We are only returning to what we used to be, to moderate Islam, open to the world and all religions.” With that phrase, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, signed the death warrant of Wahhabism and ushered in a new era in Middle Eastern politics. Wahhabism is a neo-conservative radical perversion of Islam meant to strengthen the Saudi family’s grip on Saudi Arabia. It has been a very successful tool for decades but has apparently worn out its usefulness. Following the take-over of the region from the Ottoman Empire, with the help of Western powers, the Saudis needed to come up with a quick and easy method to consolidate power. They turned to Wahhabism to help secure control of their kingdom while silencing dissent. It worked.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s comments echo what outsiders had long believed: That the Saudi royals were forced to tolerate the Wahhabi hardliners out of political necessity. To see a Saudi royal, the most powerful royal in fact, dismiss Wahhabism publicly was a first. The “Future Investment Initiative” in Riyadh was the stage for the crown prince’s comments and were greeted with boisterous applause by the audience. Investors particularly have long been weary of the implications of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and its future there. The 32-year-old prince added, “We won’t waste 30 years of our lives dealing with any extremist ideas. We will eradicate extremism,” leaving no doubt as to how he sees the future of Saudi Arabia play out.
Saudi Arabia is a surprisingly rich country with great assets plagued by perhaps the world’s greatest income inequality. Since the 1970s, the country’s population has skyrocketed from a country of only 2 million to over 30 million now. The price of oil has also increased from only $2 a barrel in 1973 to near $60 now. With an exploding population and massive increase in oil wealth, came many challenges that many Saudi kings have had to deal with. Now that same oil wealth has continued to decrease every year with the decline in oil prices.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as heir apparent simultaneously did two important things: 1. It eliminated the traditional Saudi method for choosing a new king – the new monarch was always the oldest surviving member of the family – and it gave investors an opportunity to stop betting on how long the next monarch would reign. When crowned, Mohammed bin Salman’s reign will differ in that the major topic of discussion in the kingdom won’t be the king’s trips overseas for healthcare or the king’s current ailments. This will allow for a true reformer to be seated and get to work transforming the kingdom. To date, no king has reigned long enough to propose meaningful reforms and see them to fruition. This will now change.
The dominance of Wahhabism in Saudi public life made conducting business in the country very difficult. It also created sectarian conflict where none had existed in previous centuries. Wahhabism was a practically non-existent fringe idea with no real followers that had never caught on. Oil wealth allowed it to flourish. If Crown Prince Mohammed’s plan is successful, Saudi Arabia will be able to return, as he put it, “to moderate Islam.” This will allow it to get along with its other Muslim neighbors, including Turkey. While the population of Saudi Arabia has mostly resisted Wahhabism, especially the vast majority non-Saudi residents, the elites tolerated and even protected it. As soon as Wahhabism ceases to be protected by the government, it will wither and die like a fungus exposed to the sun. This is a point that many Western observers have completely missed, predicting it will be difficult to disassemble a system imposed on the people for many decades. I disagree. The people are eager to throw off the shackles of Wahhabism and will do so with pleasure.
The export of Wahhabism has also been very costly for Saudi Arabia and has caused sectarian divisions among Muslims internationally. The death of Wahhabism will also facilitate a truce with Qatar and a rejuvenated GCC.
The importance of the words of the crown prince cannot be overstated. For the first time ever, Saudi Arabia now has an economic and political future.