Is there a Wahhabi Deep State in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia was founded in 1744 based on an alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi sect. After the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) became an exporter of oil was this pact expressed in vast Saudi financial support for Islamist movements around the world. The ties between the Wahhabi sect and the House of Saud has however been weakening in the past two decades and now is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MBS) ending the alliance.

How can it be that MBS is realizing the demands of Saudi women’s rights activists at the same time as as those very women’s rights activists are imprisoned and tortured by Saudi domestic intelligence? While conventional wisdom has it that MBS both emancipates women and persecutes feminists, this does not seem like a coherent policy and one must therefore ask whether there is a Wahhabi deep state in the KSA? Saudi Arabia was until recently under full Wahhabi control and it would seem that remaining sections of the state apparatus under Wahhabi control are resisting MBS’ policy to emancipate women by persecuting women’s rights activists. While twenty years ago those parts of the Saudi intelligence community did not constitute a deep state since they were in full control, now is this an accurate description.

Recently was a gender-integrated beach which allows bikinis created in Jeddah at the Red Sea. Could one imagine anything more emblematic of how the royal family under the leadership of MBS is gradually dismantling Saudi theocracy? What is happening in Saudi Arabia is clearly reminiscent of the Glasnost period in the Soviet Union. While there is no public opposition to the government’s liberalization policies, it would be strange if the still powerful Wahhabi ex-partners of the royal family would not try to resist the process of liberalization.

The international community certainly needs a more nuanced understanding of the political change underway in Saudi Arabia. It must be understood that dismantling the alliance between the royal family and the Wahhabi sect is easier said than done and hence no doubt the intense power struggle between MBS and Wahhabi-controlled elements of the Saudi intelligence community. It is essential that the international community understands that progress in Saudi liberalization must necessarily be gradual and the KSA is still far away from commencing democratization. Rather than demonize and ostracize MBS should the international community grant him international political legitimacy so as to encourage international investments in the KSA and thus strengthen the kingdom in preparation for the post-oil era. Stability in the KSA is very important and the best way to ensure continued stability and liberalization in the KSA is to strengthen MBS.

Published by Daniella Bartfeld

Daniella Bartfeld is the founding director of the Aliyah Organization.

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