More than theology, economics drives religious moderation in Saudi Arabia

Under the leadership of Saudi strongman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (nicknamed MBS), a discourse on religious moderation has been promoted and various social norms have been relaxed, with conservative Wahhabi clerics left with no choice but to align themselves with these changes. However, the religious reforms appear to be inspired by practical considerations more than a deep belief in tolerance and pluralism, writes Ulrich von Schwerin in the leading Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung (August 29). More than preaching tolerance, moderation seems to be understood as refraining from engaging in political Islam. There have been obvious changes in Saudi Arabia, including an interreligious forum organized in Riyad last May by the World Muslim League, permission granted to women to travel abroad freely, and the banning of the feared religious police from Saudi streets. All those transformations have led observers to wonder if the long-held pact between the ruling Saud family and Wahhabi clerics, who are given a free hand in return for their support, is being overturned.

Source: World Watch Monitor.

According to Peter Mandaville, editor of Wahhabism and the World: Understanding Saudi Arabia’s Global Influence on Islam (Oxford University Press, 2022), MBS needs a cultural and social opening to achieve the ambitious goals of his Vision 2030 program for the modernization of the Saudi economy. Thus, he has allowed males and females to interact in public areas and Saudi citizens to cooperate with people from other religious and cultural backgrounds. While it is true that Saudi Islamic humanitarian work abroad has come under strict state control and that the financing and export of Wahhabi-inspired religious work worldwide has drastically declined for various reasons, the impact of decades of spreading the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam around the globe will be felt for a long time and can survive without Saudi support. It also remains to be seen if the changes in the religious policy of the Saudi state will last. As long as Wahhabi clerics are seen by MBS as an obstacle to his economic reforms, he will continue to try to limit their influence. But this may change if he needs them at some point, and he might even have no choice but to turn to them if his economic reform plans fail. Indeed, Vision 2030 has to deliver in order for the state to earn its legitimacy from economic development and no longer from recognition by religious figures.