billion high tech city called NEOM on the Gulf of Aqaba, that sum being significantly more than the Kingdom’s annual budget or its foreign currency reserves. Since he does not like much of conservative small town Saudi Arabia, MbS’s aim seems to be to build himself another version more to his tastes, where young people can drink cocktails and wear bikinis while designing software. Half the ‘population’ will be robots. Western tourists will be able to visit pre-Islamic pagan sites. One wonders how the Wahhabis will regard that?8

As MbS prepares to take over when his father Salman abdicates, he has one further trick up his sleeve, which we have witnessed in recent weeks. Though he does not shrink from the luxuries of life – in 2015 MbS paid £453 million to a Russian vodka oligarch for his super yacht Serene after spotting it in the Med – he has decided to copy Xi Jinping’s autocratic playbook with an anti-corruption campaign.9

Conveniently this has struck down various potential rivals, who found their bank accounts blocked along with their private jets held at Jeddah and Riyadh airports. They are currently sleeping on mattresses locked in the ball-room of the Riyadh Ritz Carlton, where a couple of weeks ago thousands of investors were gathered to put money into NEOM. Another potential rival died in a helicopter crash near the Yemeni border.

MbS’s aim seems to be to build himself another version more to his tastes, where young people can drink cocktails and wear bikinis while designing software.

Even the loftiest visions can hit obstacles, as indeed the Serene did when symbolically it ran aground on rocks in 2017 off Sharm al Sheikh after navigational errors.10

MbS had to dip heavily into royal coffers when public sector employees objected to downsizing this summer. The Saudi economy is flat-lining and bond auctions are filling gaps in public finances. MbS’s foolish war in Yemen is costing $58 million a week, with no signs of progress, and the Qataris are resisting Saudi attempts to isolate and depose their ruler for supporting Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Emir of Qatar is under Russian, as well as Iranian, Turkish and US protection. The Saudi proxy war against Assad in Syria has been a disaster too, and now the prime minister of Lebanon, a Saudi puppet, has joined the president of Yemen in exile in Riyadh, as the Kingdom intensifies hostilities on the Lebanese front of its struggle with Iran. Riyadh has also been meddling in Iraq and Kurdistan too.

By contrast, the more sophisticated Iranians are on the advance at all points of the compass, notwithstanding MbS’s ludicrous claims that all Islamist terrorism can be parked at Tehran’s door since 1979.

So far the self-styled ‘Prince of Youth’ relies on the fact that he is popular among younger Saudis who yearn for change. For sure they do, if you ask them about attending cinemas, football matches and rock concerts. But then ask them if they would be relaxed about a stranger dating their sister, and a certain froideur ensues.11

It is relatively easy to adopt the external trappings of western modernity, like the soulless architecture of Saudi cities, but far harder to adopt the West’s liberated spirit.

Having made many enemies in his precipitate rise to the top, MbS may find that a war with the descendants of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab is a step too far, even for such a Promethean figure as him. Another kind of war, with Iran, would be a disaster for all of us.

  1.  Michael Crawford, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Makers of the Muslim World (Princeton 2014) for these details
  2.  For the history of Aramco see Daniel Yergin, The Prize. The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (New York 2012) pp. 392ff
  3.  See Lawrence Wright ‘The Kingdom of Silence’ The New Yorker 5 January 2004 on Jeddah’s sewerage crisis.
  4.  Michael Burleigh, The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. The History of Now (London 2017). On Wahhabism in Africa see Yaroslav Trofimov ‘Jihad Comes to Africa’ Wall Street Journal 5 February 2016
  5.  From many, many accounts see Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower. Al Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 (London 2006) and Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens. The Story of A Family And Its Fortune (London 2008), both excellent on the Saudi background.
  6.  See Laura El-Katiri ‘Saudi Arabia’s New Economic Reforms’ Harvard Business Review 17 May 2016 and Shmuel Even and Yoel Guzansky ‘Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030: Reducing Dependency on Oil’ INSS Insight nr 819, 6 May 2016
  7.  James Dorsey ‘ Crown Prince Mohammed’s Vow to Moderate Saudi Islam: Easier Said Than Done’ Lobe Log  3 November 2017
  8.  Andrew Torchia ‘Saudi Arabia plans an investment zone to expand its economy beyond oil’ Reuters/Christian Science Monitor 24 October 2017.
  9.  Although the arrests of the likes of News Corp and Twitter shareholder Prince Alwaleed bin Talal generated many headlines, the judicial mechanics are opaque. See ‘New Saudi Committee to investigate public corruption opens ‘new era of transparency’ The National (UAE) 5th November 2017. Some regard MbS as a puppet of his older mentor the UAE ruler ‘MbZ
  10.  Felix Sowerbutts ‘134 m ‘Serene’ runs aground in Red Sea’ Superyachtnews 25 August 2017
  11.  For such a survey see the Dorsey article above.

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.