Qatar’s Wahhabism serving as model for Saudi reforms

The lack of a powerful religious establishment that could enforce ultra-conservative social norms may be one of the reasons why the strict version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism did not transform Qatar into a country similar to Saudi Arabi, writes James M. Dorsey (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore) in the Huffington Post (December 4). Especially in light of the tense relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar during the past months, many people are not aware that the two countries share a similar religious background in having Wahhabism as their official version of Islam. But there was a deliberate approach in Qatar not to follow the path of Saudi Arabia, even more so after reforms were initiated two decades ago. In contrast with the neighboring kingdom, Qatar does not enforce strict gender segregation, nor does it ban the practice of other religions by non-Muslim foreigners. As political scientists Birol Baskan and Steven Wright had explained in an article published a few years ago in the Arab Studies Quarterly (Spring 2011), the Qatari rulers did not encourage the development of a class of Muslim legal scholars, since their training would have been heavily dependent on such scholars in Saudi Arabia. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatari religious schools are run by the Ministry of Education, and not by the religious affairs authority. Moreover, “Qatari religious authority is not institutionally vested.”

With the current developments in Saudi Arabia, it seems that Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to trek at least in part on a path similar to that of Qatar. But deep political differences are unlikely to make them into allies, since what Saudi Arabia would expect from Qatar would be nothing less than accepting its tutelage. Qatar has been showing to Saudi youth that there is a way to change without renouncing Wahhabism. Dorsey notes that “Prince Mohammed’s efforts to reform Saudi Arabia with his…limited roll-back of puritan restrictions amounted in fact to a first step in adopting a more Qatari version of Wahhabism[,] even if that is something he is unlikely to acknowledge.” But neither Saudi (or Emirati) nor Qatari rulers want political dissent and political change.