The sun rises over a Mosque on the Persian Gulf in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 9, 1990.

Saudi Arabia’s conservative clerics have a new relationship with the government under Mohammed bin Salman

Social change in Saudi Arabia has long been deemed impossible due to the influence of the conservative clerical establishment. But as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman supports new cultural attractions, experts are wondering whether the power of these clerics has diminished. Raihan Ismail, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, spoke to The World’s host Carolyn Beeler about what role the clerics play in Saudi society today.

The World

For fans of Dragon Ball Z, the Japanese anime TV series turned video game, Saudi Arabia might be a future travel destination. A recent advertisement introduces a future entertainment complex that features a Dragon Ball Z theme park at Qiddiya City within the capital, Riyadh.

Under Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, places like these are popping up to put forward a new image of the kingdom. Social change in Saudi Arabia was previously thought to be impossible due to the influence of the conservative clerical establishment.

Saudis gather by a McDonald's fast food restaurant in a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, shopping mall, Oct. 31, 2003.
Saudis gather by a McDonald’s fast food restaurant in a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, shopping mall, Oct. 31, 2003.Hasan Jamali/AP/File photo

To discuss the state of the clerics today, The World’s host Carolyn Beeler spoke to Raihan Ismail, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at the Oxford Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, who joined from the UK.

Carolyn Beeler: Raihan, let’s talk about how the Saudi monarchy interacted with the clerical establishment before Mohammed bin Salman came around. How much power did these religious leaders have?
Raihan Ismail: So, the Saudi clerics were significantly involved in the establishment of the Saudi state. That relationship changed significantly with the establishment of the modern Saudi state in 1932 under the leadership of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. He limited the influence of the Saudi religious establishment and the Saudi religious establishment, or the clerics, were allowed to dictate and control social aspects of Saudi society. So, basically, societal evolution took place within the boundaries established by the clerics, but they were not allowed to comment on politics without the permission of the state. And that lasted until the arrival of Mohammed bin Salman, who tried to reform Saudi society and, in many ways, tried to reform the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud discuss Saudi-US relations aboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake north of the city of Suez, Egypt, Feb. 14, 1945.
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud discuss Saudi-US relations aboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake north of the city of Suez, Egypt, Feb. 14, 1945.AP/File photo
So, why have these clerics been considered a barrier to social change in Saudi Arabia? Is that just because they, kind of, had purview over the social sphere while the rulers kept control over politics?
Absolutely. The clerics were known to be more conservative. They adhere to a conservative interpretation of Islam. They’re part of the Salafi [or Wahhabi] movement. The Salafi movement, particularly in Saudi Arabia, is seen as more conservative in its approach to social issues, including women’s rights, minority rights, and so on, which is why the Saudi ruling family, in its effort to transform Saudi society, tried to curb the influence of the religious establishment.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks at a meeting of the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Alliance in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 26, 2017.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks at a meeting of the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Alliance in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 26, 2017.Saudi Press Agency via AP
Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti listens to a speech of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the Consultative Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 24, 2009.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti listens to a speech of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the Consultative Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 24, 2009.Hassan Ammar/AP/File photo
So, you mentioned there’s been a change under Mohammed bin Salman. He’s now using these splashy sports events, architectural projects and other cultural endeavors to burnish the country’s image. Can you describe what role the clerics are playing now? Have they lost a lot of their power over society?
The clerics continue to maintain their positions. And in Saudi Arabia, members of the religious establishment continue to issue religious rulings. They continue to deliver Friday sermons. What has changed is the relations between individual clerics with Mohammed bin Salman. So, at the moment, those who are very supportive of his project and those who are willing to act as his cheerleaders are the ones who have a lot of power in Saudi Arabia. So basically, they’re endorsing what the Saudi ruling family is doing, and it is based on their own interpretation of Islam or the Salafi tradition, where loyalty to the state and loyalty to the ruling family is paramount. So, some members of the religious establishment are doing quite well under Mohammed bin Salman, while others, if they used to preach, you know, conservative interpretations of Islam, they have gone very quiet. They don’t say much about social issues, while others are either in jail or operating in exile.
So, overall, is it fair to say that these clerics have less power or influence than they did before MBS came to power?
I would say so. What makes Saudi Arabia seem different under MBS is perhaps the creation and the proliferation of liberalized spaces within the kingdom outside the purview of the religious class. So, this doesn’t mean that the religious establishment or the religious class has lost its power, but previously, they enjoyed more authority to prevent and limit the proliferation of liberalized spaces. But having said that, they really don’t have much authority in terms of criticizing the state or the music industry, or criticizing other liberalized spaces in Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi man carries his coffee pot as he walks past a banner showing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, outside a mall in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 5, 2020.
A Saudi man carries his coffee pot as he walks past a banner showing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, outside a mall in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 5, 2020.Amr Nabil/AP/File photo
Do you think that the relationship between the monarchy and these clerics has changed forever, or is this going to last just as long as MBS is in power?
Saudi society continues to view Islam as an important element of their identity, and Mohammad bin Salman himself might change. So, everything depends on what’s going to happen next. Is he going to be able to deliver? Is his Vision 2030 going to be a successful venture? He might turn conservative himself, so who knows what’s going to happen. One thing that I can perhaps predict is the importance of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. I think they will continue to be important in Saudi Arabia, but at the same time, it depends on the influence as well. They will maintain their position, but whether or not they’re going to be able to influence Saudi society is a different question.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Invest in global news with heart!

The World is a nonprofit newsroom powered by listener support. When you make a recurring gift, you’re making an investment that allows The World to cover the most important international stories with nuance and care. Our listeners are at the heart of what makes The World such an invaluable source for global news. Will you create a recurring donation today to power The World all year long?