Saudi prince warns against reform backlash from clerics

Saudi prince warns against reform backlash from clerics
3 min read
08 January, 2017
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has laid out a three-pronged strategy to avoid a backlash from any religious conservatives opposed to his drive for economic and social reform.
Mohammad bin Salman has personally spearheaded a drive for reform in Saudi Arabia [Getty]
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has warned he will consider punitive measures against any religious clerics who incite violence over his plans to reform Saudi Arabia's economy and society.

Mohammad bin Salman told visiting researchers that he has persuaded more than half of the kingdom's religious clerics to back his vision for reform, but that there remained a small faction that were too dogmatic to reason with.

The 31-year-old prince said he has laid out a three-part strategy to prevent backlash from conservative religious leaders opposed to his plans for economic reform.

Mohammad bin Salman, son of the current King Salman and defence minister - but currently second-in-line to the Saudi throne - has personally spearheaded a much-publicised drive for reform in Saudi Arabia's state and society. 

While the "Vision 2030" reforms proposed focus mostly on the Saudi economy - seeking particularly to wean it off oil dependence - they are set to inevitably affect the social systems of the ultra-conservative kingdom.

Bin Salman's plans include increasing entertainment and cultural activities in Saudi Arabia, where music concerts and cinemas are currently prohibited.

The "Vision 2030" reforms also seek to increase tourism to the kingdom, where gender segregation is mandatory in public, women are not allowed to drive, and must adhere to a rigid definition of the Islamic dress code.

Despite the increasing power of the "heir to the heir apparent", bin Salman's reforms could face resistance from Saudi Arabia's highly powerful religious classes.

Clerics in Saudi Arabia wield significant influence with the official Council of Senior Scholars - the country's highest religious body - meeting regularly with the kingdom's ruling monarch.

Since the kingdom's founding in 1932, a division of power between the Saudi royals and the clerical establishment afforded prerogatives over mosques, culture and education to the clerical classes.

The "Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice", known commonly as the hayaa, operates as a quasi-police force with patrols in major cities enforcing religious decrees.

But while officially-appointed scholars tend to approve policy decisions proposed by the Saudi royal family, opposition from lower-ranking and popular clerics to government policy decisions have in the past been manifest.

Vocal calls for reform across Saudi society have increased over the past two decades particularly in the years following 9/11 with external pressure mounted on the kingdom to control preachers within the country and internal pressures to modernise both the economy and society.

But reforms have been often been opposed by the religious establishment, particularly in areas concerning the expansion of women's rights to travel, drive and interpretations of the dress code.

Earlier in 2016, Saudi Arabia's top-cleric Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz bin Abdullah al al-Sheikh, defended the country's ban on female drivers.

Bin Salman's comments are both an admission of the potential obstacles to the vaunted "Vision 2030" and a laying down of the gauntlet to those clerics wishing to halt the reforms.