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The Separation of Mosque and State in Saudi Arabia?

A global geopolitical event involving the evolution of Wahhabi Islam is occurring before our eyes: the separation of mosque and state in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This reformation of the kingdom, should it succeed, has global implications.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s idea to return to a more moderate pre-1979 Islam involves more than just stripping all political leanings from Wahhabism. It also entails changes to the monarchy’s custodianship of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The idea has had fits and starts — most notably an episode last year where the announcement of King Salman abdicating but keeping the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques was withheld at the last minute because of resistance from dissenters who voted against Prince Mohammed during his promotion to crown prince.

In October 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed vowed to return the country to “moderate Islam” and asked the world to support his efforts to transform the “hardline” kingdom into a more open society that empowers its citizens and attracts investors. The crown prince said that for the past three decades, his country had been “not normal,” blaming the 1979 Iranian Shia revolution for the rise of inflexible Wahhabi doctrines that have defined Islam in the kingdom. He said that previous Saudi rulers “did not know how to deal with this situation.”

Plans for Separation and Moderation

The crown prince’s plan involves an empowered Muslim World League acting as the global envoy of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. The league’s secretary general, Sheikh Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulkarim al-Issa, is promoting interfaith dialogue and tolerance that is unprecedented in Saudi history. Al-Issa’s condemnation of the Holocaust is a notable outreach not only to the Jewish community but also to the global community.

The crown prince’s outreach to various religious leaders is also part of his initiative. The future monarch is sending a message that his kingdom will promote tolerance and understanding on interfaith issues. During Crown Prince Mohammed’s March 2018 trip to Egypt, he met with the head of the Coptic Church at a Cathedral – a first for a Saudi ruler. In addition, the crown prince is reportedly planning a visit to Najaf, Iraq — one of Shia Islam’s holiest cities — a move that is expected to help counter Iran’s influence among the Arab Shia. This visit underscores the Prince’s move to build relations with the region’s Shia minorities, who have gravitated towards the Iranian orbit in recent decades, by stressing their common Arab identity.  

Moreover, last May Riyadh launched the Ideological Warfare Center (IWC or Fikr in Arabic which means “to think”) — a “reformist” counter-terrorism information center supervised by the defense ministry. Al-Issa, Fikr’s secretary general, explained that the IWC considers Islam “loving and all-inclusive. The type of Islam that the center seeks to counter is a doctrine steeped in extremism, hatred, and exclusion.” The IWC is concentrating on using Islamic law to counter rumors, suspicions, and deceptive techniques promoted by extremists and terrorists. Its mission is to intellectually combat extremism and terrorism.  

The big question is whether the Saudi clerical establishment is willing and prepared to implement this new approach of moderation and inclusion. Separating mosque and state is more than changing the custodianship of the holy cities. The shift toward a more open society will be a slow and controlled process – but one that is essential to the crown prince’s goal of establishing the Fourth Saudi State.

While some Wahhabi clerics support the crown prince’s efforts, intense resistance to such change is inevitable. Many of the clerical and tribal leaders that are cooperating are only doing so under duress. A key test on how this process moves forward will be apparent when Saudi women begin driving this summer.

Meanwhile, the international community will have a tough time navigating the upcoming twists and turns of the separation. But it is critical that outsiders recognize the high stakes associated with this emerging new Saudi Arabia. This moderate version of Saudi Wahhabism will be on display during the crown prince’s current visit to the United States. The visit will be different from previous visits by Saudi crown princes; it will entail not only talk of business and innovation but also of moderation and tolerance.

Policy Implications

The foreign policy ramifications of a moderate Saudi Arabia, especially in terms of the custodianship structure, are chiefly a challenge to politically active Shiism — notably, the Islamic Republic of Iran. When it comes to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s message is unambiguously damning of the regime. The Saudi geopolitical environment is filled with perils and Riyadh sees Tehran as the biggest threat to national and regional security. Here is where the Saudi separation of mosque and state can aid the kingdom in countering Iran. Crown Prince Mohammed’s envisioned religious reformation directly threatens Iran’s cleric-dominated political order.

Just as the overthrow of the Iranian monarchy in the 1979 revolution was a threat to the stability of the Saudi kingdom, a Saudi monarchy with a watered down role for clerics in the here and now could empower forces in Iran that seek to weaken the clerics that dominate their state. In this way, the Saudi reformation — a degree of secularization — is not simply a way to tackle Sunni extremism, but also Shia radicalism. An Iranian regime with a truncated role for clerics will be less able to employ the pan-Shia solidarity card to back its Arab allies in the region. Saudi Arabia can thus better manage Iran’s efforts to project power in the region.

From the point of view of the United States, this emerging Saudi Arabia could thus help Washington combat jihadists as well as Iran-led Shia radicalism. The Trump administration must support Crown Prince Mohammed’s initiative by curbing Islamophobic rhetoric at home. In conjunction with the crown prince’s efforts, the Trump administration should consider launching an anti-Islamophobia campaign to demonstrate America’s commitment to working with moderate Muslim forces. This will be essential to support the evolution of a secular state in Saudi Arabia, which is not only in the interest of U.S. national security but may also stem the tide of regional fragmentation in the Middle East.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute. He is also a Principal Investigator for the Jamestown Foundation’s “Russia in the Middle East” Project. 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