Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) will most likely weather the political, economic, and health storms generated by COVID-19. Prompted by the unfolding global recession to reduce spending, which will affect the benefits that the state has used to buy popular support, the crown prince has shifted his gaze from his “Vision 2030” of a restructured economy to shoring up the regime’s political authority. This project includes an unprecedented yet tricky bid to subordinate the clerical establishment to the monarchy. MbS has not created a robust institutional basis for this “reform” project. Instead, what we might call his “Vision 2020” is inextricably tied to his unbounded personal authority. This is why, from the powerful prince’s point of view, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was logical and justified: Khashoggi publicly called for limits on such authority. MbS clearly feels that Saudis who use the public arena to defy or impugn his drive for “moderate Islam” are enemies of the state.
The tension between the quest for concentrated power and the institutional and legal exigencies of building a new political and legal order were laid bare by two events that occurred during the last week of April 2020. That week saw the death of Abdullah al-Hamid, a prominent exponent of political reform who had been in prison since 2012. Deprived of medical attention, al-Hamid was effectively executed. Yet three days later the Saudi Supreme Court displayed apparent munificence by declaring that floggings would henceforth be banned and that minors would no longer be subject to the death penalty. The decision, the president of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission claimed, shows that his country is “forging ahead” with “critical human rights reforms even amid the hardship imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.” This convenient reference to the hardships of COVID-19 notwithstanding, these two events highlight MbS’s resolve to punish anyone who questions the limits of his authority regarding human rights or legal reforms.
From Vision 2030 to Vision 2020
Saudi Arabia’s leaders were not banking—quite literally—on COVID-19. MbS’s “Vision 2030” reform program was supposed to slowly move the country away from its dependence on oil exports. But the latter still account for some 42 percent of GDP, 87 percent of fiscal revenues, and 90 percent of export earnings. With oil revenues forecast to decline by 40 percent this year, the country is planning to cut spending by $13.32 billion –nearly five percent of the entire budget. The political implications of these changes are enormous. As in so much of the Arab world, stability in Saudi Arabia still rests on a “ruling bargain” by which the regime provides jobs and a basic level of social welfare in return for the loyalty—or at least the tacit support—of the citizens. That bargain was already fraying, and the global recession provoked by COVID-19 could leave it hanging by a thread.
Economic downturns have occurred many times before. In response, successive regimes relied on the clerical establishment to shore up their legitimacy. But this is one option that MbS cannot easily exercise. After all, in the wake of his June 2017 investiture, the crown prince asserted that Saudi Arabia would now pursue a “moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” The holding of municipal elections in December 2015 when his father had been on the throne almost a year—and even more so, MbS’s subsequent decision to suspend the authority of the religious police to arrest people—seemed to suggest he meant business. But by Spring 2017, a backlash in the clerical establishment forced the crown prince to reverse this decision, thus underscoring the complicated path he had to walk.
On the one hand, MbS sought to avoid a head-on collision with the still powerful clerical establishment by enlisting the support of hard-line members of the Council of Islamic Scholars such as Saleh al-Fawzan and Saleh al-Lohaidan. If their fatwas denouncing Shia Islam and threatening retribution for violating Islamic values contradicted MbS’s quest for a “moderate Islam,” their long-standing call for obedience to the state was consonant with the crown prince’s drive for power. On the other hand, the regime created several new state-supported religious institutions including the “King Salman Complex.” A body issued by the king’s royal decree, it promised to “eliminate fake and extremist texts and any texts that contradict the teachings of Islam.” To undergird this effort, MbS enlisted the support of (relatively) younger religious leaders, including Mohammad al-Issa. A former minister of justice who became secretary general of the Muslim World League, Issa took to the global stage in a public relations campaign clearly designed to show that Saudi Arabia’s new leaders were confronting old shibboleths such as state-sponsored anti-Semitic rhetoric that included Holocaust denial. However praiseworthy, Issa’s assertion in a January 2019 Washington Post opinion piece that “Muslims around the world have a responsibility to learn about the Holocaust” was surely pitched to show US and western European leaders that MbS and his father were determined to foster “moderate” Saudi Islam.
MbS’s “Islamic Moderation” Carries a Lethal Message
Such displays of apparent moderation have gone hand in hand with a three-year campaign to silence religious scholars who call for political pluralism and democracy. Arrested in Fall 2017, Sheikhs Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari were accused of violating a vaguely worded law that gives the government the right to denounce any form of free speech as “terrorism.” The real crime of these three religious leaders was not merely their call for democratic representation; their fundamental sin was that they dared to defy MbS’s bid to define the content and boundaries of official Islamic discourse. The fact that Odah had 14 million Twitter followers—and had tweeted a prayer in September 2017 encouraging an end to the Gulf crisis of that year, thus wading into a sensitive matter for MbS—helps to explain why the government called for his execution, along that of Qarni and Omari. Although the regime has not yet carried out this threat, it left all three men to languish in prison for a host of crimes, including “mocking the government’s achievements.”
Beyond these repressive measures, the government enlisted popular Salafi clerics such as Aaidh al-Qarni to portray Odah and his colleagues as dangerous “extremists” who had come under the influence of outside forces, including Iran. While the latter accusation was unfounded, it is true that many of the regime’s critics had been part of, or associated with, the Sahwa (Awakening) Movement. In fact, Aadh al-Qarni in May 2019 apologized for being part of the movement which he accused of being extremist and not reflective of “true Islam,” Dating back to the sixties, the movement’s leading lights actually opposed political, social, and cultural pluralism. But beginning in the nineties, and especially in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, a democratic current emerged from within the Sahwa Movement. This shift produced myriad often disjointed ideas whose common theme was the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Odah was one of the most ardent of these thinkers. Noting the diversity of views manifest in the 2011 Arab uprisings, he argued that the shared objective of the protesters was to restore dignity to Arab citizens. Although the Saudi government launched a smear campaign that accused him of cooperating with Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, it is reasonable to assume that the driving force behind this campaign was an abiding concern that Odah had stolen the thunder from the regime’s efforts to champion its own “moderate” version of Islam.
Abdullah al-Hamid’s Death Is a Sign of the Times
The death in prison of Abdullah al-Hamid on April 23, 2020 underscores the continuing resolve of MbS and his allies to stifle dissent. A key member of the Sahwa Movement, Hamid was the co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (SCPRA) and the moving force behind a petition to the Saudi leadership in 2009 demanding rights and democratic representation. The organization was created in 2009, and in 2012, SCPRA’s repeated criticisms of the government’s human rights record landed Hamid and co-founder Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani in prison. Sentenced to 11 and 10 years, respectively, their fate presaged a widening crackdown that included the imprisonment of nine other members of SCPRA and the arrests of human rights activists in 2018 and 2019—not to mention the October 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the April 23, 2019 execution of 37 citizens for spreading “extremist terrorist ideas.” Beyond these measures, the regime sustained a kind of collective torture that was exacted through the psychological and physical abuse of dozens of prisoners. Leaked government reports of these abuses reportedly induced King Salman to push for an inquiry into the conditions of 60 prisoners (many of whom are women). Still, Hamid’s fate shows that the government remains prepared to deny health care to those activists it most despises, thus condemning them to more pain—or even death.
That Hamid’s passing occurred on the first day of Ramadan and in the midst of a pandemic was not lost to the many human rights organizations and leaders who not only mourned his death, but called for Saudi officials to show compassion by releasing all political prisoners. Yet a government that last year executed a record 184 people shows no sign of relenting, even as it continues to proclaim its commitment to enacting human rights reforms that officials promise will continue “even amid the hardship imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
COVID-19 Complicates MbS’s Vision
The pandemic has certainly complicated MbS’s reform plans. By May 4, Saudi Arabia had 28,656 recorded cases of COVID-19, the highest in the Arabian Gulf. The number of deaths was 191, a far smaller mortality than most countries but still not inconsequential. Indeed, by April 10, the virus had reached into the royal family, infecting at least 150 of its members. That number has probably risen since then, a development that, if anything, will probably focus MbS’s attention on defending his gains and circumventing obstacles. With the 24-hour curfew indefinitely extended, his ability to monitor his home-bound rivals may have been considerably strengthened.
The longer-term prospects remain uncertain. But as one prescient analyst has noted, it is extremely likely that the COVID-19 crisis will lead to a lasting, structural reduction in demand for oil and gas. MbS’s Vision 2030 was meant to anticipate this day by fostering a move to a more diversified, private market economy. But he did not reckon that he would have to grapple much sooner than he ever expected with a new world, one marked by a lasting if not permanent retreat from globalization and—to the chagrin of OPEC—with much lower levels of oil consumption. As he tries to catch up, MbS will probably rely more on using repressive tactics. The idea of reform of any kind will then become a mirage, leaving Saudi Arabia’s future king with fewer options at home and with even fewer choices in a global arena in which yesterday’s powerhouses will be contending with their own challenges.
This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.