Since June 2017, when Mohammed bin Salman (the first grandchild of the founding King, Abdulaziz Al Saud) was appointed as the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has been experiencing numerous economic and social changes. At 32 years of age, Prince Salman is the youngest defence minister in the world, and he is also the second deputy prime minister and adviser of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. However, the young prince rejects the traditional conservative trajectory. He wants to take his country in a new direction, and for that he needs social reform, including some forms of Western modernity.

Prince Salman believes that breaking up Saudi Arabia’s traditional norms would lead to the empowerment of women in society, with the ultimate objective of providing women with the freedom to participate more fully in public economic spheres. Salman perceives that engaging women is crucial to his plan to rescue the shrinking economy, which currently relies heavily on the sale of hydrocarbons.

A dwindling economy is also fomenting unrest in the theocratic state of Iran, where like in Saudi Arabia, women have been struggling for emancipation from extreme patriarchal subjugation, which began with the so-called Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since then, roughly every 10 years there have been uprisings against the theocratic regime caused by the people’s severe disillusionment with the status quo. Women are especially fed-up because not only is their social freedom and mobility limited, but they are also deprived of various aspects of administrative, judicial, and political rights. Many women who participate in these uprisings demonstrate their disgruntlement by removing their headscarves (hijabs) as a means of social protest. Iran’s religious police frequently harass women for not wearing “appropriate” dress or for failure to cover their heads “properly.” As a means of pacifying the protesters, at least for now, the government has ordered the religious police to stop harassing women who do not follow the mandatory dress code.

These two governments—in Saudi Arabia and Iran—are the main drivers of the modern Islamist movement. The Iranian regime favours Shia Islamism, whereas the Saudi royal family spreads the Wahhabi/Salafi doctrine. The mainstream Islamist movement receives ideological inspiration from the Wahhabi/Salafi interpretation of Islam. Fewer than 5 percent of Muslims follow the Wahhabi/Salafi branch of Islam, but it produces 95 percent of the Islamist terrorists. To help counter this Saudi influence in the Middle East, the Iranian regime supports the militant group Hezbollah, mainly in Lebanon and Iraq.

This Saudi vs Iranian political chasm—the Sunni-Shia divide—can be compared to the Sino–Soviet rift during the heyday of the communist movement, when both sides claimed that they alone were the authentic protégé of the socialist movement. Each vilified the other, calling the opposite camp revisionists or followers of phony communism, while vying to establish their own influence. However, the fall of the Soviet Union ended the worldwide communist movement, perhaps forever. Except for North Korea, none of the existing socialist states are following the paths of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Enver Hoxha. The self-proclaimed socialist states of today, like China and Vietnam, are simply capitalist states with one-party rule where the leaders give lip service to communist rhetoric to legitimise their dictatorship.

No one could have imagined in the mid-1980s that the economic and political reforms of the last Soviet dictator, Mikhail Gorbachev, would eventually lead to the downfall of the socialist system. It is a great irony that the working class people whom the communists pretended to empower and emancipate were the very same people who started the revolt in Poland, led by an electrician named Lech Walesa. But whereas the working class was the focal point in the communist movement, the control of women and their bodies is central to the Islamist movement. Islamism relies on the state and society to depress the socio-political mobility of women. In other words, Islamism manifests a brutal form of patriarchy. If Saudi Arabia and Iran lose control over their women and their self-autonomy gradually increases, would that eventually lead to the downfall of Islamism itself?


In 1985, Gorbachev introduced the world to two new Russian words: Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (economic reconstruction). He recognised the need to rebuild the fragile Russian economy, and he believed that some sort of democratic environment was needed where people could express their opinions without fear. The centrally controlled “command” economy could not address the demands of the people or produce sufficient wealth. Thus, to accelerate the production process, for the first time in Russia’s history, Gorbachev tried to initiate an ambiance of openness in the closed communist state. His goal was to ensure relatively equitable distribution and to build an inclusive economy through democratic participation; he had no intention of ending the communist system or introducing Western-style liberal democracy. Nevertheless, the limited freedom that the people experienced during Gorbachev’s interregnum only increased their aspiration for a free society, and that ambition ultimately resulted in the collapse of communism.

Like Gorbachev, Prince Salman wants to rebuild the Saudi economy, and for that he needs to liberate the economic power of women in the workforce. But Salman’s task is much more challenging because Gorbachev did not need major social reforms before he could advance his economic policies. Salman has to play the roles of both Gorbachev and Kemal Ataturk, who completely altered the norms and structures of Turkish society in order to transform that country into a modern, ultra-secular state. In fact, Salman’s vision depends entirely upon his success in reforming Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative society.

Moscow faced the same economic crisis in the 1980s that now drives Prince Salman to insist on changes to the traditional social norms and structures. It seems that Karl Marx’s famous quote, “Economics controls everything,” has been proven true once more. According to Marx, societal and political changes are the outcomes of economic necessities. Any society or state that fails to address these necessities eventually collapses. The prince wants to avoid that collapse.

In Saudi Arabia, two-thirds of the people are under the age of thirty, and the majority of university graduates are women. But due to the century-old tradition of excluding women from the formal economy, and despite King Faisal’s attempts at reform, only around 18 percent of women are engaged in economic sectors. The Saudi economy instead relies heavily on a foreign workforce—roughly 10.1 million foreigners (in a country of 32.3 million) are currently working in various industrial, service, and domestic jobs. Every year these workers take a huge amount of money out of the economy and send it elsewhere. Salman plans to lessen this dependence on foreigners by gradually filling those jobs with local people. It is not possible to replace the entire workforce while employing only the male population, however, so Salman believes that the country’s women, who are well educated, must be fully engaged in the economy and workforce.

The Saudi royal family is afraid of the current economic crisis. They are worried that failure to adequately address the problem will lead to massive social upheaval. The kingdom provides funding to the royal family as well as to the lower and middle classes, and also subsidizes gasoline. This will be difficult to continue during an extended economic downturn. Also, Salman initiated the long-standing Yemen war—which many believe was imprudent and immature—in an attempt to prevent “pro-Iranian” Houthis from grabbing political power. The war has resulted in further economic pressure, and Shia unrest against the Saudi monarchy is compounding the problem.

Meanwhile for the first time in recent history, Saudi Arabia faces a budget deficit. Falling oil prices have ruined the kingdom’s relatively undiversified economy. In 2017, the national debt amounted to $115.3 billion. According to some estimates, by 2022 the national debt will be $202.23 billion. There is thus a desperate need for change. The kingdom’s non-oil GDP for 2018 is forecast to grow at 3.7 percent, but many experts believe that is more aspirational than realistic. However, it is the need to diversify the economy away from oil that has prompted Salman to take action to include women in all sectors of the productive economy, which first requires social liberation. For the first time in Saudi history, therefore, women will be allowed to drive cars legally.

One avenue for economic diversification and social liberalisation, as part of Prince Salman’s “Saudi Vision 2030,” will be development of an entertainment industry. The plan for an alternative sustainable financial future will include investing 64 billion US dollars in the entertainment industry over the next 10 years. The Saudi General Entertainment Authority expects to employ 220,000 people in entertainment by the end of 2018. Moreover, Uber and other taxi cab companies plan to hire 10,000 Saudi women as drivers by June of 2018. The Saudi government is also planning to develop a Las Vegas–style city near the capital Riyadh. If everything goes according to the plan, the economy will be on the road to revival, and the century-old traditional conservative social structures of Saudi Arabia will be experiencing significant changes.


When King Faisal started a modernisation process, for the first time in Saudi history, it was severely opposed not only by the clerics but also by the royal family. Faisal established a television station in 1964, although at the time many conservative Muslims considered that to be an aberration of Islam. He also initiated universal enrolment in the elementary schools for female children, for which he was severely criticised by the orthodox members of society. Although they could not openly oppose him due to the autocratic system, those who disliked Faisal’s reforms began to conspire to get rid of him. He was killed by his nephew in 1975.

Similarly, the greatest resistance to Salman’s modernisation plan may come from his own royal family members, in conjunction with the powerful clergy. He seems to be attempting to secure power by subjugating and eliminating the power of members of the royal family, taking the path of other third-world authoritarian leaders by bringing corruption charges against those who stand in his way. Because of relatively underdeveloped political and administrative structures compared to their counterparts in the West, it is relatively easy for politicians and high officials in the developing world to consolidate their power by accusing their enemies of corruption. Salman has brought corruption charges against a good number of royal family members, first imprisoning and later freeing them, after confiscating billions of dollars.

The royal family, with the help of the clergy, were the ones who initially injected extremist religious rhetoric into the public spheres in order to counter the influence of the Iranian Revolution. Before that revolution, the idea of an Islamic state was solely a theoretical concept. But the revolution showed, for the first time in modern history, that it was possible to organise a mass uprising to establish an Islamic state. In the heyday of the communist movement in the 1970s, the Iranian Islamists proved that in practice it was possible to actualise a theology-based counter-ideology. The Islamist revolution, though Shia in essence, at the same time inspired and made jealous the Sunni Islamists. The revolution surprised them, in the sense that despite being originated and developed by Sunni Islamic scholars and politicians in the twentieth century, the Shia theologians under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini were first able to implement it in the contemporary world. The resulting psychological boost ultimately provided new momentum to the Sunni Islamist movement. Many Islamists now believed that they, too, could organise a revolution in their own country.

Inspired by the Iranian revolution, Juhayman al-Otaybi, a retired national guard from an influential Bedouin family in Najd, led 500 armed men in seizing the grand mosque, the Masjid al-Haram (the Kaba) in Mecca in 1979. After the seizure, Otaybi declared his brother-in-law Mohamad al-Kattani to be Imam Mahdi (an eschatological redeemer of Islam, who will rule before the last apocalypse and will free the world from evil), and proclaimed that they would eradicate all the vices and corruption the Muslim world had inherited from the West. He further stated that the House of Saud had lost its legitimacy to rule because of corruption and imitation of the West, and he accused the Wahhabi clergy who were loyal to the royal family of betraying Islam.

Otaybi’s proclamation made the royal family quite nervous; they were afraid of Iran-style revolution. After two weeks of struggle, Saudi forces were able to recapture the Kaba with the help of the Pakistani military’s special forces and French GIGN units. The Kaba incident, the Iranian revolution, and the rise of the Islamist movement in various Muslim countries ultimately created enough pressure on the royal family to abandon the reforms that King Faisal had initiated. The closing of all the movie theatres in 1980 was one step back toward the traditional, conservative path. And to further counter the Islamist rhetoric, the Saudi royal family itself, with the help of the clergy, heavily injected the radical language in public spheres.

Meanwhile the influence of the clergy under the leadership of the Sheikh family has been gradually increasing since the Kaba incident. In fact, Saudi Arabia is controlled by the two families of Al Saud and Sheikh. Generally, the Saud family controls political affairs and the Sheikh family is in charge of religious affairs and education. The formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was founded in 1932, was the outcome of an agreement between Mohammed ibn Saud and Mohammed ibn Abdul al-Wahhab. According to this agreement, the Saud family would rule the country by al-Wahhab’s interpretation of Islam, which is commonly known as Wahhabi Islam. Al-Wahhab’s Sheikh family would be in charge of monitoring whether the Saud family was properly implementing the teachings of Wahhabi Islam in the kingdom.

Prince Salman now wants to reduce the influence of this Sheikh family in Saudi politics, but these are the same clerics who opposed King Faisal’s reform initiatives. The Sheikh family controls the Sunni clerics, from the top to the grassroots levels. They are afraid that the reform process would reduce their influence in society. The clergy under the auspices of the Sheikh family is therefore the biggest obstacle to Salman’s reform process. Success depends on how effectively he can rein them in.

Many people see the reincarnation of Faisal in Salman. He realises that the Saudi economy cannot support the lavish royal lifestyle. The major challenge for the upcoming future is to keep consistently generating money in the economy. Walking in the same old conservative shoes will fail to bring greater economic prosperity, which may ultimately result in a challenge to royal authority. Crown Prince Salman is in a dire crisis. On the one hand, if he cannot improve the economy through modernisation, he might face severe unrest from the different segments of society; on the other hand, if he insists on modernisation, he might face resistance not only from the clergy under the leadership of the Sheikh family but also from his own royal family. But if he can walk consistently down the path of modernisation, how will that affect the Islamist movement around the world?


The Sunni Islamists are closely watching these attempts to change Saudi Arabia. Although in theory they do not consider the Saudi kingdom to be ideal, they do feel a psychological alliance with Saudi society and portray it to their followers as the model Islamic society. And they receive financial and ideological patronisation from the Saudi kingdom. Now, due to economic pressure and his reform policies, Salman wants to gradually stop providing financial support to the Islamists and the radical groups.

The Islamists perceived the collapse of the Soviet socialist system in the 1990s as an ideological victory. During the Cold War era they saw communism as their arch-foe because of the atheism associated with it. Samuel P Huntington’s famous ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory further encouraged them when he argued that in the post-Cold War order, the major distinctions among people were no longer ideological but civilisational, where the Islamic culture is one of the major civilisations. This theory gained massive popularity among the Islamists, and was quoted many more times in Islamist newspapers and literature than in the West. After the debacle of communism, the Islamists saw the West as their chief antagonist in the world, and Huntington’s theory provided recognition of it. They replaced communism with secularism as their major ideological enemy; communism is very close to atheism, and the West is associated with secularism, both of which they abhor. The Islamists tell their followers that secularism is exclusionist, fascist, and atheist, and it is therefore the duty of every Muslim to fight against this “evil” ideology.

Due to the “clash of civilisation” theory, the Islamists saw the tragic 9/11 incident as a severe blow to the West, which made many of them very happy. Hence almost no Islamist parties condemned that barbarous attack. They all began to believe that they would soon also see the collapse of Western secularism, like the fall of communism in the 1990s.  In fact, this dystopian dream is what motivates the Islamists to organise their political activism. Since 9/11, major media attention to them in the West has further boosted their morale and confidence. Moreover, the rise of the Islamic State (IS)—the most brutal terrorist organisation in modern history, which was the outcome of the evaluation of Islamism as supreme—brought hope to the Islamists concerning their political project.

However, the world did not proceed according to their wishes. The demise of the Islamic State, the resurgence of Russia, and other events have already shifted the world focus from Islamism to a Cold War-style rhetoric. Salman’s reforms have added a new addendum to their despair.

But how far can Salman go? Some believe that he wants to completely transform his country into a secular one. He wants to be the Ataturk of Saudi Arabia. Some of his actions, speeches, and visions vindicate their speculation about Salman. But we need to wait and see whether he will be Ataturk or will face the fate of his predecessor Faisal.

If Salman suffers the fate of Faisal, the politics of Islamism will not be affected in a major way. But if he is able to succeed like Ataturk, the effect will be two-fold: the Islamists might face the same fate as the communists around the world after the debacle of the Soviet Union; and the socio-political reform movement in Iran will be bolstered, thus possibly also reducing the influence of Shia Islamism.

Sayeed Iftekhar Ahmed, PhD is part of the faculty of School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University System, West Virginia, US.

3 Responses to “Saudi Arabia in transition: The end of Islamism?”

  1. Shariful Islam babu

    Although Salman’s initiatives are necessary that of empowerment of women in the national economic flow but it should be done with the conservative norms of Islam, if Saudi Arabia not did so ,it would be heterogeneous to them. KSA should not cross the limit.

  2. Sujoy

    well Written Syed. Good historical and contemporary narrative.Wonderful comparison with Communism trajectory

  3. golam arshad

    The current crisis in KSA, is external pressure to reform within,and how to curb Muslim empowerment, in the wake of Western decadence! Need a powerful anchor, to assails the fraught of a charlatan, to draft Peace and knock out War against Islam!

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