Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Road Not Taken
Saudi Sheikh Salman Awdah, a popular but controversial religious scholar who has been mostly in solitary confinement since 2017, appeared in court recently only to hear that his case had been adjourned yet again for four months. He is charged with more than 30 counts of terrorism, a term that is broadly defined in Saudi Arabia to include adherence to atheism and peaceful dissent, and prosecutors are demanding the death sentence.
It was not immediately clear why the recent trial of Sheikh Awdah was postponed, but some analysts suggest the government may have wanted to avoid a high-profile court case at a moment in which Saudi Arabia is maneuvering to prevent a deterioration of relations with a Biden administration critical of the kingdom’s human rights record.
The State Department’s annual human rights report has identified Awdah as one of “at least 120 persons [who] remained in detention for activism, criticism of government leaders, impugning Islam or religious leaders, or ‘offensive’ internet postings.”
Awdah’s crimes reportedly include sedition, stirring public discord, inciting people against the ruler, supporting imprisoned dissidents, and being an affiliate of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014.
Awdah was detained after he called, in a tweet to his millions of followers, for reconciliation with Qatar three months after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed an economic and diplomatic boycott on the Gulf state.
The four countries lifted their boycott in January 2021, with no indication that their demands for far-reaching changes in Qatari foreign and media policy had been met.
A 64-year-old militant Islamist cleric who shed his support for jihadists after his release from prison in 1999, Awdah denounced Osama bin Laden in the 2000s, and became a leading figure in the government’s deradicalization program.
Like other scholars, writers, and journalists, several of whom were sentenced last year to lengthy terms in prison, he became a voice for Saudi political and social reform in the wake of the 2011 popular Arab revolts, calling for a humanist interpretation of Islam and reform of Islamic law through recontextualization. He argued that Saudi Arabia should be a democracy rather than a theocracy, embrace pluralism, respect minority rights, and allow for the emergence of an independent civil society.
United Nations human rights experts described Awdah, who has not sought to hide his militant past, as an “influential religious figure who has urged greater respect for human rights within Sharia.”
Saudi scholar Yasmine Farouk argues that Awdah’s past is, in fact, one of his assets. “If the Saudi regime were really seeking to reform Wahhabi Salafism, Awdah would provide it with a model to do so, as well as being an indispensable actor in the process. That’s because he is a man who doesn’t deny his past,” Ms. Farouk said.
Casting doubt on the utility of Awdah’s past and the sincerity of his reformist views is the fact that he has at times harked back to the antisemitic views he expressed in his earlier years.
Nonetheless, his trial, as well as last year’s sentencing of men like Hijazi researcher and writer Abdullah Maliki, casts a shadow over Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)’s assertion that he is guiding Saudi Arabia toward a vague, undefined moderate form of Islam.
MBS’ projection of a moderate Saudi Islam is designed to bolster the kingdom’s quest for leadership of the Muslim world, and increase its ability to attract foreign direct investment.
The crown prince and many in the Saudi elite who have not been targeted by MBS in his crackdown on potential opponents see Islam as a tool with which to solidify the ruling family’s grip on power. Members of the family as well as ultra-conservative religious figures have long advocated an interpretation of Islam that demands absolute, unquestioned obedience of the ruler. Citing Islamic jurisprudence, Prince Turki Faisal insisted in an op-ed in 2002 that the kingdom’s rulers had the sole right to demand full allegiance and obedience. Faisal, a former intelligence chief and ambassador to Britain and the US who now heads the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, said that scholars merely “advise and guide” rulers.
The incarceration and sentencing of reformers contrast starkly with notions of a humanitarian Islam that embraces the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights advocated by Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement. The contrast is spotlighted — despite significant progress in removing hate speech and supremacist concepts from Saudi schoolbooks — in differences between Nahdlatul Ulama’s first steps toward reforming Islamic jurisprudence, and Saudi moves that seem primarily utilitarian, rhetorical, and symbolic.
Saudi Education Minister Hamad bin Muhammad Sheikh’s recent announcement that the kingdom was establishing “intellectual awareness units” in universities “to promote the values of citizenship, moderation, and countering ideas of extremism and decadence” appears primarily designed to enhance a façade of moderation that is void of concepts of diversity of opinion, pluralism, and freedom of expression.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s calls for reform of Islam, moreover, have gained traction in the corridors of power in world capitals as well as influential non-Muslim religious communities, while Saudia Arabia struggles to polish an image tarnished by the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its repression of critical voices.
The Biden administration’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and conduct of the six-year-long war in Yemen has complicated the kingdom’s efforts to improve its image, particularly in the West. Saudi Arabia’s image problems have cast a shadow over the kingdom’s quest for religious soft power as well as foreign direct investment needed to successfully implement MBS’s economic diversification plan.
The politics of legal cases against critics and dissidents raises questions not only about the kingdom’s human rights record but also issues important to many potential foreign investors such as the independence of the judiciary, transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. The recent release of Loujain Hathloul (while upholding her conviction), as well as the freeing of several other detainees, suggested that the government would go only so far in addressing its reputational issues and attempting to get off on the right foot with the Biden administration.
Arab News, a widely read English-language Saudi newspaper, updated a 2019 profile of Awdah that described him as a “chameleon cleric” and one of several “preachers of hate.” Long managed by sons of King Salman and close associates of Crown Prince Mohammed, Arab News’ parent company, Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG), lists two National Commercial Bank investment funds as owning 58% of its shares. Government institutions own more than 50% of the bank’s stock.
The Arab News profile suggested that Awdah had not altered his pre-1999 ultra-conservative and militant views, despite projecting himself as a reformer.
Said Ms. Farouk, the Saudi Arabia scholar: “Awdah actually began a process to deradicalize Saudi Salafism and reform it in an inclusive, bottom-up way, without relying on state coercion. The credibility he earned in doing so has given him the latitude to legitimately oppose violent resistance to any meaningful process of reform of Islam inside the kingdom and elsewhere.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.