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The Mirage of Serious Saudi Religious and Political Reforms

This article is sourced from Chapters Five and Six of my book, "Oil and God. Sustainable Energy Will Defeat Wahhabi Terror"



Fundamental religious and political reforms in Saudi Arabia are a necessity for the benefit of Islam, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and the wider world. However, the al-Saud regime will not allow that to happen.

Obstacles in the Way of Genuine Wahhabism Reform

1. Wahhabism is the Saudi Kings’ constitution and legitimating ideology to rule over the tribes. King Abdulaziz replaced Bedouin discord and rivalries by the brotherhood of Islam. Wahhabism is the glue that keeps the tribes under control and supportive of the regime. It is difficult to imagine a different ideology that could keep the tribes at peace with each other. To water down the glue is to risk the collapse of the al-Saud reign. Without Wahhabism, the “exaggerated individualism, lack of cooperation, and extreme jealousy among different segments of a tribe”[1] could re-surface and bring civil war and the potential division of Saudi Arabia.


2. Wahhabism is a useful psychological weapon. It energizes the Saudi masses in the regime’s confrontation with Iran and discrimination against Saudi Shi’ites and Isma’ilis.[2] But nationalism is not a viable alternative to Wahhabism in the confrontation with Iran. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Abdulaziz bin Baz (1963-1999), called nationalism “a movement of ignorance whose main purpose is to fight Islam and destroy its teachings and rules.”[3] Saudi history textbooks teach that Arab nationalism is “a conspiracy promoted by the West and Zionism to undermine the unity of Muslims.”[4] It will be generations before such values fade away.


3. Dressed up in Wahhabi garb, the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia is constructed with the security of the regime in mind. It nullifies the potential political opposition of one half of the Saudi society. In addition to gender segregation,[5] the male guardian system reduces the legal status of women to that of children. Should a woman engage in objectionable behavior, her guardian must pledge in writing to the police his personal responsibility for the woman’s future misbehavior. A husband, father, son, or a brother must grant his permission before a wife, mother, daughter, or a sister may open a bank account, form a business venture, be employed, get married, undergo medical treatment, apply for a passport, or travel abroad. In the age of Apple and Google, an application called Absher, created by the National Information Center of the Saudi Ministry of Interior allows men to track the whereabouts of their wives and daughters.[6]


4. Blind obedience to the king rests on the king’s claim of divine rule. Obedience by the masses does not flow from democratic principles. The palace ulama made the Quranic Verse 4:59 a religious duty, an act of piety. The belief in predestination, a core tenet, justifies the rule of a tyrannical ruler as if he were ordained by the will of God. For example, Dr. Abdulaziz al-Rayyis, a well known cleric, preached in a mosque in Medina on August 4, 2018 that blind obedience to the king is required even if he were caught on television committing acts of fornication and drinking alcohol.[7]


5. Saudi Arabia is challenged today by two opposing religious extremes. The first is from the Muslim Brotherhood for representative democracy. The second is from the likes of al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State for more austere and violent Wahhabism. In reaction to these challenges, to maintain his Wahhabi credibility, the king will not abolish Shari’a courts and polygamy will not become illegal.[8] Saudi religious reforms will be limited to cosmetics  only, like allowing women to drive cars, attend sporting event, and allow the opening of movie theatres. Al-Qaeda warned the Crown Prince that his cinemas and World Wrestling Entertainment event in Jeddah in April 2018 are sinful and opening the door for “corruption and moral degeneration.”[9] On January 16, 2019, preacher Abdulaziz al-Rayyis, demanded demolition of the churches on Muslim lands and the continued prohibition of church construction in Saudi Arabia.[10]


6. Societal customs, habits, and values do not get erased or reversed by fiat. Arabia’s inhabitants have been under the control and constant indoctrination of the al-Sauds and their Wahhabi clerics for the past two centuries. It would require generations to erase common beliefs such as, Shi’tes and Isma’ilis are not Muslims, Christians and Jews are heretics (kuffar), women are light on faith and brains, and only Wahhabis go to paradise.


As for the political sphere, the probability of reform is zero. Democracy and the king’s absolute authority are a zero-sum game. The slightest gain for democracy represents a corresponding loss to the king’s absolute authority. Representative democracy is frightening to the al-Sauds. It puts an end to their throne. Therefore, prospects for real democratic reforms is nil. The appointed Consultative Council will never become a democratically elected law-making assembly with powers to enact laws outside the king’s instructions. 


Manifesting Daily Living in Saudi Arabia
Saudi politics finds solutions to the challenges of modern living in seventh century Arabia as imagined by Wahhabi palace clerics. The following are some examples.


The educational curriculum is overwhelmingly skewed toward Wahhabi theology, laws, and rituals. Starting with the first grade, young children are taught that Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims are destined to ‘hellfire.’ As the children grow up, the same message is honed more explicitly. Of the sixteen core subjects that comprise the twelfth grade curriculum in high schools, nine are on Islam and related subjects.[11] The teaching of philosophy is prohibited. Wahhabi indoctrination aims at pre-occupying Saudis with religious dogma, belief in predestination, hatred of and jihad against the other, and promises of houris in paradise. Proselytization and conversion of non-Muslims to Wahhabism represent a very important mission to Saudi officialdom and Wahhabi clerics.


Religious Police

Brigades of religious police, known as mutawwa’ (meaning coercers) fanatically and crudely enforce Wahhabi dictums. Although they were stripped recently of the authority to make arrests,[12] they ensure that government and business offices are closed for the five daily prayers (sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset, and night). They empty shops, supermarkets, banks, and restaurants of customers during prayer time. They ensure that women are covered from head to toe in a black loose garment, and that women are not in the company of unrelated men, a serious offense. They enforce the ban on alcohol and prohibited foods, such as pork. They remove objectionable articles, photographs, and advertisements from foreign newspapers, magazines, and books. They raid shops, restaurants, cafes, supermarkets, hospitals, and other establishments without permission if they suspect a violation. They enforce a strict prohibition on religious activities by Christians, despite the fact that the Qur’an requires Muslims to hold Jesus and Mary in great reverence, and a million Christian expatriates live in the country. A Christian may not wear a cross pendant nor carry a Bible, for, if discovered, he will face imprisonment, lashings, and deportation.


The religious police are as old as the Saudi state. King Khalid (1975-1982) gave it the status of an independent agency of the government named, The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Numbering around 5,000 men, supported by approximately twice as many administrative staff, and operating out of around 500 police stations, the financial cost of the agency is not public. However, the agency’s annual budget may be estimated to be in the region of a billion dollars, taking into account officers and staff salaries, office overhead, the cost of running the agency’s fleets of distinctive SUVs, and other outlays.


Arts, Monuments, and Idolatry

Fear of falling into idolatry or in love with anything that might distract from the love and adoration of God is prohibited. Wahhabi hatred of archaeological sites, historical monuments, and cultural heritage drove the Taliban to dynamite the 1,500-year old Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in March 2001. The Islamic State destroyed much of Syria’s Palmyra and the Mosul museum and the Ninevah ruins in Iraq in 2016.[13] In Saudi Arabia itself, 98 percent of the country’s historical and religious sites have been destroyed since 1985, including the house of the Prophet's uncle in Mecca, which was flattened to make way for a hotel, and the house of the Prophet's first wife, Khadijah, in order to make way for public toilets. A Hilton Hotel has been built on the site where the house of the first caliph Abu Bakr once stood.[14]


Furthermore, for a Wahhabi, visiting the graves of family and relatives is sinful as is playing a musical instrument, drawing or acquiring a painting depicting the human figure, or sculpting or acquiring a statue of a man, let alone a woman. Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi considers that Islamists see love between a man and a woman as a threat to the couple’s allegiance to Allah.[15]


Penal Code

The Saudi Wahhabi agenda is demonstrated through Shari’a law with an archaic court system, complete with primitive, cruel seventh century penalties such as public severing of limbs, beheadings, and crucifixions, typically following the Friday noon prayers.[16] Flogging is a component of almost every prison sentence. The well-known Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, convicted of insulting Islam, has been given 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. After Friday prayers on January 9, 2015, he was brought to a public square in Jeddah, feet and hands shackled, and flogged 50 times.[17]


Modern Saudi Arabian society is a paradox. While Wahhabism returns society to a seventh-century religious cult, Saudi Arabia is awash in glittering twenty-first century Western consumer products and tall glass buildings.


Daily Living Under Wahhabi Dictums in the Words of a Saudi Female Journalist
The following encapsulates the oddity of Wahhabi teaching, preaching, and way of life, written in Arabic by Saudi journalist Nadine al-Budayr, and translated by Chiara Pellegrino.


I studied in public schools and read in my coursework that the other – Christian or Zoroastrian, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu – is a kafir, or nonbeliever. I also studied the rules of other faiths and schools within Islam – Shiite, Isma’ili, Twelver, Sufism – the followers of which are all considered nonbelievers and heretics. The same is true for thought. Those who indulge in thought and say what they think, breaking the doctrinal framework are nonbelievers, apostate and heretic. The liberal, the leftist, the modernist … they are all nonbelievers.

In schoolwork I learned that the woman is temptation, that her body is fitna (sedition) and that it is the cause of man’s entry into the Gehennam (hell). I read that the man is a wolf that seduces women and therefore I must fear him. I mustn’t leave the house or participate in the progress of the nation – that’s how I am taught to protect my chastity. I studied that I was a gemstone to be preserved in a chest that can only be opened by its guardian, his Excellency, the man. Millions of women are unemployed, our economy is on the brink of the abyss and, yet, there are still those who urge women to stay home. I studied that it was prohibited to question and to have a personal thought. It is prohibited to innovate, invent and discover. All is written, illustrated and explained in religious books and all of my attempts to think differently are equal to leaving the community and detaching oneself from Muslims.

I studied that seventy-two beautiful women await men in paradise. And since having sex is prohibited in the earthly world, the shortcut to the afterlife is martyrdom through killing western nonbelievers. I studied that women’s sports are prohibited, driving a car is haram (sinful/ prohibited), traveling without the consent of the guardian is haram, democracy is haram, high heels are haram, the hairdryer is haram. Short dresses, even if worn in the presence of siblings is haram. Music, singing, dance, film, theater, festivals, promiscuity with men, philosophy, modern poetry are all haram, along with reading books that are not religious, liberty and the laws of personal status.


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[1] Ibrahim Ezzidine, and D.P. Cole, Saudi Arabian Bedouin (Cairo Papers in Social Science, The American University in Cairo, 1978), PP. 11 and 18.

[2] Exploitation of religion for political purposes is age-old in the Middle East. Shah Ismail (1501-1524) forced the conversion of what was Sunni Persia to Shi’ite Islam in order to introduce Shi’ism’s zeal into Persia’s wars against the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Wahhabism helped defeat the Soviet Union in the Afghanistan War (1979-1989).

[3] Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, P. 190.

[4] Ibid. P. 191.

[5] As an example of the extreme extent of gender segregation, Saudi “religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing headscarves and abayas (black robes) ... 15 girls “died in the fire.”

 “Saudi Police ‘Stopped’ Fire Rescue,” BBC, (March 15, 2002).


[6] Laura Sydell, “Apple, Google Criticized For Carrying App That Lets Saudi Men Track Their Wives,” National Public Radio (US), (February 12, 2019).


[7] “Criticizing the ruler is prohibited even if he fornicates and drinks alcohol,” Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (August 4, 2018).


[8] As if to capture the high religious ground, the holiday period in 2017 for the month of fasting, Ramadan, was lengthened for government employees to 23 days (June 16, 2017-July 8, 2017), from 11 days in 2016,

CNN, Saudi Arabia just gave government workers a very long vacation (23 days!), June 21, 2017,


[9] Bethan McKernan, “Al-Qaeda warns Saudi Crown Prince his cinemas and WWE events are sinful,” The Independent, (June 2, 2019).


[10] Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. (January 16, 2019).

[11] Qur’an, tafsir (interpretation of the Qur’an), Hadith (Sayings of the Prophet) and Islamic culture, tawheed (studies in monotheism), fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), Arabic grammar, Arabic literature, history, and social studies.

[12] Will Worely, “Saudi Arabia Strips Religious Police of Powers of Arrest and Says They Must Be 'Kind and Gentle,’ The Independent, (April 14, 2016).


[13] “Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed,” National Geographic,

[14]Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage,” Time magazine,

[15] Hisham Sharabi, Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society (Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1998), PP. 33-34.

[16] “When It Comes to Beheadings, ISIS Has Nothing Over Saudi Arabia,” Newsweek magazine, (October 14, 2014).


[17]Saudi blogger receives first 50 lashes of sentence for 'insulting Islam',” The Guardian, (January 10, 2015).


[18] OASIS, The “J’Accuse” of a Saudi Journalist, by Nadine al-Budayr, translated from the original Arabic by Chiara Pellegrino, (26 May 2016).