Though the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is a comparatively recent construct, it bases much of its claim to legitimacy on being the "homeland" of Islam. Saudi monarchs have particularly treasured their title of Custodian of the Two Mosques (Makkah and Madinah). Even if the personal behaviour of some members of the enormous Saudi royal family falls far short of the basic tenets of Islamic teaching, the King oversees a country that puts religion at its heart. Moreover, the Kingdom has refined its own distinctive brand of Sunni Islam; Wahhabism is fundamentalist in the true sense of the word, in that adherents seek guidance for life today in their understanding of the text of the Qur'an and the ahadith, while rejecting many aspects of modernity and denouncing alternative interpretations.
Some years ago, when I visited the headquarters of Saudi Aramco in the Eastern Province (an area with a high concentration of Shia Muslims, incidentally), the manager showing me round declared proudly that God had given the Kingdom oil as a reward for following the true path of Islam. He clearly really believed that to be true. What is more, Saudi Arabia has used a significant proportion of the wealth generated by that oil to export Wahhabism to other parts of the world, such as Pakistan. Whereas other oil-rich Gulf States like Kuwait have channelled some of their riches to poorer countries in the form of development assistance, the Saudis have tended to fund mosques and madrassas instead. Meanwhile, millions of migrant workers, not least from Egypt, have returned home after spells working in the Kingdom influenced strongly by the religious environment that they experienced there.
However, religion is not the only tool that Saudi Arabia has used to assert its desire for hegemony over the Middle East and beyond. Encouraged by the United States and Britain, among others, the KSA has acquired military hardware on a scale way beyond what is required for its own defence. Nonetheless, Riyadh argues that this is necessary because of the "threat" from Iran. Tension between the two countries is only tangentially based on theological differences between Sunni and Shia Islam. The main Saudi objection to the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 was that it toppled the institution of monarchy, and monarchy is one of the twin pillars of Saudi society alongside Wahhabi Islam. All of the Arab Gulf States have royal rulers and when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) considered inviting Jordan and Morocco to join a few years back, it became glaringly obvious that the institution is a kind of monarchy preservation society.
With justification one can ask whether a system based on royalty and religion is fit for purpose in our postmodern age. Certainly, many of the thousands of young Saudis who were sent to universities in Britain or the United States to study have been wondering about that. Disquiet among Saudi youth, both at home and abroad, has been a major stimulus for the royal family's acceptance that if the system is going to survive, then there has to be a degree of reform. Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, catapulted to the pole position of Crown Prince by his father, King Salman, is the personification of that. Of course, some of the measures promoted since he became the heir to the Saudi throne and the main political driving force in the country have been pretty tame by global standards. Opening a few cinemas and allowing women to drive from this summer may have dragged the Kingdom into the 20th century, but it is still a long way from being at home in the 21st. Nevertheless, with the aid of expensive Western PR agencies, the Kingdom is disseminating a narrative of progressive change.
Therein lies a certain danger, as there is a contradiction between progressive change and the conservative doctrine of Wahhabism. When the KSA opens its doors to Western tourists – as is being seriously considered – how will the religious authorities react? The hostility towards the stationing of American troops in the Kingdom during the 1990-1991 Gulf War and its aftermath was such that they eventually had to leave for more hospitable bases in Bahrain and Qatar, which is hardly an encouraging precedent. Many Saudis enjoy their holidays in the more liberal surroundings of London, Casablanca or Beirut, but that does not mean that they would necessarily be happy to see the KSA become more like the rest of the largely secular world. It is not just the imams who see religion plus monarchy as the country's USP.
Meanwhile, Bin Salman is flexing the Kingdom's muscle on the world stage in ways that do not always sit well with the country's religious vocation. One consequence of the rivalry with Iran is that Riyadh has looked for allies in confronting Tehran. In keeping with the old adage that my enemy's enemy is my friend, this has meant increasing – though still largely covert – communication with Israel. As a key partner for both Israel and Saudi Arabia, the United States is delighted about this development, and now that Mike Pompeo and John Bolton have assumed top jobs in the Trump administration we can expect more coordinated, heightened rhetoric against Iran from those three states.
Back in 2011, during the so-called Arab Spring, the Saudis (and Emiratis) intervened in Bahrain to help crush the predominantly Shia demonstrations in and around Manama's Pearl Roundabout, accusing Iran of using the demonstrators in an attempt to overthrow the Bahraini monarchy. Less well publicised has been the Saudi government's suppression of Shia protestors in the Kingdom's Eastern Province. However, it would be wrong to see the unrest there purely in religious terms, as a Sunni-Shia confrontation, because the root causes are to be found more in unequal access to jobs and opportunities, as well as higher levels of poverty within the Shia community.
Similarly, much of the Western media likes to portray the conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, though the reality on the ground is much more complicated than that. Mohammad Bin Salman doubtless hoped that strong intervention in Yemen in 2015 would lead to a quick victory that would boost his own standing as well as his country's, but as the Americans found in Iraq and the Russians in Afghanistan, it is rare for such interventions to have swift, positive outcomes and all too easy for the situation to descend into chaos. Far from enhancing the reputation of the Crown Prince and Riyadh, the Yemen war is turning into a millstone round his neck.
More successful, so far, has been his crackdown on corruption within Saudi Arabia itself. One has to admire the chutzpah of imprisoning billionaires in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh while confiscating some of their wealth. Tackling corruption should in theory ingratiate Bin Salman to the religious authorities, but it is risky, as it strikes at the very heart of the Saudi system. "Commission", as bribes are euphemistically called, is built into almost every business deal – as foreign companies know to their cost – and wasta, or the clout wielded by one's personal network of contacts, is still an essential element of getting anything done in Saudi Arabia. Both religious morality and international norms ought to endorse the abolition of both, but in confronting them the heir apparent may be playing with fire. Tradition is at the core of Saudi culture, in many ways as important as Islam itself.
Inevitably, one needs to ask the question whether Mohammad Bin Salman will be able to rebrand the Kingdom's image, as he seems to wish to do, to turn the country into a modern, outward-facing, progressive nation, despite the fact that currently its society is based so solidly on tradition and religion. Or will the reforms he is ushering in, presumably with his father's approval, merely be window-dressing, like the cinemas?
Western powers, led by the Trump administration and Britain's Conservative government, are cheering him on, but that is no guarantee of success. When a toy drone flew near a palace in Riyadh recently it triggered a major security alert. This was not just paranoia within the hugely powerful royal family; it reflected the fact that, as in Iran in 1979, there are groups in Saudi Arabia today who would be only too happy to raise the banner of their brand of Islam and overthrow the monarchy and all that goes with it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.