Politics

The Crackdown on Wahhabists In Saudi Arabia

The Long Weekend: The Religious Crackdown
The alliance between the Wahhabist movement in Sunni Islam and the al-Sauds began in the 18th century during the first Saudi Kingdom. The current state is actually the third iteration of the Saudi kingdom. Throughout Saudi Arabian history, the clerics have been an integral part of the state, giving the al-Sauds religious and political legitimacy. In return, the royal family has given the clerics a nearly free hand in shaping social conditions. For years, the clerics have insisted on keeping gender separation in public life; perhaps its most visible expression has been making it illegal for women to operate a vehicle. But, it goes beyond this; Sharia law is strictly enforced and delivers harsh punishments for those deemed to have committed violations.7 Infractions can include exposing Shiite beliefs. The clerics had their own police force, the mutwwain, who were given the power to arrest people they viewed as violating Sharia as interpreted by the Wahhabist clerics.

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Just before the aforementioned arrests on Saturday, November 4, MbS changed the rules on the religious establishment, dramatically curbing their powers.8 He took away the power of the mutwwain to arrest people and detained dozens of hardline clerics who opposed the new measures. In September, the KSA moved to allow women to drive.9 MbS has called for a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”10 Such comments are an anathema to the Wahhabist strain of Islam, which views all those outside its sect as heretics.
It should be noted that the religious establishment has been undermined and co-opted over the years. For example, the clerics had to accept the basing of non-Islamic foreign troops in the KSA during the Gulf War. King Fahd’s decision to allow this basing was one of the factors that led Osama bin Laden to break away from the KSA and form al Qaeda, which became a direct threat to the KSA and had to be aggressively attacked by Saudi counterterrorism groups.

The crackdown will be supported by the two primary constituencies noted in Part I. First, if MbS is going to woo foreign investors, moderating the impact of Wahhabi Islam on the KSA is probably required. Second, the religious police are very unpopular with the youth of Saudi Arabia. The mutwwain strive to keep the genders separated, which is something that young people everywhere tend to oppose. Thus, this action is probably necessary to build support among the majority of Saudis and to encourage foreign investment.

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