Wednesday, November 13, 2019


For decades, if not centuries, experts on the Middle East have talked about the need for the “reformation” of Islam. They envisioned a change like that of Christianity in the late Middle Ages that accelerated development of the Western world. Changes precisely of that scale are occurring right now in Saudi Arabia and, with few exceptions, attract no notice by the press.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has been working on the reformation of Islam for years. His motives are as transparent as they are vastly ambitious. He intends to bring Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, to wean the nation off dependence on an oil-base economy, to attract foreign investment, to build a tourist industry and to emancipate women.

To accomplish this ambitious agenda, MBS first took aim at the Faustian bargain with Wahhabi clerics that was struck many decades ago by his royal forebears. In exchange for their support of the rule of the House of Saud, the deal granted Wahhabi clerics the power to enforce a stultifying version of Islam in Saudi Arabia and the means to export it abroad. The consequences of that arrangement have had vast and negative implications for Saudi Arabia and the world. 

The prince has not been subtle in his methods. Along the way he jailed 750 clerics until they recanted their ultra-conservative views, their preaching of jihad, and their prohibitions against all Western values and norms. The objective was achieved. The message was sent. The government and people of Saudi Arabia will no longer be held hostage by religious zealots.

The next target was the Muslim World League (MWL), a quasi-government religious organization established in 1962 to propagate the Wahhabi version of Islam. Muslim Brotherhood members played a large role in its founding, and the MWL was strongly associated with the Brotherhood. U.S. officials have testified that MWL has been linked to supporting Islamic terrorist organizations globally. 

The crown prince foreshadowed the transformation of the MWL during an interview in 2018 in which he explicitly acknowledged the right of the state of Israel to exist. He subsequently assembled 1,200 Muslim leaders in Mecca, along with scholars, academics and religious teachers from 137 countries. They issued the “Charter of Makkah” in May of this year.

 That charter reads, in part:

“All people, regardless of their different ethnicities, races and nationalities, are equal under God.”

“Differences among people in their beliefs, cultures and natures are part of God’s will and wisdom.”

“Religious and cultural diversity never justifies conflict. Humanity needs positive, civilized partnerships and effective interaction. Diversity must be a bridge to dialogue, understanding and cooperation for the benefit of all humanity.”

“We set aside preconceived prejudices, historical animosities, conspiracy theories and erroneous generalizations.” 

“All individuals must combat terrorism and injustice and reject exploitation and the violation of human rights.” 

Subsequent to the issuance of the charter, MBS intensified the fundamental changes regarding the rights of women and Saudi society. Women can now drive in Saudi Arabia. Women are increasingly represented in professions such as the law, and the government is calling for more. Women can move freely without the archaic requirement of being accompanied by a male relative or having his permission. A couple can now book hotel rooms without showing proof of being married. 

The former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Karen Elliott House, has recently reported from Riyadh that women participated in a city marathon in leggings and short-sleeve T-shirts, their faces bare. The paper ran photos of the joyful runners. There are even, in fact, public female wrestling matches. And for the first time, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States is a woman, Princess Reema bint Bandar, who replaced the brother of MBS.

To Western eyes these freedoms seem simple matters. But in a nation in which women were controlled by men for many decades, these are not small things. They are seismic. They mean more than some added personal freedoms. They mean women are now able to move into the workforce in all respects, and that Saudi society will have to accommodate their presence.

The economy envisioned by MBS, in which the participation of women is essential, is being transformed by a clear focus on diversification and on movement away from reliance on petroleum. Since 2016 the Saudis have inked $170 billion in non-oil deals and the shift away from oil is accelerating. But the crown prince knows full well that all the elements of his plan are linked. Willingness of Western companies to do business and to invest in the kingdom outside the oil sector will be predicated on their belief that the fundamental changes in the nation are real and will continue to grow. 

In September, the MWL secretary-general, Sheikh Dr. Mohammed al-Issa, met with a delegation from the American evangelical community in Jeddah. Both groups affirmed “their common values, pledged to bolster bilateral cooperation and stressed the importance of renouncing all forms of extremism and hatred and working together to build bridges of cooperation among peoples of all religions and cultures.”

After the recent killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, MBS congratulated President Trump on the success of the operation and called it a historic step in the fight against extremism and terrorism. The Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a formal statement saying in part that al-Baghdadi had distorted the image of Islam and hailed his killing by U.S. special forces in northwestern Syria. The Foreign Ministry then reaffirmed that Saudi Arabia will continue to work with its allies, including the United States, in fighting terrorism. 

If the 30 principles of the Charter of Makkah are not an exact equivalent of the 95 theses Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenberg church door in 1517, they are nevertheless an astonishing beginning. They have the potential to change the very nature of one of the most conflict-prone areas on our planet, and they deserve our support.

• Sam Faddis is a former CIA operations officer with experience in the conduct of intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

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