Amid the avalanche of news coming from Saudi Arabia, the most important has been overlooked. A few weeks ago Riyadh ceded control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, leased to the Saudis in 1969 and since then instrumental in promoting Islamic supremacy, anti-Christian and anti-Semitic hatred in the heart of Europe. The deal had given Saudi-funded imams control of the religious education received by the Muslim immigrant community in Belgium, in return for cheaper oil. It was a pact with the Wahhabi devil then typical of European governments. And we are still paying the price. When Islamic States called for Muslims to launch jihadist slaughter throughout the European continent, the most radicalised sections of the local Muslim populations were ready. The most spectacular attacks killed 130 in Paris in 2015 and 32 in the Belgian capital in 2016. Both had been planned in Brussels.
Will Belgium’s decision to kick out the Saudi imams usher in a new era when EU governments break with an historic unwillingness to risk undermining commercial and security ties by standing up to the Wahhabi menace? If so, they may find an unlikely partner in Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader who is about to embark on an official visit to London. On his return, he is expected to inherit the throne from his ailing father, King Salman, in a country in the midst of unprecedented political, economic and cultural upheaval. At home, the crown prince has generated euphoria and stifled dissent. Not everyone will be welcoming him with open arms abroad, either. Protests and negative media coverage are expected, especially over the horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen.
However, that the Saudis quietly accepted the agreement to abandon the Grand Mosque in Brussels should give pause for thought even among the most entrenched Saudi haters. For the decision coincided with a new Saudi initiative, not made public but said to have been circulated among Western officials, to end the country’s support, once and for all, for all foreign mosques and religious schools. Obviously, that is not going to happen overnight. The Saudis are believed to have spent more than $100bn promoting Wahhabism globally since the 1970s. The first step in solving any problem, though, is acknowledging it exists. The proposal is certainly a huge improvement on the stance adopted by the previous king, Abdullah, who was given to dismissing terror attacks as part of a global Zionist conspiracy to undermine Islam.
Mohammed bin Salman is likewise adopting a pragmatic approach – crawl before walk, walk before run – when it comes to domestic reforms, and again their growing momentum is proving the naysayers wrong. Cinemas are open again for the first time since the 1970s. Women, who will be allowed to drive beginning in June, are attending football matches, and can now join the military as soldiers. Jazz festivals, fashion shows and rap concerts are now the norm, and some 5,000 live entertainment events are planned this year alone. $64bn will be invested in the entertainment sector over the next 20 years – not bad for a country where, until a few months ago, the only entertainment available, apart from football matches, were public beheadings.
Meanwhile, barely a day goes by without a senior religious figure on the pay roll of the al-Saud issuing an edict permitting what was for so long forbidden. This month one stated that women no longer need permission from a male guardian to open a business; another that there is no obligation for women to wear the abayya in public. After decades of being damned as an evil western import, Valentine’s Day was just openly celebrated with the support of the powerful former head of the (now massively curtailed) religious police. Tourists will soon be issued with non-business visas, another first.
Many are surprised at the lack of major protests in response to this cultural revolution. The lack thereof is no doubt partly as a result of the dire consequences even of sending a tweet critical of the reform agenda. But anticipating a massive backlash is to misunderstand how Wahhabism, like Communism in the Soviet Union, has been used in Saudi Arabia to oppress, rather than pacify, the masses. Outside of its birthplace in the central Najd region, the masses never bought into it.
I worked as a journalist and editor in the kingdom for three years in the early 2000s, and I was allowed to travel wherever I liked and talk to whomever I pleased (without the usual government-appointment minder). During my numerous trips – from the big cities to the most remote regions – what struck me most, apart from the extraordinary warmth and hospitality of the people I encountered, was the remarkable resilience of cultural identities: how they flourish in private and in the local, strongly rooted communities, despite the strange, faceless rule of the Wahhabis over all public life. Today I am not in the least surprised that the majority of Saudis appear eager to break free of its shackles.
At the same time, sporadic arrests for ‘unIslamic’ behaviour continue – an unrelated male and female who exchanged a few words outside of an office building, a young man and woman who briefly danced together on a busy street. Political activists, from Islamists to liberals, continue to be rounded up, as do independent journalists. This has led some Saudi exiles to warn Prime Minister Theresa May not to be taken in by Bin Salman, whom they dismiss as an authoritarian leader posing in liberal’s clothing, when he visits Downing Street next week. Looked at another way, though, there is no contradiction between his reformist agenda and the accompanying political suppression. Indeed, quite the reverse.
For a start, any attempt to dismantle the most segregated society the world has ever known was always going to happen in fits and starts. In the short term, the most anyone can hope for is that there are two steps forward for every step back. And given how anti-sex Puritanism is spreading like wildfire in the English-speaking world, we should be much more concerned that our own culture is hurtling in the opposite direction.
Equally clear is that in Saudi Arabia, as in China and elsewhere, economic liberalisation must be relied on to spearhead political liberalisation, rather than the other way round. Perestroika and glasnost under Gorbachev was a different approach to reform, and the combination of increased political and economical openness failed. The Arab Spring has since taught us that a quick and messy transition to Western-style democracy in that part of the world leads only to chaos, economic misery and the better-organised political Islamist parties triumphing at the ballot box.
In short, Bin Salman has never promised Western-style pluralism, and there is no logical reason why that should be the goal. Instead, the crown prince is positioning himself as the Arab world’s Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore. The latter transformed the Asian city state into one of the world’s wealthiest, safest and least corrupt countries by limiting Western-style democracy, human rights and freedom of the press.
Of more concern to May will be that bin Salman’s visit is to take place as Britain’s two key Arab economic allies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – are bogged down in a battle of wills over the latter’s ties to Iran and refusal to bow to Riyadh’s hawkish foreign-policy agenda. At first glance, this leaves Britain stuck between a rock and a hard place.
During a full state visit in 2010, the Qatari ruler was given preferential lodging at Windsor Castle, so crucial was his country’s wealth regarded as being to UK commercial interests. Qatar has secured the site of the Chelsea Barracks, along with Canary Wharf, The Shard, and an endless list of other landmark buildings and listed companies. Qatar provides us, too, with almost one third of our natural gas, and has invested £35bn in our economy (with £5bn more pledged).
On the other side of this ongoing dispute is Saudi Arabia, to which more than 80 percent of British arms exports go. We also import more oil and oil products from Saudi than any other Arab country. But here, again, perhaps opportunity knocks. By backing the Iranian nuclear deal while giving crucial diplomatic support to bin Salman on the international diplomatic stage, the British government may help to ease tensions in the Gulf, why quietly pressuring the Saudis to seek an end to the war in Yemen. The Saudis, after all, have themselves long sought to have it both ways: to be a force for controlled modernisation while upholding tradition; to be the ally of the West, especially Britain and the United States, while both influencing it and keeping its influences at bay; backing a Wahhabi religious establishment it relies on to remain in power but which also ultimately seeks the West’s destruction; to provide benefits to the people, paternalistically, while appearing to be just and sage rather than opportunistic and corrupt.
However grudgingly, one cannot but be impressed at the delicate balancing act the al-Saud has performed as they made themselves an indispensable bulwark. The adroitness, if not necessarily the wisdom, of various kings must be admitted. As, now, should the resolve of Bin Salman as he risks all by dragging the kingdom into the 21st century. At this early stage, his success is far from guaranteed. Enemies – disgruntled Islamists and marginalised royals in equal measure – lurk in the shadows, ready to pounce. Reliance on the intelligence of a single ruler is, even if the most propitious of circumferences, always a dangerous game. Of one thing, though, we can be certain: if Bin Salman fails, the consequences will be catastrophic for Saudi Arabia and the world.
John R. Bradley’s books include Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis.