'Religion and the recent reforms in Saudi Arabia'

Saudi government has been sending a clear message that economic development and religious extremism cannot coexist

Abdullah Hamidaddin
Abdullah Hamidaddin
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In recent weeks, the Saudi government has been sending a clear message to its people and the world that economic development and religious extremism cannot coexist. This message is in line with the launch of Saudi Vision 2030, which depends on a social vibrancy that is antithetical to extreme religious values.

Of course, people have the right to be religious, but religious institutions - formal and informal - shouldn't be allowed to be above the law to forcefully impose or propagate their views.

Many analysts consider the recent government announcement to limit the ability of the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" which is known in many foreign media outlets as "religious police,” to arrest and interrogate a significant move.

But a much more important decision was the appointment during last week’s cabinet reshuffle of Sulaiman Aba al-Khayl as president of the University of Imam Mohammad bin Saud. I personally believe this cements the government’s focus to work closely with the religious institution for the greater good.

His appointment came as a pleasant surprise to moderates and reformers. The university had been considered by some that it promotes nationally and internationally hardline views.

Some concerns were raised about a possible backlash against some sections of Saudi society; there are those who believe the government will not stay on this course. This is based on a false assumption, long held by Saudis and non-Saudis, that some religious elements are too powerful to allow this to happen.

The fact is that the state holds the reigns when it comes to abiding to the law, and is the custodian of the religion and its biggest protector. So the most religious extremists can do is complain, but that will fall to deaf ears.

We need to keep in mind that most Salafis in Saudi Arabia adhere to the more quietist versions of their views, and may lament some of the government’s decisions but take no action. They may be puritans, but not radicals, and almost always support what the government decides.

Religious institutions have had almost no influence on major political and administrative aspects, and are absent when it comes to formulating Saudi economic and political policies

Abdullah Hamidaddin

A brief view of the history of their relationship with the government reveals a consistent position. In the 1950s and 1960s, the mufti of the land, Sheikh Mohammad bin Ibrahim al-Alshaykh, issued many religious edicts describing government decisions as “deviances and sins.”

His focus was modern institutions, especially modern legal institutions. He demanded that cars not be driven during prayer times, and that state-owned media not air music. He even prohibited playing or watching football.

At the time, King Faisal went head on against extremists when he decided to open public girls’ schools. That was no easy decision, yet it went ahead. In 2005, then-King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud launched an international scholarship program, benefiting nearly 200,000 people. This program was hailed by most reformers in the country, who considered it an investment in Saudi human capital.

Others castigated it as a means of corrupting Saudi youth through Westernization. Hardline Salafis warned against travelling to Western countries. This and many other examples show that religious institutions can do little when the government sets its course.

Many people always assumed that the Saudi ulama council - a body of Muslim scholars recognized as having specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology - were partners in governing the land. So it was not odd to hear sometimes that Saudi Arabia is a theocracy, but nothing is further from the truth.

Religious institutions have had almost no influence on major political and administrative aspects, and are absent when it comes to formulating Saudi economic and political policies. Some royals, such as Prince Turki al-Faisal, were keen to remind the ulama that they were counsellors, not partners.

Having said that, religious institutions did have some influence on some aspects of social life, and full authority on the form of religion Saudis learn at school and hear at sermons. The recent decisions will limit that influence.


Religion will always be important in Saudi Arabia. Article 23 of the constitution states: “The state shall protect the Islamic creed, apply sharia, encourage good and discourage evil, and undertake its duty regarding the propagation of Islam.” However, religious institutions will not have the same degree of authority, and extremists should never be allowed to be above the law or to hurt others.

What does this mean to Saudis and non-Saudis? It does not mean that all needed reforms will be made, or that current progressive policies will succeed. However, I personally believe that it does mean that impediments to reform and progress will not be allowed to hinder our efforts.

Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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