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Saudi Arabia’s Custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques

The Khashoggi murder has created an international crisis with serious implications for the stability of Saudi Arabia. The strong international perception that the soon-to-be king, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), ordered the killing of the renowned Saudi columnist could have both domestic and global reverberations. A weakened Saudi state will not be able to discharge the role it has held since the founding of the modern kingdom nearly 100 years ago: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Earlier this year, in “The Separation of Mosque from State in Saudi Arabia,” I argued that the religious transformation in the kingdom is a momentous event with global geopolitical consequences. Much has happened since that publication, but a religious transformation is occurring as described. And it involves the struggle for the holy cities. This kind of struggle is common to all religious cities in the Middle East and South Asia — from Jerusalem to Najaf, Qom, and Mashhad.

It involves disputes accelerated by quick-moving politics and social media, and it includes property ownership and revenue streams. At the core of the struggle are growing calls for more autonomy for the region’s holy cities. These calls are geopolitical in nature, in that there is a shift occurring in terms of religious identity and fervor in different corners of the Muslim world. In this analysis, I will limit the discussion to Mecca and Medina and the Saudi monarchy’s Custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques.

Outreach and Economics in the Holy Cities

Recent arguments about how Saudi rulers are using the Custodianship have raised eyebrows. These include the assertion that King Salman and MbS have weaponized the holy cities, exploiting the Custodianship as part of ill-conceived reform plans. In another publication, Saudi Arabia’s religious foreign policy is seen as a nefarious tool. These assertions are only scratching the surface of what the struggle over Mecca and Medina truly means. The cities are more than just platforms to defend Saudi rulers.

The provincial governments of Mecca and Medina are increasingly important in the maintenance of the two holy cities. Their leaders — in particular, the governor of Mecca Prince Khaled al-Faisal — are forward-thinking in terms of providing banking, education, and social services unique to those two cities that bolster their unique identities. The two holy cities are becoming the economic engines of Saudi Arabia’s future by providing a safety net that perhaps is not found in the rest of the country.

Finally, there is revenue for Mecca and Medina. The holy cities’ revenue stream is estimated to be $150 billion annually from Hajj and Umrah revenues by 2022. The Hajj and Umrah economic model connects Mecca and Medina, and other cities throughout Saudi Arabia, to major urban centers around the world — particularly in Malaysia, which acts as a gateway for Muslims from Southeast Asia to reach the holy cities.

The Muslim World League (MWL) remains a remarkable testimony to how a Saudi institution tied to the holy cities is covering new ground in terms of outreach to the Jewish community in Europe and America. Most notably, the secretary general of the MWL, Sheikh Dr. Mohammed Bin Abdulkarim al-Issa, is promoting interfaith dialogue and tolerance not seen elsewhere in modern Saudi history. Sheikh Issa’s condemnation of the Holocaust is an unprecedented outreach not only to the Jewish community but also to the global community. Al-Issa’s comments are helping to break down cultural barriers and creating space for the improvement of bilateral relations on several levels.

The Politics of Mecca and Medina

What is occurring in Saudi Arabia, and specifically Mecca and Medina, is evident in the positioning of clerics in relationship to MbS. Over the past few months, the Saudi clergy has made itself heard by pushing for a narrowing of publicly allowed narratives. Now, prominent clerics are being seen more often around the Saudi leadership, including Abdalaziz bin Abdullah Al Sheikh. Moreover, there are calls for the release of jailed clerics sentenced to death, including Awad al-Qarni, Ali al-Omari, and Salman Odah. Amid the Khashoggi murder, pressure on MbS to free these clerics could play well with those wanting to keep tradition and culture — such as Mecca and Medina’s continuing role as the kingdom’s centerpiece — alive. It should be noted that funeral prayers for Khashoggi given in the holy mosques is a central part of how the kingdom sees itself tied to its religious roots during a time of reflection.

Now, the Khashoggi murder has affected the kingdom’s internal political environment, and clerics are wrestling with the leadership over the pace and scope of social change. The clerics, along with the Ministry of Interior, are pressuring MbS to better protect Mecca and Medina from unorthodox supporters. Whoever runs the Hajj committee — in this case, the Ministry of the Interior — may be able to influence the outcome out of any struggle over the holy cities and their management.

The holy cities are economic engines. The ability to bring in hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of revenues and reinvesting that money into Saudi small to medium enterprises is a smart way to move forward. Thus, as Saudi Arabia continues its reform drive by focusing on youth, the ability to transfer newly generated revenue into meaningful projects could make Mecca and Medina first class international cities.

The emerging relationship with Israel is also important for Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia needs to strengthen its relationship with Israel so the countries can present a united front against Iran. Israel is already keen on advancing its interests throughout the Arabian Peninsula, as represented by Israeli outreach to Oman and to Yemen. The relationships between the holy cities of Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina are affecting regional geopolitics in new ways.

What the Future Holds

The forecast for Saudi Arabia’s Custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques in the post-Khashoggi era is a rocky one. Next year will see sanctions against the Saudis that will influence the struggle over Mecca and Medina. The targeting, length and scope of the sanctions will affect the political landscape in the Kingdom and perhaps will be one of MbS’s biggest challenges as he takes the throne. Of course, a few variables involved in the coming succession will affect the new King and his Custodianship.

First is the succession itself and whether the Allegiance Council or the Medical Commission, which determines the new king and crown prince’s health, will present a challenge. When the kingdom undergoes a leadership transition, the centrality of Mecca and Medina comes into play. With the support of Mecca’s governor al-Faisal, who is leading the campaign surrounding the holy cities’ rejuvenation, a smooth accession is guaranteed. The Mecca governor is seen as a powerful elder who will be able to help police the internal political fallout and protect Mecca and Medina’s economic flow from the toxicity of sanctions.

Many actors are trying to leverage the perception that U.S. sanctions are hurting the Saudis’ ability to safeguard the holy mosques. For instance, Iran sees that after the Khashoggi affair, Saudi Arabia is being severely damaged and sanctions against the kingdom are hurting Riyadh’s anti-Tehran campaign. Saudi leaders could hold the United States and other countries that penalize the kingdom responsible if an attack occurs that could be blamed on hampered U.S. defense commitments.

Internally, sanctions will serve as ammunition for those who, despite public stances on unity, seek bureaucratic and personal gain. Younger security officials or clergy, especially younger clergy, may see an opportunity to put themselves forth themselves as viable current and future leaders and potential decision makers. How these individuals see Mecca and Medina as part of their portfolio will help determine their place in the Saudi order in the coming years.

The United States needs to recognize the complexity of the religio-political environment in holy cities such as Mecca and Medina and their relationship with the outside world. Washington also needs to be aware that sanctions could destabilize the Saudi transformation, especially by enabling other key Saudi leaders and the clergy who very well may have their own agenda. In order to strengthen bilateral ties during this troublesome time, Washington must further embrace Saudi acknowledgment of the Holocaust as a step toward peace with Israel. Finally, the U.S. should examine the contributing factors to changes in other Islamic holy cities, given that what is happening in Mecca and Medina is occurring elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute. For the past 30 years, Karasik has worked for a number of U.S. agencies researching and analyzing religious and political issues across MENA and Eurasia. Dr. Karasik lived in Dubai, UAE, from 2006 until 2016, where he worked on Arabian Peninsula foreign policy and security issues. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.