By Cole Bunzel
Saudi Arabia's national flag is seen at the Khoba frontline border with Yemen January 27, 2010. Saudi Arabia declared victory over Yemeni Shi'ite rebels on Wednesday following a truce offer from the insurgents, who said they had withdrawn from all Saudi territory. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY). @Adobe Stock Images.

“What was hidden has now been laid bare,” proclaims an al-Qaeda statement issued last September, referring to the “westernizing reforms” of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) and his sweeping arrests of clerics that month. “The manifest hatred for the faith and its supporters has become clear.”

Such is the discourse of Sunni jihadis today around Saudi Arabia. For years they had argued that Saudi Arabia is not what it seems, that it is not the conservative Islamic kingdom it professes to be, one that upholds Islamic norms and Islamic law and is true to the puritanical version of the faith, known as Wahhabism, that arose in the country in the eighteenth century. Yet the case was not so easy to make. Where else did a religious police force patrol the streets and ensure shops were closed for prayer throughout the day? Where else did a grand mufti condemn mutual respect for other religions on the grounds that “it is the duty of Muslims to show enmity to the unbelieving Jews and Christians”? But now, say the jihadis, the mask has come off: Saudi Arabia has shed its Islamic veneer. MbS, in the words of one jihadi ideologue, is bringing back “paganism” to the Arabian Peninsula.

The jihadis may be exaggerating, but they are reacting to something very much real. Since his father’s ascension in 2015, the crown prince has been giving the country’s religious culture a drastic makeover. The Wahhabi religious establishment, once seen as the indispensable partner of the Al Saud, has been repeatedly weakened and undermined. The hard-line views of the above-quoted mufti are being dispensed with. In April 2016, the king issued a decree stripping the religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, of its power of arrest, essentially neutering the establishment’s main vehicle for controlling society. In that same month, MbS unveiled Vision 2030, a comprehensive plan for reforming Saudi Arabia from an oil state into a “global investment powerhouse.” The plan further envisions “a tolerant country” based on “the Islamic principle of moderation.”

“Moderate Islam,” as MbS has become fond of saying, is now the order of the day. To that end he has established an “entertainment authority” to host concerts and other social events once seen as taboo, and he has opened a new space for women in society, allowing them to drive, join the military, and attend sporting events alongside men. The global face of Saudi Islam is also being reworked. The Saudis have appointed as head of the Muslim World League, the Mecca-based organization long accused of spreading Wahhabism across the globe, a man who is truly committed to interfaith dialogue and tolerance, and who recently met with the pope and denounced denial of the Holocaust. The Muslim World League will soon cede control of Belgium’s largest mosque, the Great Mosque of Brussels, in a move described by Western officials as being part of an initiative “to end support for mosques and religious schools abroad blamed for spreading radical ideas.” These are not merely cosmetic changes. They go to the very heart of Saudi Arabia’s identity as an Islamic state founded on an alliance between the Al Saud and the Wahhabi clerical establishment.

These welcome steps toward openness have, however, gone hand in hand with a wave of arrests that has swept up dozens of religious scholars and other intellectuals. MbS has brooked no expression of dissent to his reforms—or to his diplomatic row with Qatar—from either liberals or religious conservatives. Among the earliest clerics to fall foul of the new rules was ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Tarifi, a young preacher with Islamist sympathies who tweeted, in April 2016, thinly veiled criticism of the move to weaken the religious police. He has been in prison ever since. A year and a half later, in September 2017, there came a broader series of arrests targeting some of the country’s biggest-name clerics, such as Salman al-Awda and Awad al-Qarni. These are men with Islamist sympathies (and allegedly links to Qatar), some of whom played a major role in the 1990s sahwa (“awakening”) movement that included protests calling for the stricter application of Islamic law, among other things. They too have remained behind bars.

In this more restrictive climate, the jihadis, operating in the largely ungoverned space of the internet, have acquired something of a monopoly on religious dissent in Saudi Arabia. “Over the past two years, the country has taken terrible steps in the direction of deviation, error, and corruption,” reads the al-Qaeda statement quoted above. The statement calls on Saudis “to stand up against this furious wave before it is too late.” The Islamic State has likewise declared that Saudi Arabia has shown its true colors. Its Arabic weekly in mid-2017 claimed that “people have now come to know with certainty who the followers of the blessed mission of monotheism and renewal are,” referring to the supporters of the Islamic State. “The reign of the Al Saud will soon come to an end.”

Yet there is a major difference between how al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have reacted to the changes in Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda has not called for the violent overthrow of the kingdom in the immediate future. In its September 2016 statement, it positioned itself on the side of the imprisoned clerics such as Salman al-Awda, praising them effusively and calling on Saudis to follow their example of speaking truth to power. The odd thing about this is that most of these clerics, including al-Awda, have denounced al-Qaeda in the past as deviant and extremist. These scholars are Islamists, not jihadists, but al-Qaeda wishes to blur the lines in order to broaden its support base and become the spokesman for the entire Islamic opposition. Hamza bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son and a rising al-Qaeda leader, has similarly discouraged violence against Riyadh in this moment. In August 2016, he urged Saudis “to make change with their tongues and their pens, their media and their tweets.” Those prepared to fight, he said, should head to Yemen “to join their brothers” there.

The Islamic State, meanwhile, has shown no sympathy for the arrested clerics, likely because it has previously declared some them to be unbelievers. Adhering to a stricter ideology, the group will almost certainly not adopt al-Qaeda’s strategy of appealing more broadly. Rather, it will maintain its current course of promoting revolution in the kingdom, however unlikely that is to come off. From late 2014 to 2016, the Islamic State carried out a series of terrorist attacks in the country that killed dozens, but the campaign quickly lost momentum after the group’s cells were disrupted and the “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria began to crumble.

Neither al-Qaeda nor the Islamic State poses an immediate threat to the integrity of the Saudi regime. But they are by no means to be written off either. No doubt they are hopeful that MbS has overstepped in walking back conservative Islam, and no doubt they hope they will be able to capitalize on the inevitable resentment being generated by his social reforms and policies. The fact that they are modifying their discourse—and even their strategy in one case—speaks to the seriousness of what is underway in Riyadh.