How real is the mantra that ‘the Saudis are changing, really changing’?


“The Saudis are changing, really changing,” a prominent Iraqi man who lives in the West told me just the other day, delicately indicating that Riyadh no longer wants to package and export Wahhabism in the old way.

“They know the consequences of inaction,” my interlocutor went on, “and if Mohammad Bin Salman is given a chance, the Saudis will change.”

The reference to Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, 31 years old, and the author of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 document was interesting.

Much of the Arab world (and many others besides) is investing hope in this son of King Salman. He is considered both de facto ruler and change-maker of the famously austere kingdom. It’s been a year after all since the Saudis created a General Entertainment Authority, which is meant to bring more fun into life in the kingdom.

Fun is a difficult subject for Saudis at home.

Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism

Even more so is faith. And in the Saudi context it is very much tied up with, a puritanical preacher whose compact with Al Saud later enabled the two families to share religious and political power in the newly founded kingdom.

In that context, my interlocutor’s suggestion was simply mind-boggling. Could it really come to pass that Al Saud would no longer need Wahhabi clerics to support them? Would they really diss Wahhabism?

Can they?

Perhaps what’s more likely is a re-jigging of Wahhabism, or at least the version exported around the world. Or perhaps the appearance of intended change is enough for now?

It’s hard to be certain but worthwhile to consider this anecdote from Richard Spencer of The Times, London. After visiting the kingdom, he recently recounted his sense that the Saudis had a delayed “realisation that allowing preachers to denounce the West might be dangerous, not least to itself.”

During US President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh last month, Spencer interviewed the new head of the Muslim World League, the Saudi’s official evangelical organisation, which uses charitable offshoots such as the International Islamic Relief Organisation to send huge amounts of money to large swathes of the world.

Spencer had a chat with the League’s new head, former Saudi justice minister, Mohammed Al Issa. It elicited the following: “He outlined what he intended to do to drive aggressive language out of evangelical material. He blamed local embassies for failing to monitor the output that the league funded round the world; it seemed rather lame, though he appeared sincere.”

Sincerity would be a start.