Saudi Arabia Refashions its Soul

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

May 7, 2004

I have just returned from Saudi Arabia, where in late April I attended an international conference on terrorism at the Imam Mohammed University in Riyadh—the global headquarters of Wahhabism.

Imam Mohammed University is the factory where Wahhabism is produced and serviced in Saudi Arabia. A large number of Saudi clerics are educated and trained there. Nearly 20,000 students study the core teachings of Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of the Saudi Salafi movement, which is often popularly and sometimes derogatorily referred to as “Wahhabism.”

In my previous visits in 1992, 1997 and 2000, I found the Saudis proud of what they had become. They had covered a distance of nearly seven centuries in less than 30 years on the back of their oil wealth. They were arrogant, confident and sure of themselves and their place in the Muslim world and on the global stage. But today they are confused, unsure, hesitant, apologetic and willing to accommodate. Some are belligerent, even bellicose. But most people I encountered there, including students, members of the political elite, scholars, businessmen, professionals and taxi drivers, were perplexed by the ongoing terrorism within Saudi Arabia.

For a society that was so remarkably free from self-criticism, I found the Saudi Arabia of today to be more willing to listen; and that is the best news I have.

The conference revealed the extent and depth of rethinking taking place within kingdom. In closed-door sessions I was extremely critical of Wahhabism and of Saudi policies, and I found the Saudi scholars and ministers in attendance open and willing to listen. Sometimes they agreed, sometimes they were baffled, but they were never offended. Some encouraged me to speak more.

There were, of course, the usual sycophants and apologists, but even they seemed willing to question their own beliefs. Several American and British scholars criticized the lack of critical thinking and openness in Saudi education, and we were all pleasantly surprised when the Saudis responded by asking for help in introducing critical thinking into their pedagogy.

I ran into a member of the Majlis al-Shura (the Saudi consultative council that is a pretense for a parliament) at a television studio where I recorded a one-hour interview on Islamic democracy. He berated me for not being more critical. I listened to him as he lambasted the Imam Mohammed University and Wahhabi clerics for being the source of the problem behind terrorism in Saudi Arabia. He said: “All they teach is to hate those who are different,” adding: “We are a country that is economically in the 20th century and intellectually in the 14th century.”

I advised him to speak to his country and to the king in the same way, as often and as loudly as possible.

The House of Saud has long relied on the Wahhabi movement for domestic control and legitimacy, and on the US for international security. But after Sept. 11, 2001, the latter two became antagonistic toward each other. The royal family could no longer have both as allies. It is now apparent that it has chosen the United States over Wahhabism. It is determined to maintain its relations with the US and is actively seeking to reform Wahhabism and reconstitute the domestic basis of its rule.

Saudi society is composed of two types of elites: a conservative religious elite and a liberal political and economic elite. For decades the latter had focused on retaining political power and milking the oil cow. In exchange for the freedom to become rich, the regime allowed the religious elite the freedom to preach. However, without a Saudi culture of self-evaluation and without criticism and reflection within the religious establishment, Wahhabism grew out of the hands of those who had nurtured it.

Wahhabi ideas are so embedded in Saudi Arabia that neither the ruling elite (which had abdicated its normative responsibilities, until now) nor the religious elite (which is now afraid of what it has wrought) can rein them in. Any attempt at sudden reform may upset the delicate balance within the society and empower those who would use terrorism to replace both elites. Saudi Arabia needs to advance social and political reforms without undermining domestic and regional stability. For example, the promise of municipal elections must be kept, and the regime must sustain the momentum toward more representative and accountable governance.

Saudi Arabia must stop looking backward for guidance and start looking forward. Those who drive looking in a rearview mirror are destined to crash.

Terrorism by extreme Wahhabis, for whom mainstream clerics and the royal family are not sufficiently Islamic, is forging a new social contract between the religious and ruling elites. This time, however, the Al-Saud and the Al-Sheikh, the descendants of Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, will not come together to establish Wahhabism, but to dismantle it and replace it with self-critical, open and more moderate Salafi traditions.

But before that can happen, the moderates within the religious establishment must prevail over the extremists and be prepared to make compromises – maybe even deviations – in Wahhabi doctrine and institutions. The extremists will then be isolated and can be fought both doctrinally as well as on the battlefield.

The staging of the terrorism conference at the Imam Mohammed University and the seriousness of the dialogue, particularly its high degree of openness and criticism, raised expectations. Let us hope Saudi Arabia can make the transition without trauma.