Saudi Arabia should prepare for the inevitable backlash to its move toward ‘moderation’
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has staged a big revolution in Saudi Arabia, denouncing its past extremism, dismissing extremist clergy and putting an entire community of royal concessionaries under arrest for alleged corruption. The world is too shocked at this sudden change—some say not so sudden because it was done in consultation with the United States that has its 5th Fleet in the Gulf—to comment rationally on what is going on. But a reaction is bound to come. And not only from within Saudi Arabia.
In 1979, a “revolution” of a different sort was staged in Kaaba for the opposite cause: the Kingdom was not Islamic enough. A religious fanatic, Juheiman ibn Said al-Utaiba, and his gang of followers occupied the most holy place of Muslims. Crown Prince Fahd, who ran the kingdom at that time, decided to placate and promote the Saudi clergy under the fearfully literalist leadership of Sheikh Bin Baz. (Juheiman had been his pupil.) Fundamentalist Islam soon spread from Indonesia in the east to Algeria and Morocco in the west. One-fourth of the madrassas and mosques of Pakistan are still funded with Saudi money with many mosques dedicated to the cult of late Bin Baz.
These “funded” madrassas all over the world are quiet but will react, and Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman can ill-afford this reaction since all sorts of Muslims come for hajj to Saudi Arabia every year. The biggest challenge may rise in Pakistan where the Ahle Hadith clerics enjoy a heft with the state beyond measure. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda, in decline these days, will find new volunteers from the madrassas, and a great war may ensue supported by the conservative tycoons of the United Arab Emirates that stand behind terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network that Pakistan can’t get rid of. Unless, of course, the coup in Riyadh is well-planned and coordinated with all the stakeholders of the region and has their consent.