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Story Publication logo February 26, 2015

In With the Old in the New Saudi Arabia

Image by Caryle Murphy. Saudi Arabia, 2014.

Saudi Arabia's religious landscape is evolving, posing challenges to the ultraconservative version...

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Image by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, since ascending to the throne one month ago, has moved with uncustomary swiftness to demonstrate that his rule will be different from that of his predecessor. In doing so, he has raised concerns among some Saudis about the new kingdom's new direction, particularly in his overtures to the Wahhabi religious establishment and the extensive powers invested in his young son.

"Usually, one king comes and one king goes and nothing changes," said Khalid M. al-Khudair, chairman of the board of Al Yamamah University. "But this time it's different."

In interviews with roughly two dozen Saudis holding a variety of political and social perspectives, many of whom declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of discussing royal politics, a recurring theme was the belief that King Salman may revive the governing style of his elder brother and mentor, King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, who reigned from 1982 to 2005. King Fahd was known for an autocratic style that relied on close ties to the United States and that also exerted pervasive social control of the population through religion and the religious police.

King Salman is widely regarded by Saudis as more friendly to the ultraconservative religious authorities than his predecessor, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who died on Jan. 23. King Abdullah curbed the excesses of the religious police and fired or demoted clerics who openly obstructed his modernizing reforms, whether in education, the court system, or women's opportunities. Now, there are fears that those tentative changes could be rolled back.

Some Saudis welcome the King Fahd model because they say it maintains a better balance between religion and modernization than that during King Abdullah's rule. "We know we are living in a global village, but we are not into rapid change," said a professor at Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University. "Now, I feel we are back to normal, which is change in a very slow pace."

But other Saudis lament King Fahd's era as one during which social and intellectual modernization lagged far behind economic development. These Saudis were more satisfied with King Abdullah's reign, during which he which launched educational reforms, gave local media more freedom, and pushed women's advancement in education and the workplace.

Women especially expressed concerns about King Salman's intentions. "People say that he won't care for matters of women as much as Abdullah did," said a 23-year-old sales representative at a tech company. "I hope I'm wrong."

An old man in a hurry

For a leadership that prides itself on introducing change at a tortoise-like pace, the hare-on-steroids tempo of the royal transfer of power surprised many Saudis.

"It's never been done this fast," said a former advisor to King Abdullah.

Before the late king was even lowered into the ground of Riyadh's al-Oud cemetery, King Salman had replaced top royal court staff, had invested one of his youngest sons with enormous powers, and, in a historic first for the kingdom, had named an heir apparent from the ranks of the younger princes: interior minister and counterterrorism czar Mohammed bin Nayef.

Even seemingly trivial aspects of the succession were completed in a blink of the eye. Road signs that used to say "Prince Salman Road" were replaced within 24 hours of King Abdullah's death to "King Salman Road," according to locals.

In the week that followed, King Salman invited conservative religious scholars who'd been sidelined by King Abdullah to visit him at court, created two supercommittees with broad authority over economic and security policies, and reshuffled his cabinet to bring in younger, business-minded technocrats.

Some Saudis praised the swiftness as necessary to reassure Saudis and the international community that, at a time of unprecedented turmoil in the Middle East, the royal line of succession is secure for decades to come "The king did 90 percent of his job on Day 1 — he reduced the political uncertainty immensely," Saudi economic columnist and businessman Fawaz H. al-Fawaz said in an interview.

Saudi Arabia "is lucky to have King Salman in this critical moment," Abdullah al-Shammari, a political columnist for al-Yaum newspaper, said in a separate interview. "Within one week Saudi Arabia made decisions not done in seven years."

Other Saudis, however, saw the speedy sweeping-out of the old guard as disrespectful, even hinting at an effort to diminish King Abdullah's legacy. For them, King Salman's initial steps heralded a potentially worrying departure from the late king's modernizing path.

A higher profile for religion

Since his first days on the throne, King Salman has given credence to the perception that he will be more sympathetic to Saudi Arabia's hard-line religious establishment, which espouses an anti-intellectual, rigid version of Islam known as Wahhabism. The new king was photographed with Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, whom King Abdullah had sacked from his job in 2009 as head of the Supreme Judicial Council for obstructing reforms in the court system, and took as an advisor Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shithri, whom King Abdullah had demoted after he publicly opposed co-ed instruction at a graduate research university.

King Salman also brought into his cabinet three members of the Al Sheikh clan, the country's leading religious family, whose members descend from the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. While individual members of the Al Sheikh family differ in their religious views, the family as a whole is seen as upholding the Wahhabi version of Islam and providing religious legitimacy to the House of Saud.

Saudis who were uncomfortable with King Abdullah's confrontational style toward the religious establishment welcomed the change. "As a Saudi nationalist, Wahhabism is my ideology, just like Kemalism in Turkey and freedom in the United States," said columnist Shammari. "Many Saudi sheikhs believe that King Abdullah was not friendly with Wahhabism and conservative Salafism."

Other Saudi analysts, however, saw King Salman's moves as a clever tactic to co-opt the powerful religious establishment. Bringing the clerics into the fold, they believed, could soften opposition to needed reforms and counter propaganda from radical jihadi groups like the Islamic State, which argue that Saudi Arabia is not Islamic enough.

Extending an olive branch to clerics such as Shithri and Luhaidan, for example, was a "smart move," said Hamza al-Salem, an expert on Islamic finance and Wahhabi thinking. Those religious leaders, Salem argued, were genuinely popular among the Saudi population. "Returning these people back to him, King Salman will have more support if he wants to change something," he said.

The son also rises

Another topic that has elicited unease is the apparently immense power now held by the king's son, Mohammed bin Salman, who is in his late 20s or early 30s and is a virtual political unknown. Many have raised concerns about his youth, lack of experience, and supposedly mercurial temperament.

"Everybody is very, very worried about the influence of Mohammed bin Salman," said one Saudi who follows royal politics closely. "Everybody."

In addition to serving as defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman is chief of the royal court, making him the powerful gatekeeper to his 79-year-old father. He also was named chair of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, one of the two new supercommittees tasked with setting broad national policies. The other supercommittee is the Council of Political and Security Affairs, headed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The intent is that the supercommittees will streamline policymaking and pressure an often recalcitrant bureaucracy into action — but some Saudis worry that they could also become independent power centers for their chairmen.

Mohammed bin Salman's exact age is uncertain. His official biography does not state his birthday. While some news reports claim that he was born in 1980, others claim he was born in 1985 — a year supported by his high school alumni association records. Other sources contend that he is even younger: On Jan. 28, the popular Twitter user @mujtahidd, who has previously tweeted accurate information about the inner workings of the royal family, wrote that the prince was born in 1988 and is only 27 years old.

What we do know about Mohammed bin Salman is that he graduated from King Saud University in Riyadh, where he received a bachelor's degree in law. Unlike many other prominent Saudi royals, he seemingly has never studied outside the kingdom. While he has been working with his father for several years, he is seen as untested by many Saudis.

In a culture that reveres seniority and age, his youth is seen as a disadvantage by many Saudis. His father's generation, for example, strictly enforced a hierarchy in which age determined who would be king, though that resulted in a very elderly leadership.

While Mohammed bin Salman's meteoric rise is virtually unprecedented in the kingdom, some Saudis are willing to give him a chance to prove himself. "I think this is his time," said educator Khudair. "Most Saudis are young. We need someone who understands youth and what they need."

Security man

While Mohammed bin Salman represents a giant question mark on the Saudi political scene, his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, is seen as a steadying hand. Upon King Salman's ascension to the throne, the monarch tapped Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince, making him second in line for the throne. The 55-year-old prince is widely credited for restoring security to Saudi streets after the violent al Qaeda insurgency from 2003 to 2006. He also is responsible for a crackdown on political dissidents and human rights activists during the past few years — a crackdown that has drawn international criticism for using harsh methods such as solitary confinement and allegedly torture.

Mohammed bin Nayef's selection as deputy crown prince is a major development because he is the first of the grandsons of the kingdom's founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, to be named as a potential future king. As a result, for the first time Saudis were reassured that the line of succession has, at least for now, been agreed upon within the Al Saud family.

Prince Mohammed's selection, said Islamist activist Mohsen al-Awajy, "gave people some comfort, some relief, some psychological stabilization" because it gave them "some sort of clear plan" about what will happen when the elder generation of princes dies out.

While his elevation certainly left some in his generation miffed at being passed over, there is no indication of a serious challenge to the interior minister's new status from within the royal family. Besides being known for his long working hours and intelligence, Prince Mohammed is highly praised by U.S. officials for his cooperation with Washington on counterterrorism. The only blemish on his recent rise was the discovery that the prince, or someone in his inner circle, had committed the peccadillo of résumé enhancement. Prince Mohammed's official biography stated that he had acquired a degree in political science in 1981 from a U.S. university. The Saudi Embassy in Washington later said the university was Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. However, the college said in a Jan. 30 statement that Prince Mohammed took some classes there but did not obtain a degree.

Dissent not allowed

King Salman has moved quickly to secure the loyalty of his subjects — most notably, giving away an estimated $32 billion in grants, investments, and bonuses to Saudis. He has also adopted a conciliatory approach on some of the cases that have been lightning rods for criticism of the kingdom: Following his ascension to the throne, two Saudi women detained since December for demonstrating against the ban on female drivers were released. And after an international outcry at the Jan. 9 court-ordered public flogging of Raif Badawi, a young writer who had questioned the authority of Saudi religious figures, the government halted plans to administer further weekly lashings.

Despite these moves, the region's current mayhem makes it unlikely that the kingdom will go much further to end its crackdown on human rights activists and political dissidents anytime soon. The king has not offered amnesty to some of the government's most vocal critics now serving long prison sentences, including human rights activists Waleed Abu al-Khair and two prominent supporters of political reform, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid.

Maha al-Qahtani, wife of Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, who is now living in the United States with their five children, wrote in an email that she and her husband "are hoping the reform [is] going to be soon before it is [too] late."

King Salman is a very different man from his predecessor, but his domestic challenge is the same: easing his country into modernity while not abandoning its strict Wahhabi faith. Managing that delicate balance amid the historic chaos now surrounding his kingdom won't be an easy task.


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