Table of Contents


Since Saudi Arabia was founded almost a century ago, the doctrines and structures of the country’s religious institutions have evolved in unusual and distinctive ways. Wahhabi interpretations of Islamic texts and teachings—pursued and enforced by bodies like the religious police, the Ministry of Education, and a judiciary trained in sharia (Islamic law) that retains general jurisdiction—have given the Saudi state a religious character with no real parallel in the region. But these characteristics are not timeless or immutable, and they may be changing.

The country’s governing structures are being centralized, remolded, and reined in. Its religious doctrine is no longer “committed blindly” to the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, or to any “certain school or scholar,” as the man championing these changes, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, stated on April 27, 2021.1 The trend began a few years ago, even before he became crown prince, and now it is accelerating. The Saudi governance system has been undergoing a rapid and radical restructuring, perhaps the most far-reaching alterations since its formation a century ago. A combination of procedural shifts, personnel changes, bureaucratic restructurings, and changes in jurisdiction are revolutionizing the role of Islam in the Saudi state—and in public life.

Yasmine Farouk
Yasmine Farouk is a nonresident scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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But for all the potentially radical, cumulative effects, most of these changes are technical adjustments, redistributions of duties, or changes in appointment patterns. Rhetoric and tone are also shifting in ways that suggest more radical moves could come at some point. Most of the changes are not wholly new but began under the previous king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. And because these alterations amount to reshufflings rather than redesigns, they may be reversible or may simply be the endgame in themselves. There have been some suggestions of marginalizing but no frontal assault on Wahhabi teachings; long-standing structures have survived, apparently immune and adapting to existential challenges, at least for now. Nothing is being wholly dismantled, but everything is being changed. Previously powerful actors are being overruled, and their structures are being remolded but not abolished. The consequences of these changes are affecting the kingdom itself and Saudi diplomacy abroad too.

Even as Saudi religious institutions are being restructured, their tools are being pruned, ostensibly to increase governing efficiency but likely for political reasons as well. As is usually the case in Saudi Arabia, the change started at the top. To help sell these changes to Saudi society while maintaining credibility and easing tensions, the royal family has enlisted the support of figures within the religious establishment who are open to its new political vision, whereby the monarchy-led state, not the religious establishment, defines public order.

Even as Saudi religious institutions are being restructured, their tools are being pruned, ostensibly to increase governing efficiency but likely for political reasons.

The motivations behind these changes seem clear: greater centralization of the state; removal of impediments to intended political, social, and economic changes; and consolidation of the regime. And the short-term effects are also clear. Prevailing Wahhabi (as non-Saudis call it) religious doctrine (with its strong emphasis on obedience to the ruler) and Saudi religious structures (with their wide spheres of authority and extensive bureaucracies) have evolved over decades into vital and influential parts of the state apparatus. But those same features have rendered them unable or even unwilling to resist these changes.

In a sense, the processes underway in Saudi Arabia today are unprecedented at home, but they have strong parallels in other historical political systems (such as the Ottoman Empire and Egypt) more than a century ago. These changes are happening in Saudi Arabia not simply later but also so rapidly that judicious calibration seems unlikely. And the possibility remains that these shifts will leave strong pockets of resistance and resentment, given the leadership’s parallel strategy of holding on to some of the distinctive features of exclusionary and radical state doctrine and especially because the ultranationalist and political motivations behind some of the changes are sometimes quite clear.

This paper analyzes the changes in the Saudi state’s religious establishment by first examining its historical evolution. Second, it examines the several ministries and other structures that employ ulema (religious scholars), effectively affording their voices not merely the force of their own learning but also their own small slice of state power. Yet assessing the changes in the Saudi religious establishment requires paying attention not only to bodies that are headed by and dominated by ulema but also keeping in mind other state institutions where they play influential roles without necessarily leading.

Nathan J. Brown
Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.

The bulk of the paper is thus devoted to analyzing two groups of institutions: those that are supposed to shape the religious identity of the country and those that operationalize that vision. The first group includes the Council of Senior Scholars and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The second group includes the Ministry of Justice, the Committee for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, the Ministry of Education, and Islamic charitable entities. This second group also includes the World Muslim League due to the prominent role its secretary general is playing in relaying this new Saudi religious discourse overseas.

This division of labor between the two groups of institutions, however, is not that clear in practice. Political authorities often choose to bypass the first group of institutions and impose the new religious narrative through direct implementation and actions. The objective is usually to avoid direct confrontation and resistance from the first group of institutions as well as to gradually and publicly restrict their role in legitimizing public policies. As a matter of fact, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice long have incrementally shaped the country’s religious identity thanks to the room for maneuvering that their personnel have inside their courts and classrooms. By the same token, the World Muslim League is nowadays more than a mere tool to disseminate and operationalize the country’s new religious discourse abroad, thanks to the closeness of its secretary general to the royal court.

In each institution, similar patterns arise: changes that are incremental and reversible but cumulatively significant.

In each institution, similar patterns arise: changes that are incremental and reversible but cumulatively significant. Lastly, the paper assesses the likely course of this incremental reform program and the ways Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic actors might position themselves in a political system that is still in flux.

Saudi Arabia’s Distinctive Path of State Formation

The twentieth-century Saudi state was built unlike most of its regional counterparts.2 There was no period of European rule; Western oil companies have long enjoyed a far more extensive presence in the kingdom than any European military or diplomatic actor has. Ottoman institutions operated for a time but only in some parts of the country, and the kingdom’s territory and borders emerged as the result of contests on the Arabian Peninsula (albeit with a heavy British hand in fixing some borders, including those with Iraq, Jordan, and Kuwait). Regional and Western influence on Saudi institution building was more limited and came mostly after the discovery of oil. The centrality of Islam in crafting a unique identity for the nascent political entity not only preceded state building but also established boundaries on external influence.

That distinctive history can be traced in many different areas. Saudi bureaucratic structures, for instance, were built later than elsewhere in the region and tended to be less coherent. Centralization proceeded far more slowly. And legislative processes eschewed parliamentary bodies, with limited consultative structures only, until the current (and still consultative) Majlis al-Shura (Shura Council), formed in 1992, became impressively active. In previous attempts to build a Saudi state, religious devotees had the double tasks of convincing and even coercing Saudi people to obey the state through the assumption of official religious and civilian (and, early on, even military) tasks such as conquest, control, and policing as well as collection of tax and zakat (mandatory annual charitable donations made by Muslims).3

The founder of the current Saudi state, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, put an end to the extreme degree of overlap among various religious and state structures, yet a dialectical relationship between the clerics and the royal family continued throughout the process of state building. The strong overlap between the religious and legal realms remained the most visible sign of this interplay. The courts of general jurisdiction were staffed with judges trained primarily in Islamic sharia with no recourse to state law codes. (By contrast, while judges in Syria or Morocco might have taken a course on Islamic law in law school, the bulk of their training would have been in state-legislated law codes.) In the kingdom, public order was maintained not only by the regular police but also by the Committee for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, generally termed the religious police in English. In part, this translation stems from the fact that the committee long had strong policing powers—ones that grew over time rather than shrank, until more recently. Religion also infused almost all aspects of Saudi public life and state services from broadcasting to education.

Over the last half century, the influx of oil revenue has made possible a massive and rapid expansion in almost all aspects of the Saudi state: social welfare, education, construction, the media, and state bureaucracies.

Over the last half century, the influx of oil revenue has made possible a massive and rapid expansion in almost all aspects of the Saudi state: social welfare, education, construction, the media, and state bureaucracies. For all the magnitude and the rapid pace of this institutional and infrastructural development, Saudi state building has tended to build on past patterns rather than reverse them. There have been discontinuities to be sure, but the country never has been ruled by a self-styled revolutionary regime consciously working to undo the previous way of doing things.

It is not that Saudi Arabia remained frozen at some point in the past: the role of religion actually grew over time and took a more specific form, promoted by a range of official actors. So, while there was some general continuity, Saudi observers noticed a change—though when that change set in and what was responsible for it remain controversial. Some speak of the reign of former king Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (who ruled from 1964–1975) as a turning point, with his conservative orientation financed by growing oil revenues. But today those reveling in the very recent changes speak instead of the slowly radicalizing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1960s and of 1979 as a dramatic juncture. That is the year when the Saudi leadership, reacting to religious challenges—the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Iranian revolution, and rising religiosity throughout the region—doubled down on its commitment to religion in public life inside the kingdom.4 Social restrictions increased, support for domestic religious institutions grew more generous, funding of religious activities abroad flowed more freely, and the country’s religious leaders seemed to exercise a veto over areas of public policy.

The ways that some Saudi citizens refer to 1979 as a turning point are based on a genuine shift but are also partly tactical in nature: specifying such a recent date can be meant to suggest that Saudi Arabia’s current institutions and practices are the product not of traditions deeply embedded in history and religion but of much more recent political calculations, as much external as internal. To move against these modern-day institutions and practices can thus be portrayed as a return to Saudi society’s authentic roots, which were supposedly more pluralistic, tolerant, and socially liberal.

State-Sponsored Religion in Saudi Arabia Today

When outsiders refer to the Saudi religious establishment, they often see it as a product of the Wahhabi reform movement, which was born in the Arabian Peninsula nearly three centuries ago and which has been affiliated with the Saudi political cause since its beginning. This is for good reason. Official Islam under Saudi leadership has indeed always been Wahhabi in inspiration. But the Saudi leadership’s Wahhabi character is not self-acknowledged, in part because the term Wahhabism is eschewed as inappropriate; for its adherents, Wahhabism is the only sound interpretation of Islam, not an idiosyncratic school of thought.

But whatever term is used, there are movement-like aspects to the long-dominant approach to Islam in the kingdom (anchored as it is in certain circles, regions, families, and informal networks). Wahhabism might alternatively be seen as a school of religious thought—one that insists on close adherence to original religious texts (a kind of Salafism), while also avoiding practices it sees as non-Islamic accretions (such as the veneration of tombs). While suspicious of some scholarly interpretations, Wahhabi scholars tend to follow the teachings of the movement’s founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and other major Wahhabi figures. Handsomely bound copies of his fatwas (legal opinions on a point of Islamic law) adorn many Saudi religious bookshelves.

But Wahhabism, like Saudi Arabia itself, is not an unchanging or constant force. If the religious tendency was born as a movement, the construction of the Saudi state not only greatly increased its influence but also gave it strong institutional form. What had been a school of thought was gradually woven into the fabric of an expanding Saudi state—one that became a large, complex, and often barely coherent set of structures that left religious institutions and officials with tremendous authority in many realms.

What had been a school of thought was gradually woven into the fabric of an expanding Saudi state—one that became a large, complex, and often barely coherent set of structures that left religious institutions and officials with tremendous authority in many realms.

The effect, however, was not merely to meld religion into the state and ensure its influence in many areas of public life but also to guarantee that Wahhabi Islam was presented to residents of the kingdom with the full authority of the state and to turn Wahhabi scholars and leaders into state officials. It was an offer of influence that those scholars could not—and did not—refuse. To be able to expand their geographic reach, enter new social realms, teach new generations, and place graduates in the various structures of the Saudi state was an attractive offer indeed. And this access to power gave the religious establishment enormous sway—even if it turned its members into civil servants on the state payroll.

Today, like before, rulers of the Saudi state are using the clerics’ fear of losing this privileged status to push them to evolve and to tame them according to the dictates of political survival. Wahhabi scholars take pride in the authenticity and purity of their approach, but the movement has always historically evolved through interactions with other approaches and through internal competition. Today’s changes, while instigated by the royal court, follow the same logic of political adaptation.5

Consequently, basic features of Saudi state structures—who reports to whom, from where various offices tend to recruit new employees, what training and qualifications they expect their members to have, and what their jurisdictions or competencies are—have been the very instruments, consciously deployed or otherwise, through which religion has shaped Saudi public life, society, and politics. Tinkering with those features of state structures and procedures, even with seemingly minor changes, could have significant religious and social effects.

In the past few years, the Saudi religious space has been undergoing a systematic recasting and rearranging of the various structures in which Islam is taught, practiced, and enforced. These alterations have not been expressed as a formal program but instead as a set of administrative measures with two clear effects: to increase central control over religion (decreasing the autonomy of religious figures) and to shift authority to less clearly religious structures that are more directly linked to the royal court.

Yet there has been no formal program of transformation beyond rhetoric and no overt changes in religious doctrine, as dozens of technical amendments under the banner of reform emerge rather than wholesale abolitions or dramatic upheaval of key institutions. The overall effects of these changes will be clear only when they are viewed as a whole—and when it becomes clearer not merely how successful but also how long-lasting the changes are. But however incremental and provisional they may be, the changes are still attracting attention.

The Disempowered Shapers of Saudi Islam

One of the keys to understanding the changes in Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment is to investigate the dynamics underway inside two institutional pillars of its religious establishment, the Council of Senior Scholars and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance (hereafter called the Ministry of Islamic Affairs). These two institutions supposedly act as initiators and diffusers of change in the religious space through several tools and affiliated institutions such as mosques and religious curricula.

The Council of Senior Scholars: An Old Body Speaks With Less Dissonance

Theoretically, some of the aforementioned changes in the Saudi religious sector, specifically those that revisit the established Wahhabi interpretations of religion, should not take place without the permission, or rather nowadays the a posteriori blessing, of the Council of Senior Scholars.6 The council, a committee of the country’s most senior and respected religious scholars, is at the apex of Saudi Arabia’s religious apparatus. Formed in the 1960s, it speaks collectively for the Saudi religious establishment. Presumably such an influential body would be deeply affected, even threatened, by the Saudi monarchy’s far-reaching program of religious restructuring.

But there are no signs that the council is slated for major changes. There have been extensive personnel changes to be sure, but most of the council’s new members have had conventional career paths.7 While the council consists of senior figures, its members are scholars who have moved up the ranks of state institutions; the dominant Wahhabi approach is to advise discreetly but also support the prevailing Islamic ruler. For such figures to denounce the country’s rulers or question the nature of the state would be almost unthinkable.

While the council consists of senior figures, its members are scholars who have moved up the ranks of state institutions; the dominant Wahhabi approach is to advise discreetly but also support the prevailing Islamic ruler.

So instead, the council has been adjusting to the Saudi leadership’s new approach. When it became clear in 2018 that the country’s political leaders were committed to allowing women to drive, for example, the council quickly issued an opinion supporting the move. Some cynical observers suggested this likely involved an almost overnight changing of minds for many council members, endorsing a step they likely would have opposed if asked, one that many of them had indeed opposed in the past.8 That cynicism is likely justified in part but might miss the point: the council’s place is not to be entrusted with discerning the public interest or to dictate terms to the country’s rulers but to interpret religious teachings as experts in line with the demands of leading a religious society.

Similarly, the council has taken the lead in denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood, but it has done so only when senior regime figures (and other state institutions) have made clear that the movement is regarded as a terrorist threat. More generally, the council’s own regulations suggest that its first and foremost task is to advise the ruler when requested, whereas taking the initiative to advise him proactively is a secondary concern.9

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has restored some figures that the previous king Abdullah had dismissed for their opposition to his timid program of social reforms. They include individuals like Saleh al-Luhaidan and Saad al-Shethri. Like in other areas, the Saudi leadership seems to be keeping the pillars of Wahhabism in place on the council but circumventing them to avoid any open confrontation.

Many actions support this interpretation. First, Salman continued Abdullah’s policy of including on the council scholars who adhere to the three non-Hanbali Sunni schools, broadening its composition in a limited way—while diluting its influence by asking for its advice less frequently.10 Second, inside the Wahhabi establishment itself, figures like al-Luhaidan and al-Shethri coexist with progressive figures such as Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulkarim al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League and former minister of justice.

Third, keeping ultraconservative figures in their positions has allowed the state to maintain control of their followers. However, pushing them to reverse their old conservative narratives has damaged their credibility more than just replacing them with new figures who had never expressed opposition to social liberalization would have. Fourth, an October 2020 royal decree made the attorney general a member of the council.11 While his appointment asserts the de jure centrality of religion to the kingdom’s justice system, the fact that the attorney general is there more by virtue of his position than because of his religious learnedness amounts to a de facto downgrading in importance and a sign of increasing politicization.

And, indeed, the latest round of appointments to the council perhaps demonstrates most clearly the diffuse nature of this approach. Alongside the apparent loyalist attorney general, other appointments to the council include figures from other backgrounds. One notable example is Bandar al-Balila, who was rumored to have been briefly arrested as part of a crackdown on dissident scholars in 2018.12

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance: Controlling the Narrative on Change

This pattern of using incremental changes to cement a fundamental reorientation of the Saudi religious establishment extends to the Saudi ministry that stands at the center of official religion in the country. Changes inside the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs are crystallizing this reconfiguration of the country’s religious sphere without altering its core doctrine. As is the case in other institutions, the changes started with a clear policy from the top and are now cascading down through the institutional ranks.

As is the case in other institutions, the changes started with a clear policy from the top and are now cascading down through the institutional ranks.

The reform agenda mixes the fight against extremism with political interventions and state modernization efforts, complicating any opposition to these changes that would be framed as opposition to the fight against extremism. The ministry is crucial to keeping the apolitical aspects of Wahhabi doctrine intact while actively legitimizing the implementation of the Saudi leadership’s social, religious, and political agenda, which de facto challenges the ministry’s own established interpretations.

The current minister of Islamic affairs, Abdullatif Al al-Sheikh, is one of the main figures of the new Saudi narrative on purported religious centrism. He portrays this path as one that fully conforms with Wahhabi doctrine and the “methodology of the righteous forebearers.”13 According to his narrative, that methodology needs to be refined after decades of encroachment by Islamists. Even before his appointment as minister, he completely adopted the Saudi political leadership’s religious discourse, adding political zeal to his dual credibility as a son of the official establishment and a member of the al-Sheikh family (of al-Wahhab).14

Nationalist social media accounts widely believed to be state affiliated have occasionally gone so far as to generate hashtags to singly thank the minister for his efforts at harnessing “good citizenship” and “patriotism,” “fighting terrorism,” and promoting state policies and overcoming bureaucratic resistance.15 For his own part, the minister does not shy away from tweeting to support state foreign and domestic policies, denounce conspiracies against the kingdom and its leadership, or reinforce to the Saudi public the idea that true Muslims leave discussions of politics to their rulers.16

The trickle-down changes inside the ministry have been quite apparent. In 2018, the minister of Islamic affairs (then newly appointed) denied the existence of a “written” black list but confirmed that those “who don’t fit with the new vision of the king and his crown prince of a moderate nation that rejects extremism” will not remain in their posts.17 As a case in point, consider how Saudi political authorities have sacked or otherwise marginalized imams who oppose social liberalization; instigate strife by praying against specific individuals, countries, and sects; or discuss politics.18

Successive regulations have been adopted to limit preaching in the kingdom’s mosques only to Saudi and full-time imams who have fallen under stricter supervision from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.19 Prior to that, the stricter implementation of the decision to standardize Friday sermons and digitally monitor them across the kingdom were among other steps taken to control the religious narratives espoused by ultraconservatives.20 Official and unofficial scholars face systematic pressure to religiously legitimize the socioeconomic and political transformations underway while also doubling down on demands of absolute obedience to Saudi rulers.21

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has engaged in myriad activities to aid the regime’s fight against unsanctioned political Islam and extremism.

Most importantly, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has engaged in myriad activities to aid the regime’s fight against unsanctioned political Islam and extremism. These activities include supervising mosques, preaching, and religious lessons; overseeing Quranic and charity associations; printing copies of the Quran and religious manuals; managing the king’s special guests for pilgrimage visits; spearheading Islamic international cooperation; and organizing domestic and international public events.

Although the kingdom is supposedly going through religious reforms, the ministry is doubling down on Saudi adherence to the Wahhabi doctrine that is widely perceived among wider circles of Muslims and foreigners as exclusionary, radical, and even extremist. Despite the links between Wahhabism, as non-Saudis call it, or Salafism, as Saudis prefer to call it, and the doctrines of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State,22 the ministry is promoting an official narrative that denies any such links. The way the kingdom’s ulema conflate any opposition to Wahhabi doctrine with opposition to tawhid (the oneness of God) itself—and any foreign attempts to target Saudi Arabia (not just violent ones) as tantamount to targeting Islam—is also an integral element of the ministry’s narrative.

The ministry’s overseas activities also have continued, though Saudi religious proselytism is being restricted. In 2016, the ministry suspended its overseas proselytism activities while it redefined their regulatory framework.23 Yet news about the ministry’s ongoing charity activities and events hosted by Saudi and Saudi-sponsored Islamic centers abroad indicate that overseas religious outreach has not completely stopped.

Given how Wahhabi doctrine mandates proselytism, the Saudi system created to fulfill this duty has grown too complex and sophisticated to be under the total control of the ministry or any other single part of the state. An abrupt interruption of such activities would not only cost the Saudi leadership its considerable capital of transnational influence but also could erode support for the country’s leadership within the religious establishment. Instead, the Saudi leadership is now relying on other institutions to relay its influence abroad, mixing in a new Saudi narrative that promotes ostensible moderation and openness toward others with the necessity for Muslim communities to integrate into their non-Muslim nations, while the Ministry of Islamic Affairs continues to spread the traditional narrative.

The Saudi State’s Tools for Implementing Islam

Dawa (Islamic proselytization) is heavily emphasized in Wahhabi doctrine. Wahhabism not only insists that every Muslim—including Saudi state authorities as Muslim rulers—has the duty to promote Islam and to spread correct practice but also tends to be less than pluralistic, showing great confidence in Wahhabi teachings that emanate from followers of the movement. In Saudi Arabia, dawa is not merely a doctrinal position but a state bureaucratic function. This proselytizing function is mediated through several institutions furnished with financial and regulatory tools and staffed by ulema who act as state bureaucrats tasked with putting into practice Saudi Arabia’s specific identity and what the authorities henceforth dub “moderation” into practice.24

Saudi Courts: Enacting Islam in the Legal Sector

One of the most notable Saudi state structures—and perhaps the strongest bastion of the Wahhabi religious establishment’s official role—is the kingdom’s judiciary. The benches of the courts of general jurisdiction in Saudi Arabia are staffed with judges educated in Islamic jurisprudence, and these judges are encouraged to see their task as applying God’s instructions for righteous conduct. They are meant to act under the political leadership of a legitimate ruler but derive their understanding of sharia from their specialized training.

Over the decades, the role of the Saudi judiciary has evolved. Its structures have been formalized, its procedures have been regulated, and its courts have become specialized, even as other quasi-judicial bodies have joined the judicial ranks. (Some, like the Diwan al-Mazalim’s administrative courts, clearly are fully judicial in nature, but others appear just as much to be administrative bodies.)

Yet none of these gradual alterations have challenged the fundamental centrality or training of the sharia-based judiciary.

Yet none of these gradual alterations have challenged the fundamental centrality or training of the sharia-based judiciary. And the various steps taken to curb or define its role often have been done so carefully that even the idea of codification of law proved to be too sensitive to pursue for a time.25 As new judicial bodies have been added and new laws have been written and enacted, the sharia-based judiciary has marched on, resisting a regional trend for judicial models grounded in civil law and legal codes that allow limited, residual jurisdictions for Islamic sharia rather than the other way around.

The Saudi approach of subtle reorganization and rearrangement has not changed, but in the past few years the pace and boldness of previously incremental alterations have grown dramatically. Growing popular demands for a more efficient and regulated judicial sector have coincided with a political project to modernize state institutions, rein in state clerics, and fight corruption. The result is a judiciary that is no longer what it was—it remains formally unchanged but has been subdued and contained in a series of steps that have collectively remade the Saudi legal order without redefining it.26

Legal codification, legislation, and judicial discretion. The Saudi state had long avoided the Arabic term tashri (legislation) until more recently, but skirmishes between sharia-based and state-based legal jurisprudence have been waged in other ways through a slow accumulation of efforts. Over some years, the Saudi Ministry of Justice began claiming the task of tadwin (compilation) rather than codification—not legislating a comprehensive code but ensuring uniformity of application by collecting, digitizing, and circulating previous court judgments to serve as models (informally but effectively as precedents) as new cases arise.27 Yet in 2021, the crown prince decided that binding legislation, rather than mere compilation, will be the way forward. He then promised four new laws by the end of 2021: a personal status law, a civil transactions law, a penal code for discretionary sanctions, and a law of evidence.28

As this happened, seasoned judges observed with concern that their junior colleagues would find it fairly easy to resort to meeting their caseloads by copying from such judgments and the upcoming laws, aware that if they did so, their task would be easier and their rulings were unlikely to be reversed on appeal since the reasoning would be endorsed by senior judges and officials. Even before codification was officially announced in February 2021, compilation seemed to its critics to amount to codification by stealth, though such rulings initially had no formal status as precedents or unified, established points of reference. In 2019, the minister of justice made clear that the controversial question of the legitimacy of codification had been resolved; the following year, he made known that he regarded compilation as binding, not merely advisory.29 The objection that too many state-issued laws are edging out sharia has now been effectively marginalized.30

While Saudi state structures avoided the Arabic term for legislation—tashri—until recently, the clearly legislative process that runs through the king through royal decrees has been ramped up over time. Consequently, large parts of Saudi law are increasingly dominated by state-issued texts rather than scholarly interpretations of religious injunctions. For instance, the abolition of the death penalty for minors or the abolition of punitive lashing were accomplished through ministerial directives, not scholarly debate.31

This is not necessarily a direct doctrinal challenge—the ruler, after all, is granted discretion in some criminal and many regulatory matters in dominant Sunni approaches. But this state-centered reorientation of legal texts is now occurring at a pace and scope that seem to increase each year. Since 2015, the Ministry of Commerce and Investment; the Ministry of Labor (reshaped six years ago as the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development); and the Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture, for instance, have each issued literally over 300 regulations.32

Alongside the executive branch, the Supreme Court and the Shura Council (which forwards nonbinding decisions, recommendations, and draft codes to the king for approval) have significantly accelerated their pace and widened their scope. When developing such rules—or when launching into new legal subjects such as electronic transactions—there is no longer even an attempt to refer to any sharia-based guidance (on rules of evidence, for instance).33 Authorities claim they are never clearly violating or negating the tradition of basing these rules on Islamic sharia, to be sure, but they clearly no longer feel bound to be seen as hewing closely to conventional Wahhabi interpretations.

In addition to incremental codification and expanded legislation, the role for judicial actors to make decisions at their own discretion is gradually becoming more circumscribed.

In addition to incremental codification and expanded legislation, the role for judicial actors to make decisions at their own discretion is gradually becoming more circumscribed. There is a growing emphasis on improving the governance of judicial institutions with a special stress on modernizing judicial structures and procedures. Reforms within the Ministry of Justice hence are coinciding with other similar projects across other state institutions as part of the ambitious Vision 2030 national strategy proclaimed five years ago and one of its objectives of increasing government efficiency.

These reforms include formulating procedures to file court cases; offering new technical trainings for judges; emphasizing the transparency of procedures, argumentation, and documentation of court decisions; and issuing decisions more quickly with a clearer division of labor between judges and administrative personnel and between different specialized courts.34 New regulations have been adopted to regularize court inspections so as to “minimize differences” between them, whether in terms of the procedures for issuing a final verdict or the substance of some verdicts in a number of legal sectors.35

Judicial recruitment and training. The recruitment and training of candidates for judicial posts—including for both judges and members of the judicial administrative corps—are being restructured.36 Efforts are underway to make graduates from secular law schools eligible for judicial positions.37 An attempt to open the door to hiring women for judicial positions has been turned back—for now.38

These kinds of measures, facing judicial resistance for years, seem designed to expand the pool of recruits beyond the traditional clergy and require more competencies than just mastering sharia.39 The construction of regional universities seems to offer the possibility of widening the pool of judicial job candidates to diminish the influence of al-Qasim Province, the region that has produced many of the most stalwart Wahhabi jurists. Other ancillary bodies (such as judicial support structures) also seem to be working to draw a more diverse population into the legal system.

Royal oversight on high-priority and politically charged cases. Court cases on issues that are high political priorities for the king and crown prince have also come under scrutiny, such as those related to women’s rights. The public debate on women’s employment in the Ministry of Justice, for instance, has become politicized, including the very controversial discussion of their employment as judges and the gradual increase in the number of licensed female lawyers.40 The debate on women’s roles and issues in the ministry came under spotlight when women were appointed as criminal investigators in the public prosecution body for the first time ever in June 2020, even as stricter application of laws that protect women and children against domestic abuse was announced.41

At times, Saudi leaders have steered broad categories of cases—and not merely politically inconvenient ones—away from the regular judiciary. The tactic of shuffling jurisdiction to centralize control is not entirely new. In an earlier era, there was open executive oversight over jurisdiction in individual cases; the administrative courts were directed not to accept cases against state bodies unless the case was referred to them by the king (as head of the cabinet).42

The kingdom’s current leadership seems to be working in part by lavishing attention on, widening the competencies of, and increasing the discretion of the country’s public prosecution, a structure that is more amenable to centralized direction than the judiciary has been in the past.43 By increasing prosecutorial discretion—and ensuring that the prosecution’s views align with those of the leadership—the Saudi monarchy is circumscribing the role for judicial discretion without diminishing its formal independence.

The kingdom’s current leadership seems to be working in part by lavishing attention on, widening the competencies of, and increasing the discretion of the country’s public prosecution.

The ambitious Vision 2030 agenda gives special attention to the kingdom’s legal environment as essential to attracting domestic and foreign private investments and top-flight foreign residents. Codification and the institutional capacities of the Ministry of Justice play a crucial role in reaching this objective. The ministry is expected to integrate and implement an increasing number of economic laws through its commercial courts, but it also must be flexible in applying foreign arbitration and court decisions against Saudi entities. Saudi judges also are expected to accept that there will be special jurisdiction in the country’s special economic zones—such as the planned northwestern smart city of Neom, the Red Sea Project, and others—where commercial laws will answer to international, not local, standards and where social norms are supposed to be more relaxed. (One attorney involved in drafting relevant tourism legislation even acknowledged the possibility of permitting alcohol in specific areas.)44

These changes have not always been smooth, but the trajectory is still clear. Notably, a brief confrontation between the previous minister of justice and a significant body of judges—who organized a 2013 petition of protest, mostly on administrative matters—ended with the then minister decisively punishing (and even dismissing or jailing) some of the judges involved.45 The minister himself since has been shifted to the position of secretary general of the Muslim World League and has become a member of the Council of Senior Scholars and an influential adviser to the royal court—giving him less executive authority, perhaps, but far more visibility domestically and especially internationally. Most importantly, he has become a prominent international spokesperson for the leadership’s ideological and religious vision, practically in charge of openly promoting coexistence with non-Wahhabi Muslims and non-Muslims.46

A new focus on training Saudi lawyers is meant to increase their numbers and further empower them within the legal system.47 In 2017, the minister of justice inaugurated the Judicial Training Center to train “judicial and legal human resources,” albeit with fees.48 The rules governing the work of lawyers are also expected to change, with job descriptions expected to expand into areas previously reserved for the judiciary, such as drafting and registering contracts.49

The overall effect of all these legal and judicial changes is to remold the Saudi legal system by bypassing, diverting, and slowly remaking the judiciary. Through a host of evolutionary, indirect, and administrative steps, Saudi Arabia’s legal apparatus is losing its capacity to offer a sanctuary where clerics decide the limits of their own actions. In a sense, the country’s judiciary is becoming almost standardized, resembling other state institutions and, notably, judiciaries in other Islamic countries. This move to fold the judiciary into state structures more fully also includes arresting judges as part of the country’s wider political crackdown against dissent and in the wake of accusations of extremism and corruption.

The preambles of new regulations and legal decisions continue to assert that sharia is still the reference bedrock of Saudi regulations, and Vision 2030 still refers to the Quran as the state’s constitution. Yet a new legal doctrine seems to be materializing. As before, the public interest (as defined by the country’s rulers) will continue to govern the interpretation, application, and scope of religious teachings, but such determinations are now being made in such a way that the interpretation of sharia is effectively (though not doctrinally) defined by Saudi law.

The way political and economic authority has become more centralized over the past three years and the way political authoritarianism has increased indicate that an independent judiciary is still out of the question for Saudi rulers.

These changes, taken cumulatively, are significant but have not wholly eliminated the capacities of the judiciary, Saudi society, and even the Shura Council to resist change. These alterations also will not necessarily lead to a judiciary solely reliant on texts emanating from the legislative process or the royal court. Saudi Arabia is still far from being governed by the rule of law, and noncodified political interventions from the royal court still prevail over legal verdicts. The way political and economic authority has become more centralized over the past three years and the way political authoritarianism has increased indicate that an independent judiciary is still out of the question for Saudi rulers. But the royal family will likely leave judges a certain amount of room for maneuvering within these new political limits to avoid a violent confrontation. The anticipated laws to be issued by the end of the year might offer an indicator of such limits.

The Religious Police: From Boldly Preventing Vice to Politely Promoting Virtue

Perhaps the most striking recent change in Saudi Arabia is one that has left only the slightest formal trace: the near disappearance from public life of the once-prominent religious police—or more formally, the Committee for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice.

The committee itself is a formal body that has grown along with the Saudi state to help Saudi rulers carry out the religiously sanctioned task of religious policing in the fullest sense of the word. At its peak, the committee oversaw public conduct to ensure orderliness and righteousness, as Saudi Islamic religious tradition has come to understand those terms. The committee takes its name from verses in the Quran about guiding Muslims in general to promote virtue and prevent vice. The Saudi interpretation drew on traditions that viewed this charge not simply as an individual duty but as a special state duty for Muslim rulers. While promoting virtue and preventing vice is a traditional religious understanding of the ruler’s policing function, Saudi Arabia had been one of the few societies to devote a specific organization to that function and staff it with those willing to be trained and present themselves as stern enforcers of public morality.

And for a time, these officials did enforce Muslim religious sensibilities, often with compulsion. The committee ensured that women (and men, though with less severe strictures) were modestly dressed, that men and women did not mix socially, that shops were closed during prayer times, and that art was absent from public spaces. The committee was given a clear hierarchy and set of organizational regulations and guidance, but when it came to defining virtue and vice, its officials relied on their own religious understandings, guided by official religious scholars and convictions of their higher moral standing. They cajoled, scolded, patrolled, encouraged, and (if necessary) coerced, arrested, and detained potential rule breakers.

Then, in 2017, these last trappings of authority were taken away—or rather rerouted through other structures. Nowadays, if committee members find somebody who should be arrested or detained, they can no longer do so themselves. Instead, they are to refer the matter to the police or public prosecution—a way of seemingly harmonizing their operations with those of other state bodies.50 But the effect in practice has been much more far-reaching.

Nowadays, if committee members find somebody who should be arrested or detained, they can no longer do so themselves. Instead, they are to refer the matter to the police or public prosecution.

Very quickly, the committee nearly has disappeared from public life. Saudi citizens report seeing fewer of their distinctive SUVs and fewer on-foot patrollers; within a year, the strictures they had been enforcing began loosening greatly in practice: gender segregation, dress restrictions, and store closures are still practiced but less rigidly enforced. And while the committee itself remains active to a degree, it seems to focus far more on promoting virtue nowadays—by distributing, for instance, copies of the Quran, holding advertising campaigns in the streets, and convening public talks—while leaving the definition and prevention of vice to other state bodies and social pressures.

As is the case with Saudi judicial reforms, efforts to rein in the religious police have taken place in waves when the role of this institution has become socially or politically problematic. The current push started under Abdullah when the state police actually arrested members of the committee for abuse of authority. The Ministry of Interior adopted a regulation as early as 2006 limiting the committee’s powers to arresting suspects who then must be turned over to the police. This inherited practice of restricting the religious police’s authority nonetheless has been pushed much further under Salman. The effective removal of religious policing from Saudi daily life has sparked widespread and broad (though not universal) public support.

Under both the current king and his predecessor, the committee’s exit from public life has been perhaps the most visible sign of social liberalization—a trend so noticeable it is easy to exaggerate. Strictures on public behavior are still extensive by regional standards. But the relative relaxation—coupled perhaps with an artistic and cultural efflorescence—has been key to sending a message both to international and domestic audiences about what is billed as the new Saudi Arabia. Domestically, moves to curtail the committee’s role have reasserted the primacy of the political over the religious, creating a sense (however contestable) that citizens have recaptured the public sphere. This primacy has been codified in the September 2019 Regulation to Preserve Public Decency, which is meant to manage the excesses of this swift social liberalization without restoring religious authority over the public sphere.51

The state has since worked on filling the void left by the committee’s absence from the public sphere in other ways too. The newly independent Ministry of Culture in 2018 along with an empowered Entertainment Authority have encroached on that social space. Public cultural events of a kind unimaginable in the past are becoming the new landmarks of the Saudi public square where public order, and repression too, are no longer defined primarily in religious terms.52 Reining in the religious police has turned out to be an initial step toward mobilizing support for other, more controversial and bold reforms. The committee has been called on not merely to obey the new way of doing things but to support this change by preaching the virtues of “belonging and national cohesion” and absolute “submission to the rulers.”53

Islamic Charity: Funding Beyond Islamic Causes

State interventions to regulate the finances of the Saudi religious sphere are an integral part of the kingdom’s policy of standardizing the country’s religious establishment. Unlike past attempts, current efforts link those finances to the state’s project of overhauling the economy, Saudi society, and the kingdom’s international image. Islamic levies are expected to fulfill more than a religious duty and to be spent on policies that go beyond the religious sphere.

Islamic financial institutions are being restructured to better accomplish this new role and reinforce a message of subjugating the religious sphere to public order.

Islamic financial institutions are being restructured to better accomplish this new role and reinforce a message of subjugating the religious sphere to public order. This message is meant not only to convince domestic audiences but also to assuage international concerns about Saudi religious activities globally. The interplay among the religious and charitable spheres, both domestically and internationally, has always been complex, but there are clear signs that the sector is now receiving clearer guidance from the top of the Saudi state.54

According to Vision 2030, regulations that directly and indirectly target Islamic financial resources and spending fall under the objectives of creating “a more impactful non-profit sector” by helping relevant bodies “become more institutionalized, formalized and more efficient.”55 Regulating religious finances is also perceived to be part of improving “the legal and regulatory framework” of the financial sector and the country in general.56

Even before the Vision 2030 strategy was announced in 2017, new regulations were adopted to tighten state control over the management and allocation of Islamic financial assets including endowments, zakat, or private charitable donations.57 In addition to expanding nonreligious state supervision and management, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has increased its own supervision over charitable donations to mosques and Islamic associations.58 The state’s official policy has expanded the use of Islamic levies beyond the religious realm and according to a policy of sustainable development instead of a paradigm of solely Islamic largesse. The stated economic goal is to increase the nonprofit sector’s contributions, including those of its religious subsector, to the country’s gross domestic product under the authority of the Ministry of Finance.59

This new approach is being applied to zakat, which the state has been treating as a tax since 1936, with a special sharia committee deciding on its allocations as defined in the Quran.60 A 2016 royal decree modified zakat’s legal status and transformed the body overseeing it into the General Authority for Zakat and Tax, whose board of directors is chaired by the minister of finance. A series of regulations followed to “reconfigure the missions and tasks of zakat and revenue.”61 Then, in 2021, another royal decree merged the General Authority for Zakat and Tax with the General Authority of Customs.62 Mainly, this reconfiguration aimed to better equip the authority to more efficiently collect zakat dues, customs, and taxes to better manage and allocate this stream of the state’s non-oil revenues. Zakat is the main source of welfare assistance for less wealthy Saudis, an essential measure for sociopolitical stability whose pool of beneficiaries is being tightened.

While the Saudi state was already regulating zakat and awqaf, it has been struggling to regulate another source of Islamic spending, namely private charities.

The Saudi state is also seeking to better use the country’s untapped $14.4 billion in awqaf (Islamic endowments, such as financial or property assets, which in Saudi Arabia can be public or private).63 Overseeing awqaf was an integral duty of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs for decades until a 2016 royal decree further curtailed the ministry’s responsibility for managing awqaf by establishing the General Authority for Awqaf. The ministry is still represented on the board of directors, but the new body is now directly linked to the king himself.64 The new regulation also allowed, for the first time, awqaf investments that used to be religiously debatable under the supervision of the new body.65 These changes embody the same logic of seeking to ensure that all financial assets in the country are managed efficiently and profitably, whether the funds are religious or not.

While the Saudi state was already regulating zakat and awqaf, it has been struggling to regulate another source of Islamic spending, namely private charities. Since 2001, charitable donations for Islamic causes inside and outside the kingdom have formed the main basis for international accusations of Saudi support for terrorism. The kingdom has adopted successive laws to regulate such donations, with a special focus on money that leaves the country to support Islamic communities overseas. Despite international recognition of progress, Saudi efforts that only have focused on regulating financial flows have not always been deemed a success.66

In 2015, the kingdom adopted its first regulation on establishing domestic nongovernmental organizations followed by a political push for such a measure by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development. In addition to collecting donations for specific causes, the abundance of Saudi charitable contributions allows Islamic organizations to engage in dawa and religious education inside and outside the country, with curriculum that sometimes evades state supervision. The 2015 regulation also allows “non-charitable civic organizations,” further encouraging the expansion of civic activism beyond financial donations and beyond the religious realm.67

Since then, several religious organizations have been shut down following inspections by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The latter accused them of embezzling zakat and donations from citizens, and the former refused to permit the establishment of redundant Islamic organizations.68 The same year, the King Salman Center for Humanitarian Relief, directly affiliated with the royal court, became the sole institution allowed to collect donations and later recruit volunteers for overseas Saudi humanitarian ventures that go beyond the Islamic world.69

As expected, some of the closed nongovernmental organizations were also accused of funding the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist organizations, a pointed reminder that the Saudi state’s efforts are also politically driven by a desire to more tightly control civil society, including religious groups.70 In addition to the regulation of donations, official state discourse guards against the idea that any spending for a religious cause is a good deed. Officials repeatedly remind citizens to give donations only to trusted state-registered organizations. The minister of Islamic affairs himself has criticized lavish spending on renovating mosques and building new ones where they are not needed.71 Private financial contributions to traditional rallying causes, such as support for Palestine and Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries, have landed their collectors in jail.72

The Ministry of Education: Fighting Political Islam and Redefining Saudi Identity

The Saudi leadership’s changes to the country’s religious establishment have been more explicit and confrontational with respect to the Ministry of Education and the education system. This is especially true on religious issues (in ways that overlap with the duties of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs). High officials do not claim to be tinkering with minor matters here but rather are launching fundamental reforms in the name of modernizing the country, governing more efficiently, and better preparing students for the labor market.73 Such reforms are encroaching on the established and mandatory centrality of religion classes, Wahhabism, and religious teachers at all levels of the country’s education system.74

But even here, the changes afoot are presented not as a repudiation of the past but as a return to it: a way to remove alien influence, not the authentic Saudi understanding of Islam. But the expected magnitude of this shift may be far broader over time than the official rhetoric suggests. It remains unclear how far Saudi authorities want to go and will be able to go, or whether they realize the full-scale impact these changes could have as the effects trickle down.

The rhetoric is clear: the Ministry of Education has sought to root out any Muslim Brotherhood members or intellectual influence among Saudi teachers.

The rhetoric is clear: the Ministry of Education has sought to root out any Muslim Brotherhood members or intellectual influence among Saudi teachers.75 In pursuing its reform agenda, the Saudi state defines Muslim Brotherhood influence as the source of radical religious interpretations in formal curricula and classroom instruction. This dynamic even has affected what is covered (and omitted) on nonreligion subjects. While some subjects such as philosophy, the arts, and women’s studies used to be prohibited altogether, the state still exerts great influence over how they are covered even now that they are permitted. Foreign reports and scholarship have defined such religious influence over education as Wahhabi,76 but this is not how the Saudi authorities represent matters. By the Saudi state’s reckoning, the fight against extremism, so-called deviance, and terrorism is equated with the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, making disobedience to the rulers and the prospect of a revolution a totally foreign idea to Saudi Arabia and the ostensibly correct form of Islam its leaders uphold.77

Along with the shift in religious instruction is a heightened emphasis on national, and not merely Islamic, identity. Or, more accurately, there is an insistence that Saudi Arabia has to be understood as a nation rather than identified with Wahhabism. History is being rewritten in schoolbooks and reconstructed by way of cultural projects to minimize the presence and role of the founder of Wahhabism.78 The history of the state is henceforth meant to be the history of the military conquests and Ottoman-style state formation led by the man who gave the country his family’s name, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.

In an April 2018 interview with the Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, Mohammed bin Salman initially baffled his interlocutor by suggesting there was no such thing as Wahhabism. He was not so much denying the reality of the historical figure behind the movement; rather, he was suggesting that Saudi Arabia’s past—and especially its future—should be understood in more national and religiously pluralistic terms. To that end, he said:

But our project is based on the people, on economic interests, and not on expansionist ideological interests. Of course we have things in common. All of us are Muslim, all of us speak Arabic, we all have the same culture and the same interest. When people speak of Wahhabism, they don’t know exactly what they are talking about. Abd al-Wahhab’s family, the al-Sheikh family, is today very well known, but there are tens of thousands of important families in Saudi Arabia today. And you will find a Shiite in the cabinet, you will find Shiites in government, the most important university in Saudi Arabia is headed by a Shiite. So we believe that we are a mix of Muslim schools and sects.79

When this new image of Saudi Arabia operates in the education sector, the leadership’s shift is not just rhetorical: teachers viewed as radical are being removed from classrooms.80 Whereas there has been only quiet winnowing of dissident voices among judges, the Ministry of Education has been quite explicit about targeting teachers who belong to suspect groups.81 But given that the Muslim Brotherhood never has had legal status or an acknowledged organizational presence within Saudi society, eliminating Brotherhood influence is not a simple matter of purging official members, since there are none. Individuals seen as informally inclined to be sympathetic to the Brotherhood have lost their jobs, but the Brotherhood is targeted as an intellectual approach that blends Islam with politics as much as it is targeted as an actual organization.

In this sense, the Brotherhood is a broad, amorphous target. It is often seen as having entered Saudi Arabia through waves of emigrants from Egypt and other Arab countries and then through local recruiting, especially in intellectual, religious, and educational circles. The result has been hybrid approaches that blend Brotherhood activism, social engagement, and a sense of political mission with Wahhabi and other Salafist juristic strains, helping to produce a major stream within the sahwa, a wave of religious revivalism and activism that began in the late twentieth century.82 Thus, when the Saudi state aims at the Brotherhood, it might target a few members of a clandestine organization while also engaging in a broader attack on the sahwa, in effect trying to turn back the clock to a dimly remembered (and perhaps misremembered), more pluralist past before 1979. Official efforts to stamp out Brotherhood influence seem to swing between these two poles.83

The Saudi state’s approach has evolved over time. In 2015, the Ministry of Education removed books rather than teachers, eliminating writers deemed pro-Brotherhood from curricula and school libraries. It then moved against some teachers in 2018 after both the crown prince and the minister of education publicly denounced the penetration of Brotherhood ideology into the Saudi education system.84 The Ministry of Education then announced that a committee would be tasked with suspending schoolteachers, university professors, and education officials; banning books; and modifying curricula that exhibited or promoted extremist thinking including that of the Muslim Brotherhood.85

These actions eventually became more bluntly securitized measures like a signed memorandum of understanding with the relatively new, yet powerful Presidency of State Security to promote “intellectual security in education” by targeting extremism and promoting “positive values that reflect the image of the society.”86 And in the past few years, the ministry has worked more broadly to relegate teachers suspected of harboring unwelcome views to administrative duty while they are investigated, a policy explicitly aimed at rooting out those responsible for “intellectual breaches.”87

Actions taken against political Islam in Saudi Arabia’s education system have also targeted hotbeds with links to the religious establishment in the country’s Islamic universities.

Actions taken against political Islam in Saudi Arabia’s education system have also targeted hotbeds with links to the religious establishment in the country’s Islamic universities. In 2019, the king appointed a new director to the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh who, for the first time, did not belong to the religious establishment.88 The dean of the Faculty of Sharia at the same university was sacked for allegedly inviting a scholar suspected of being a Brotherhood proponent to the university.89 The politically motivated arrests of religious public figures who are accused of extremism have extended to both current and former university professors who teach religion.90

The state’s official discourse on uprooting the Brotherhood’s influence in the Saudi education system serves to squash Islamist political activism inside the kingdom and crush any opposition from those seen as Wahhabi-professing radical teachers to the crown prince’s agenda of social liberalization, while continuing to avoid any need to directly invalidate Wahhabi doctrine itself.91

These education reforms are designed to go beyond schoolbooks and teachers. The proposed new system to hire and promote teachers and university professors emphasizes pedagogical skills and not just subject-matter credentials. Some restrictions on female students’ dress code have also been lifted.92 The announced integration of other subjects such as art, music, philosophy, and critical thinking into schools—and the decision to grant women access to new specialized postsecondary degrees in disciplines like architecture, political science, women’s studies, petroleum engineering, and law—de facto contradict Wahhabi doctrine and the views of its followers inside the Ministry of Education.93

There is no expectation, however, that the substance of these curriculum changes will include the same intellectually stimulating debates offered in the democracies of the West or elsewhere in the Middle East. Even the teaching of Vision 2030’s pillars and expectations to Saudi citizens is still mostly done using the traditional method of rote memorization. Nonetheless, the integration of these new subjects without, for example, trying to give them a more acceptable Islamic label is in itself a challenge to the way these subjects were previously prohibited.

Meanwhile, a restructuring of the academic and financial governance of Saudi universities to make them less reliant on the state has simultaneously allowed for the opening of foreign universities in the kingdom—with the Ministry of Education still playing a guiding role.94 It is not clear whether those universities would offer the religious education provided in national universities.

Cultural and entertainment programs hardly repudiate religion, but they have begun to emphasize artistic expression from a national, rather than religious, standpoint.

Modifying Saudi school curricula is also connected to other state policies that effectively (if not explicitly) emphasize non-Islamic components of Saudi national identity and history over Islamic ones.95 Cultural and entertainment programs hardly repudiate religion, but they have begun to emphasize artistic expression from a national, rather than religious, standpoint. This emphasis on nationalism started under Abdullah, but the ascension of Salman to the throne led to a more aggressive push in this direction.96 Boosting Saudi citizens’ sense of belonging and patriotism has become the subject of new textbooks, conferences, and other academic events geared toward reconfiguring Saudi identity.

In 2017, the Ministry of Education established the Center for Intellectual Awareness to promote this kind of nationalist education that reflects the “requirements of national development” and “the twenty-first century” and fights extremism both inside the ministry and in the country’s schools and universities.97 Starting in March 2021, groups of bureaucrats known as intellectual awareness units “in all education departments and universities” are being tasked with enhancing “the values of citizenship and moderation and standing up to all forms of extremism.”98

Reports also suggest that the Ministry of Education is scaling back the religious focus of academic curricula and schools.99 The clear political purpose is to remind Saudis that the legitimacy of the Al Saud family does not only depend on the family’s religious credentials, especially when the religious establishment is being tamed. Education reforms are also advancing the current leadership’s credentials internationally.

Like financial flows, religious education in the kingdom continues to be a source of international accusations aimed at Riyadh for supporting terrorism, despite the changes instituted over the last two decades.100 And some religious schoolbooks, academic lectures, and even master’s theses and PhD dissertations still hold religious doctrinal interpretations that resist the royal family’s preferred changes with respect to the rights of women or tolerance toward members of other faiths. The general trend is that traditional interpretations of the Wahhabi creed still retain primacy over all others, and many still equate opposition to the kingdom with opposition to Islam.

The Muslim World League: Rebranding Saudi Islamic Influence Overseas

The proselytizing duty of dawa in Wahhabi doctrine expands beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia. The political manipulation of this Wahhabi duty to expand the faith so as to garner international support and influence for the Saudi regime drew heavy international scrutiny after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. The Muslim World League was at the apex of Saudi state structures for transnational proselytism until its role was curtailed.

Like the taming of the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, the subversion of the Muslim World League and its transformation to advocate for “tolerance” and “centrism” has been crucial to lending credence to the Saudi political leadership’s narrative on religious reform in the eyes of the religious community, often beyond what has been achieved on the ground. Such international credibility is core to the new leadership’s national project of modernizing Saudi Arabia in ways that would draw international support for the country’s leadership.

The Muslim World League is now overshadowing the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in terms of the visibility of its overseas activities.

The Muslim World League is now overshadowing the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in terms of the visibility of its overseas activities. While the ministry still seems to be tasked with sustaining the kingdom’s transnational influence, the league is responsible for revamping the international image of this influence. (That said, the league’s leadership tends to stress its international, and not only Saudi, identity.) The ministry and the league are distinct entities but clearly have been linked in the past, sometimes informally but also because the league’s activities at times have received ministry funding.101

Saudi Arabia is indeed restructuring its involvement in the affairs of the umma (the collective global community of Muslims), under the guidance of the crown prince, and is using the league to reach out to what Wahhabi adherents consider their infidel enemies guided by the practices of the crown prince. For instance, Mohammed bin Salman has so far met twice with delegations of evangelical Christians, while delegations of major American Jewish organizations have visited the kingdom.102

Since 2017, al-Issa, appointed one year earlier as the Muslim World League’s influential secretary general, has adopted the crown prince’s “shock therapy” approach.103 He previously had already been pushing Abdullah’s reform agenda from inside the Ministry of Justice. After initially dismissing al-Issa, Salman’s royal court brought him back to pursue that same reform agenda, only now at a more aggressive pace, across state institutions and in Saudi Arabia’s international diplomatic outreach. His appointment as a member of the Council for Senior Scholars and his subsequent appointment as adviser to the royal court have amplified his influence. He certainly has emerged as an active international advocate for the country’s current official approach to religious issues—and even support for interfaith work.

The revamped Muslim World League is hosting major events aimed at public engagement with non-Wahhabis (including non-Muslims) as it publicizes its new brand of ostensibly moderate Saudi Islam. That is why al-Issa has made statements delegitimizing all use of violence in the name of Islam “including inside Israel” and has sought to unseat Wahhabism as the exclusive, acceptable form of Saudi Islam and the only authoritative basis for universal fatwas.104 Notably, the crown prince surprised domestic and international audiences by stating in an April 27, 2021, interview that ibn Abd al-Wahhab would be “the first to object” if he “found us committed blindly to his texts and closing our minds to interpretation and jurisprudence while deifying and sanctifying him.”105 The Council for Senior Scholars issued a statement the next day endorsing the crown prince’s statement.106 Meanwhile, al-Issa has joined panels with rabbis in the United States and Europe, has visited the pope in the Vatican, and has signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a permanent bilateral committee with the Catholic Church.107 In early 2020, al-Issa even made a “historic visit” to the Auschwitz holocaust memorial.108

The league’s public activities inside the kingdom remained limited until 2020 when al-Issa’s appearances on Saudi television channels increased, especially his televised program during the high season of the holy month of Ramadan.109 Even so, he was already playing an important role behind the scenes on domestic religious reforms due to his personal history and proximity to the Saudi leadership. The airing of his progressive views to a Saudi audience fits with the Saudi monarchy’s practice of creating parallel institutions, religious interpretations, and (in this case) religious leaders to compete with and eventually replace the old ones, without explicitly discrediting their predecessors.

More Wala and Less Bara: The Purpose of the Restructuring

The Saudi leadership’s rhetoric on its reform agenda can be very sweeping and quite general. It focuses on modernizing the country; reversing some post-1979 constraints; and developing a society that is more prosperous, advanced, educated, and tolerant. But if the rhetoric is broad, the reform efforts themselves are anything but vague. They encompass a systematic restructuring of the role of religion in Saudi politics and society. While this goal did not begin with Mohammed bin Salman, this pursuit has become more forceful and audacious since he became crown prince. The idea of al-wala wa-l-bara (which could be translated as loyalty and repudiation)—with its emphasis on drawing near to the forces of good and repelling the forces of evil—has permeated Wahhabi Islam. The country’s top leadership now seems to be tangibly and intangibly promoting the loyalty side of the equation over the repudiation side of the ledger, at the expense of limiting itself to Wahhabism only.

But if the rhetoric is broad, the reform efforts themselves are anything but vague. They encompass a systematic restructuring of the role of religion in Saudi politics and society.

In tangible terms, the program seems aimed at nothing less than the restructuring of the Saudi state.110 The country’s sprawling state apparatus has long been famous for being decentralized, being populated with fiefdoms and power centers—some under leading (and sometimes rival) members of the royal family—and being loosely coordinated by a monarch who is sometimes aloof. Yet the state is now being reshaped to be far more responsive to the direction (and sometimes even micromanagement) of the king.111 Or rather, at present, it is the presumed future king, Mohammed bin Salman, who is increasingly reining in older structures and creating new ones under the much more direct control of the palace.

Intangibly, there is an unmistakable shift in how the Saudi leadership promotes Saudi identity. Religion in general, activities associated with religion (most notably the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, which is a religious duty for all able Muslims, but also many Saudi religious activities abroad), and the Wahhabi approach to understanding Islam are not by any means being repudiated. But marked efforts are being made to promote a distinctly national (not primarily religious) Saudi identity under the Al Saud family. A nationwide Saudi Character Enrichment Program was established for this purpose and is chaired by Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi deputy minister of defense and a close collaborator of his brother, the crown prince.112

The Shura Council repeatedly discussed draft laws on national unity and anti-discrimination that are not based on Wahhabi doctrine and that were actually rejected by the Islamic and Judicial Committee and by the council’s most conservative members.113 The emphasis on the year 1979 implies that Saudi Arabia’s natural or historic identity is not well represented by the wave of religiosity that was supposedly launched that year. This emphasis, then, seeks to convey that the country’s shift in direction is not so much a new venture but a return to a more authentic past, a return simultaneously poised to embrace modernity and globalization.

There are, to be sure, tangible and institutional expressions of this new national identity—such as the construction of the freestanding Ministry of Culture or the assertion of a brasher brand of regional foreign policy that appears to discard an older tendency toward circumspection and consensus building. What is notable about these steps is the way that they neither repudiate religion nor try to recast it—they simply sidestep Islamic considerations, themes, and vocabulary in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade or more ago.

What is notable about these steps is the way that they neither repudiate religion nor try to recast it—they simply sidestep Islamic considerations, themes, and vocabulary in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade or more ago.

But while recast, this revamped Saudi identity is not genuinely pluralistic, at least in the religious sphere. Consider two religious groups that have posed challenges for the Saudi leadership in the past: the sahwa and Shia Muslims. The Saudi king’s newfound downgrading of the significance of religion does not make much room for either.

Though the sahwa is a loosely structured movement orbiting around specific figures, it still has found a foothold within some state institutions—certainly some universities—and there are also official suspicions that other parts of the country’s education system have been sahwa-friendly terrain.114 Its leading members have certainly felt the full brunt of repression, with Saudi cleric Salman al-Awda charged with a capital crime and other prominent sahwa figures imprisoned (like Safar al-Hawali) or pressured to recant or endorse regime policies (like Aidh al-Qarni and Muhammad al-Arifi).115

Furthermore, there have been reports that the purges of sahwa supporters have gone quite deep.116 The sahwa always has been fairly broad. Some figures have had a more traditional and even rigidly Wahhabi bent, and others (most notably al-Awda) have evolved considerably toward more inclusive attitudes. That being the case, and with the state’s crackdown even occasionally extending to figures calling for liberalizing reforms (like Abdullah al-Hamid, an advocate for a constitutional monarchy who died in prison in 2020), it seems that it is not so much sahwa ideas that provoke official suspicion as it is the movement’s independence and legacy of popular resonance.

The same trend is observable in the Saudi state’s treatment of Shia Muslims, who have always been in an anomalous position in the country. The Wahhabi attitude toward Shia believers historically has been divided between those who view them as mistaken and those who view them as apostates, but state policy has never gone to such extremes.117 Areas where Shia Muslims are prevalent complain with reason that they have been overlooked and discriminated against in the allocation of infrastructural development and social services. But Shia believers do have their own courts for personal status matters, with a promise to further develop and expand them, allowing a measure of religious pluralism in practice.118

The trend in the past few years seems to have been to leave matters unchanged on Shia Islam, especially when it comes to institutions and structures. To be sure, there have been some shifts in tone (such as the crown prince’s boast to Goldberg quoted above about Shia figures in leadership positions), but hardly any overtly more friendly policies toward adherents of the Shia faith have materialized.

In short, Saudi Shia believers may now officially be regarded less as a religious challenge than a security concern. The continuation of personal status courts and other communal structures—but the absence of Shia figures from the Council of Senior Scholars and many other general state bodies concerned with religion—is unchanged, but any activism on political or social issues still draws a harsh response indeed. Bearing this in mind, it was likely political, rather than doctrinal concerns, that led the regime to execute the prominent Shia religious figure Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in 2016.119

Over the short term, then, the effects of the Saudi state’s new approach are profound and potentially radical, even though they do not entail upending institutions, genuinely embracing pluralism, or repudiating Wahhabi doctrine but rather focus on containing, bypassing, or rearranging established ideas and institutions. The long-term effects of these changes are harder to discern, however, in part because of how they combine far-reaching measures with the apparent maintenance of the broad outlines of existing arrangements and doctrines.

Measuring the Success and Effects of Saudi Reforms

The short-term effects of the Saudi state’s extensive if bounded reform program are difficult to contest—quite literally. Those who might be expected to be the most conspicuous losers, the country’s religious leaders, are not in a position to lead any opposition movement. First, on doctrinal grounds, they are so deeply invested in a view of the Saudi ruler (and sometimes implicitly the state)120 as the wali al-amr (the ruler or leader of a community) that they are constrained from doing much.

Those who might be expected to be the most conspicuous losers, the country’s religious leaders, are not in a position to lead any opposition movement.

Probably the most they can do is offer advice (a course followed in the 1990s in public form but one that seems too risky to apply today).121 It would be theoretically possible for marginalized religious figures to reject the religious credentials of the Saudi regime, but to do so would be a radical step. Some radicals indeed took this step in the 1990s and early 2000s, going beyond the advice offered by their tamer colleagues and engaging in strident opposition—with far-reaching results that today’s high-level clerics are likely to regard as painful memories.

And indeed, these religious clerics’ high-level status is precisely the issue. Like the Ottoman religious establishment in the empire’s waning years, Saudi religious leaders are so deeply ensconced in powerful and well-funded state structures that they generally fall in line when the state draws a clear line to follow. And there are multiple signs that is precisely what is occurring now. The decision to allow women to drive was endorsed by a majority of the Council of Senior Scholars as soon as it was announced—a position that most members likely would have opposed had Saudi rulers not so clearly supported it. The career of al-Issa, a figure with thorough training and a sterling pedigree in the Saudi religious establishment, shows how a religious scholar can get along by going along. He has attained a variety of positions in which he has made personnel changes and advanced public positions in a manner that thoroughly advances the Saudi leadership’s objectives.

On only a few points has there been public conflict, and most of the time—on issues such as permitting certain entertainment events or allowing women to drive—the religious establishment has accepted clear leadership decisions. But if there is no significant overt resistance from the leaders of the religious establishment—and indeed, because of the technical, incremental nature of the Saudi state’s efforts, there have only been a few such instances—there are two large sets of questions about the long-term impact of the kingdom’s reform program.

First, because these reforms are based on seemingly procedural changes and involve no doctrinal changes, most of them are reversible. The Committee for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, for instance, could be called back to play a more forceful institutional role. The nonpluralistic elements of Wahhabism could similarly be restored. Because the changes involve matters of emphasis and chains of command, they might be much easier to rearrange again. The lack of open confrontation means that nobody has been defeated. And actually, the increased centralization will make such a reversal easier to pull off (though hardly likely). The changes cumulatively look significant indeed, but it might take a generation of gradual personnel changes before they seem fully secure.

The lack of open confrontation means that nobody has been defeated. And actually, the increased centralization will make such a reversal easier to pull off (though hardly likely).

But second, if the changes are indeed sustained—as now seems more likely—they may have unintended effects, both internationally and domestically. Internationally, the new direction may cost the kingdom some soft power in the Islamic world. And as Saudi international religious activities continue doctrinally unchanged but are being made to accommodate a set of policies and a worldview that are explicitly political rather than religiously motivated, Saudi religious activism overseas might seem either hypocritical or vacuous.

Domestically, there may be similarly alienating effects. Even those who profit from the new atmosphere of openness—artists or those interested in popular culture or entertainment from foreign countries—might come to see the regime as prioritizing attempts to impress Western audiences rather than satisfy local demands. Cultural expression might be more open, but those taking advantage of that openness might encounter sharp political limits. Religious figures may come to see official religious doctrine as emptied of all content, perhaps leading not so much to high-level opposition as low-level alienation. Parts of Saudi society that staffed the religious establishment might find other ways to pursue their pious inclinations.

Overall, cultural and socioeconomic liberalization with incomplete doctrinal change or without political liberalization may be an uneasy mix, creating constituencies that cannot be controlled and generating fears that the Saudi state is courting the West rather than meeting the organic demands of domestic constituencies. Managing expectations of conflicting groups may eventually require the kinds of subtle political management of social groups that has not been the hallmark of the current leadership’s approach.

Taking Notice Without Taking Sides

Saudi Arabia is a significant and increasingly active regional and global actor in terms of economics, politics, and security. For those who work with, depend on, or encounter the kingdom—whether its political leadership or its religious establishment—are these changes good news or bad?

That is an understandable question, but it may not be a helpful one. The changes afoot are potentially quite significant. Yet recent moves are not merely based on individual whims but are related to long-term changes in Saudi Arabia’s politics, society, royal family, regional and international security environment, and long-term economic outlook. The question may not be whether to root for these reforms or resist them but to understand and be prepared to react to them since their ultimate shape and direction are still unclear.

The question may not be whether to root for these reforms or resist them but to understand and be prepared to react to them since their ultimate shape and direction are still unclear.

Two underappreciated aspects of the changes stand out. First, social liberalization and political liberalization do not go hand in hand. Up until now, just the opposite has occurred. Political control is growing more centralized not only in terms of the wider state apparatus but also within the royal family. It is not just a matter of an audacious and ambitious crown prince making bold moves, but a remarkable restructuring of governance as well as social and political life.

Second, while the changes are potentially far-reaching, their ultimate direction is uncertain. Most are individually minor (and few are wholly unprecedented), and they remain quite reversible. And while state structures and officials have accepted and even applauded the moves, some social resentment and resistance is still possible—and unintended consequences might still materialize. Many small, incremental steps do not amount to an integrated and coherent vision but instead an audacious leap that may bring unknown results—or may lead to an eventual retreat.

For those who deal with Saudi Arabia, it makes sense to spend less time trying to identify winners and losers or good and bad actors. Instead, other actors must be prepared to deal with the country in ways that would have seemed unimaginable a decade ago and are difficult to anticipate fully today.


The authors would like to thank Peter Mandaville for comments on this paper, as well as Sultan Alamer, Abdullah Alaoudh, and Kamel Alkhatti for their feedback and review. Nesrine Mbarek, Gardner Fellow and research assistant in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, provided valuable research assistance.

About the Author

Yasmine Farouk is a visiting fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a distinguished scholar, and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.


1 “Full Transcript: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Interview With Saudi Journalist Abdullah Al-Mudaifer,” Arab News, April 28, 2021,

2 For a long time, scholarship on Saudi history was fairly thin, since the area did not seem rich in reliable historical sources. But that has emphatically changed over the last two decades, with a large body of work now available in English based on rich research and innovative analysis. See, for example, Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (London: Verso, 2009); Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Nabil Mouline, The Clerics of Islam: Religious Authority and Political Power in Saudi Arabia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Stéphane LaCroix, Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Steffen Hertog, Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010); and Rosie Bsheer, Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2020).

3 Ghassan Salame, The Foundations of the Arab State (New York: Croom Helm, 1987).

4 Abdullah al-Gharsan, “The Minister of Islamic Affairs, in an Interview With ‘Riyadh’: 200 Tons of Dates Are King Salman’s Gift to Muslims in 24 Countries” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, May 15, 2020,

5 The nature of the Wahhabi movement often provokes strong reactions among those who analyze its history and doctrine. A set of scholarly approaches to religion in Saudi Arabia can be found in Bernard Haykel, Stéphane Lacroix, and Thomas Hegghammer (eds.), Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). A general history can be found in David Commins, Islam in Saudi Arabia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).

6 Wahib Al-Wehaibi, “The Council of Senior Scholars Takes Note of the Contents of the Crown Prince’s Speech” (in Arabic), Al-Jazirah, April 30, 2021,

7 “Saudi Arabia: Royal Orders to Reform the Council of Senior Scholars and the Shura Council”

(in Arabic), Al Arabiya, October 18, 2020,

8 Counselor Abdullah Al-Manea, (@be4after), “Before and After the Decision Allowing Women to Drive” (in Arabic), Twitter, March 31, 2019,

9 “Organization of the Council of Senior Scholars and a Regulation on the Functioning of the Council of Senior Scholars” (in Arabic), Nezams,

10 “The King Reconfigures the Council of Senior Scholars From the Four Sunni Schools of Thought” (in Arabic), Al-Iqtisadiya, February 15, 2009,

11 Ihsan Al-Faqih, “What Does the Renewal of the ‘Council of Senior Scholars’ in Saudi Arabia Mean?” (in Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabi, October 22, 2020,ماذا-يعني-تجديد-هيئة-كبار-العلماء-في-ا/.

12 “Saudi Arabia Detains Mecca Grand Mosque Imam, Rights Group Says,” New Arab, September 17, 2018,; and

“‘Friends of Al-Sharif Al-Rajhi’ Forum Congratulates Sheikh Dr. Bandar Belaila on the Issuance of the Royal Order About His Appointment as a Member of the Council of Senior Scholars in a Ministerial Rank” (in Arabic), Al Hadath, October 19, 2020,

13 Abdullah Al-Dany, “Islamic Minister: Hijackers Presented Islam That Contradicts That of the Forebearers” (in Arabic), Okaz, August 7, 2019,; and Salim Ayduz and Caner Dagli, Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Science, and Technology in Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014),

14 “New Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister Expert in Jurisprudence With Moderate Social Views,” Al Arabiya, June 3, 2018,

15 “# Thank you_ Minister of Islamic Affairs” (in Arabic), Twitter,;

and Monther al-Sheikh Mubarak (@monther72), Twitter, May 29, 2020,

16 Abdul Latif al-Sheikh (@Dr_Abdullatif_a), Twitter, August 14, 2020,; and

Al-Sheikh, Twitter, August 14, 2020,

17 “Is There a Blacklist in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs?” (in Arabic), YouTube, posted by Belmokhtasar, September 14, 2018,

18 Qahtan al-Aboush, “Saudi Arabia Is Investigating a Mosque Imam Who Used the Friday Sermon to Talk About His Murdered Brother” (in Arabic), Irm News, October 29, 2017,

19 “His Excellency the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Dr. Abdul Latif Al Sheikh, in an Exclusive Interview With Bassam Al-Dakhil” (in Arabic), YouTube, posted by MBC in a Week, August 10, 2018,; and

“With Advantages and Conditions, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs Announces an Initiative to Appoint 25,000 Imams and Muezzins” (in Arabic), Al-Ahsa News, January 2, 2020,

20 “His Excellency the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Dr. Abdul Latif Al Sheikh, in an Exclusive Interview With Bassam Al-Dakhil” (in Arabic); and

“Saudi Arabia: Friday Sermon Unification in Mosques in the Kingdom Ahead of Ramadan” (in Arabic), Arabian Business, May 22, 2016,; and “The Launch of the ‘Smart Mosques’ Project in Medina” (in Arabic), Okaz, November 13, 2018,

21 Adel Al-Kalbani, “Entertainment Channels” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, August 16, 2020, .

22 Cole Bunzel, “Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic State: ‘Abdullah ibn Jibrin and Turki al-Bin‘ali,” in Madawi al-Rasheed (ed.), Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 183–196.

23 Fatima al-Oufi, “The Halting of the Activities of Advocates Abroad” (in Arabic), Makkah News, September 4, 2016,

24 Ahmed Al-Rudhaiman, “The King Was Right: Saudi Arabia Has a Specificity” (in Arabic), Al Watan, July 19, 2019,

25 Nathan J. Brown, “Why Won’t Saudi Arabia Write Down Its Laws,” Foreign Policy, January 23, 2012,

26 Nathan J. Brown and Abdullah Alaoudh, “Full Court Press,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Diwan (blog), January 8, 2018,

27 “Minister of Justice: 85 Development Projects Are Under Implementation . . . and the Codification of Judicial Rulings Is a Settled Matter” (in Arabic), Saudi Press Agency, October 2019,

28 “Crown Prince Announces 4 New Laws to Reform Saudi Arabia’s Judicial Institutions,” Saudi Gazette, February 8, 2021,

29 Abd al-Hakim Shar, “Minister of Justice: the Judicial Code Will Be Issued Soon and Will Be Binding . . . Courts and Judges Must Implement It” (in Arabic), Sabq, February 3, 2020,; “Code of Judicial Precedents for Judgements of the Office of Administrative Grievances Available Electronically and on Paper” (in Arabic), Saudi Press Agency, April 11, 2020,; “Minister of Justice: 85 Development Projects Are Under Implementation . . . and the Codification of Judicial Rulings Is a Settled Matter” (in Arabic), Saudi Press Agency; and “Minister of Justice: The New Judicial Code Is Binding and Not Advisory” (in Arabic), Saudi Press Agency, April 2, 2020,

30 Asil Alja‘id, “The State of Saudi Law” (in Arabic), Al Watan, June 14, 2020,

31 “Abolition of Death Penalty for Minors Covers Terror Convicts: HRC,” Saudi Gazette Report, April 29, 2020,; and “Saudi Arabia Informs Its Courts of the Cancellation of the Discretionary Flogging Penalty” (in Arabic), Asharq Al-Awsat, May 19, 2020,

32 “Saudi Law” (in Arabic),

33 “Electronic Transaction System” (in Arabic), Bureau of Experts at the Council of Ministers, March 3, 2007,

34 “Al-Adl Al-Shura Council: Trained Judges on Contemporary Issues and Modern Judicial Developments” (in Arabic), Okaz, September 25, 2018,

35 Mubarak al-Akash, “Electronic Judicial Inspection Reduces Margins of Errors and Straightens the Workflow in Courts” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, July 29, 2018,

36 “The Shura Council Holds Its Fifty-Second Regular Session for the Second Year of the Seventh Session” (in Arabic), Shura Council, September 25, 2018,; and

Abdul Salam Al-Balawi, “Legislative Amendment in Favor of Appointing in the Judiciary Graduates of Law, Regulations, and Rights” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, January 1, 2020,

37 Abdul Salam Muhammad Al-Balawi, “Shura Council Opens the Way for Law and Regulations Graduates to Judicial Positions” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, December 6, 2019,

38 Souad El Yalla, “For These Reasons, the Shura Council Refused to Appoint a Woman as a Judge in Saudi Arabia” (in Arabic), Independent Arabia, June 19, 2020,

39 Fatimah Al-Debis, “Sources to Okaz: The Shura Council Rejects a Recommendation Calling for Non-Discrimination in Appointing Judges” (in Arabic), Okaz, February 19, 2020,

40 “Despite the Bias of 58 Members, the Shura Council Drops Again the Recommendation to Appoint Female Judges” (in Arabic), Okaz, June 17, 2020,; and Latifa Al-Zahrani, “Saudi Arabia Increases the Number of Women Practicing Law” (in Arabic), Sou‘oudiyat 2030, April 5, 2018,

41 Ibrahim Al Hussein, “Public Prosecution: 53 Women Were Appointed to the Judiciary” (in Arabic), Al Arabiya, June 3, 2020,;

and Diab Al-Shammari, “The Public Prosecution: The Penalty for ‘Harming’ Is Imprisonment for Up to One Year and a Fine of 50,000 Riyals, or Both” (in Arabic), Sabq, August, 14, 2020,

42 Maren Hanson, “The Influence of French Law on the Legal Development of Saudi Arabia,” Arab Law Quarterly 2, no. 3 (1987): 287.

43 Areej Al-Juhani, “An Admirer to Okaz: Soon There Will Be an Alternative Prison Penalties Project” (in Arabic), Okaz, August 24, 2020,

44 Author’s interview with an attorney familiar with the proceedings, Riyadh, October 2017.

45 Brown and Alaoudh, “Full Court Press.”

46 “Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa Biography,” Muslim World League, August 31, 2016,

47 “A Draft Amendment to Article 18 of the Advocacy Law” (in Arabic), Al Watan, June 9, 2020,

48 “Training Programs Provided by the Judicial Training Center” (in Arabic), Saudi Bar Association, December 23, 2018,;

and “The Minister of Justice Inaugurates the Building of the Justice Training Center and Launches the Lawyer Diploma” (in Arabic), Okaz, August 3, 2017,

49 “A Draft Amendment to Article 18 of the Advocacy Law”;

Majid Mohammed Karoub, “Thank You, Mr. Minister” (in Arabic) Okaz, April 17, 2020,; and

SAB Association (@SABAssociation), “The Saudi Bar Association Announces the Formation of Committees to Reformulate the Legal System” (in Arabic), Twitter, June 9, 2020,

50 Nathan J. Brown, “Saudi Arabia Is Moving to Rein in Its Religious Police. Sort of.” Washington Post Monkey Cage (blog), August 16, 2017,

51 “Regulation to Preserve Public Decency” (in Arabic), Bureau of Experts at the Council of Ministers, September 4, 2019,

52 Taylor Luck, “Art in the Forbidden Zone: Inside the Saudi Cultural Awakening,” Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 2020,

53 Abdullah al-Rajhi, “Al-Sanad: Love for the Homeland Is Innate and One of the Greatest Bonds Approved by Sharia” (in Arabic), Sabq, December 10, 2019,; and

“National Affiliation and Cohesion” (in Arabic), Al-Wiam, March 31, 2019,

54 Nora Derbal, “Saudi Arabia, Humanitarian Aid and Knowledge Production: What Do We Really Know? #Muhum,” Allegra Lab, July 5, 2019,,from%20Freie%20University%20in%20Berlin.

55 Government of Saudi Arabia, “Vision 2030: An Ambitious Nation . . . Responsibly Enabled,”

56 “Transcript: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Full Interview on Vision 2030,” Alarabiya, April 27, 2021,

57 “Saudi Islamic Affairs Body Launches Endowment Investment Funds Project,” Arab News, June 11, 2018,

58 Abdullah Al-Dani, “Minister of Islamic Affairs: Beware of the ‘Brotherhood’ Exploiting Zakat . . . We Discovered 22 Fake Charitable Societies” (in Arabic), Okaz, April 28, 2020,

59 “About the Authority” (in Arabic), General Authority of Zakat and Tax,

60 “The Minister of Finance Inaugurates the Activities of the Zakat and Income Conference in Its First Session in Riyadh” (in Arabic), Ministry of Finance, November 13, 2019,;

“About Gazt,” General Authority of Zakat and Tax,;

“Members of the Sharia Committee,” General Authority of Zakat and Tax,; and

Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Nafisa, “Zakat Authority: The National Economy Tributary” (in Arabic), August 2016,

61 “The Minister of Finance Inaugurates the Activities of the Zakat and Income Conference in Its First Session in Riyadh.”

62 “7 Goals to Merge the General Authority for Customs With That of Zakat and Income” (in Arabic), Al Watan, May 5, 2021,

63 “The General Authority of Endowments Receives Assets Worth 54 Billion Riyals” (in Arabic), Waqef, August 14, 2017,

64 The separation of the awqaf from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs started under King ‘Abd ‘Abdullah in 2010 then transferred to an independent entity under King Salman. See “The System of the General Authority for Awqaf,” (in Arabic), General Authority for Awqaf, September 20, 2018,; and “Overview” (in Arabic), General Authority for Awqaf,

65 “The Endowment Authority Establishes Its Investment Branch to Diversify Sources of Income” (in Arabic), Okaz, September 12, 2019,;

Ahmed Hassan al-Naggar, “Waqf Investment Funds in GCC Countries: A Case Study on Saudi Arabia,” Islamic News, December 2019,;

“The System of the General Authority for Awqaf” (in Arabic), General Authority for Awqaf, 2019,; and

Ali Mohieddin al-Qurra Daghi, “Investing in Endowments and Its Ancient and Modern Methods” (in Arabic),

66 “Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorist Financing Measures—Saudi Arabia, Fourth Round Mutual Evaluation Report,” FATF-MENAFATF, 2018,

67 Nora Derbal “Humanitarian and Relief Organizations in Global Saudi Da'wa? (working title),” in Wahhabism in the World. Understanding the Global Impact of Saudi Religious Influence, Peter Mandaville (ed.), Oxford University Press (forthcoming).

68 “Al Watan Newspaper Number 7210,” Al Watan, July 22, 2020,

69 See the website of the King Salman Center for Humanitarian Relief. “Our Achievements,” King Salman Center for Humanitarian Relief,

70 “22 Fake Associations . . . Minister of Islamic Affairs: The Brotherhood Steals State Funds” (in Arabic), Alyaum, April 28, 2020,

71 Munther Al Sheikh Mubarak (@monther72), “When the Official Comes Close to Everything” (in Arabic), Twitter, May 29, 2020,الإسراف%20في%20سجاد%20المساجد&src=typed_query.

72 Author interview with a member of the Palestinian community, Riyadh, November 2019.

73 Abdullah al-Gharsan, “On the Application of an Educational Job List in November” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, May 18, 2020,

74 LaCroix, Awakening Islam.

75 “Saudi Arabia Strives to Roll Back Muslim Brotherhood Influence in Education,” Arab Weekly, May 15, 2020,

76 See, for instance, Kimberly Dozier, “Saudi Arabia Rebuffs Trump Administration’s Requests to Stop Teaching Hate Speech in Schools,” Time, February 10, 2020,

77 See, for instance, “Controversy in Saudi Arabia Over Images Showing the Change of the ‘Ottoman Caliphate’ in New Curricula to the ‘Invading State’” (in Arabic), BBC, August 23, 2019,

78 Ziad Al-Fifi, “Saudi Curriculum: How It Was and How It Changed in 30 Years” (in Arabic), Independent Arabia, August 23, 2019,

79 Jeffrey Goldberg, “Saudi Crown Prince: Iran’s Supreme Leader ‘Makes Hitler Look Good,’” Atlantic, April 2, 2018,

80 Najah al-Otaibi, “Vision 2030: Religious Education Reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, September 2020,

81 Khaled Abbas Tashkandi, “How Did the Saudi ‘Brotherhood’ Ideology Penetrate to Sabotage and Corrupt Education?” (in Arabic), Okaz, December 23, 2018,;

Rashid al-Sakran, “Al-Issa: The Brotherhood’s Penetration Into Education Is a Fact That Cannot Be Discussed” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, March 21, 2018,; and

“Saudi Arabia Ends the Last Tools of the Brotherhood’s Influence in Education” (in Arabic), Al Arab, May 16, 2020,

82 LaCroix, Awakening Islam.

83 “Saudi Clerics Detained in Apparent Bid to Silence Dissent,” Reuters, September 10, 2017,

84 Norah O’Donnell, “Saudi Arabia’s Heir to the Throne Talks to 60 Minutes,” CBS News, March 19, 2018,;

al-Sakran, “Al-Issa: The Brotherhood’s Penetration Into Education Is a Fact That Cannot Be Discussed”; and “Saudi Arabia Ends the Last Tools of the Brotherhood’s Influence in Education.”

85 Muhammad Al-Srei’i, “We Excluded the Muslim Brothers, and Our Decisions Are Far From ‘Malicious’” (in Arabic), Okaz, March 25, 2018,;

and al-Sakran, “Al-Issa: The Brotherhood’s Penetration Into Education Is a Fact that Cannot Be Discussed.”

86 Neil Patrick, “Saudi Defense and Security Reform,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sada (blog), May 31, 2018,; and

Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sheikh (@minister_moe_sa), “Memorandum of Cooperation in the Field of Intellectual Security in Education,” Twitter, January 2, 2020,

87 “Saudi Arabia Strives to Roll Back Muslim Brotherhood Influence in Education,” Arab Weekly, May 16, 2020,

88 “Who Is ‘Ahmed al-Ameri’ Director of the New Imam University?” (in Arabic), Al-Marsad, 2019,

89 “For This Reason, the Dean of the Faculty of Sharia at Al-Imam University Was Fired” (in Arabic), Okaz, February 19, 2020,; and

Aya Rada, “The Firing of Jameel al-Khalaf to Preserve the Honor of the Imam Mohamed Bin Saud University and the Appointment of Saleh Al-Wasil as Dean of the College of Sharia,” Sunnews, February 19, 2020,

90 Prisoners of Conscience, (@m3takl), “The Arrest of Sheikh Dr. #Omar_al_Mokbel,” Twitter, September 10, 2019,;

Mohammed Ayesh, “Arabic Press Review: Saudi Arabia Arrests Clerics in New Crackdown,” Middle East Eye, September 4, 2020,; and

“Reports of the Arrest of Conservative Cleric Nasser al-Omar in Saudi Arabia” (in Arabic), BBC, August 12, 2018,

91 Al-Otaibi, “Vision 2030.”

92 Al-Otaibi, “Vision 2030.”

93 “PNU to Launch Master’s Program on Women’s Studies,” Saudi Gazette, August 30, 2020,; “Nora University Transforms the Department of Systems Into a College of Law” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, August 12, 2020,; and “For the First Time in Its History, King Fahd University of Petroleum Receives Female Students” (in Arabic), Al Watan, April 26, 2021,

94 “International Agreements” Ministry of Education,

95 Eman Alhussein, “New Saudi Textbooks Put Nation First,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, October 17, 2019,; and

Doaa Sweidan, “The ‘New’ Saudi Arabia: ‘Light’ Wahhabism!” (in Arabic), Al-Akhbar, September 14, 2019,

96 Rosie Bsheer, “Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia (Interview),” Jadaliyya, September 24, 2020,

97 An example of this kind of activity is a 2017 conference by Al-Imam University College of Fundamentals of Religion. See “Duty of Saudi Universities in Protecting Youth From Organizations and Parties, and Deviationism,” Al-Imam University College of Fundamentals of Religion,

98 “Saudi Arabia Confronts Extremism With Intellectual Awareness” (in Arabic), Asharq Alawsat, March 16, 2021,; and

Saudi Arabia, (@Alarabiya_KSA), “The Advisor to the President of Imam Mohamed Ibn Saud University” (in Arabic), Twitter, March 16, 2021,

99 “Saudi Arabia Abolishes the Subject of ‘Islamic Awareness’ in Schools” (in Arabic), Al Jazeera, July 15, 2018,السعودية-تلغي-التوعية-الإسلامية-في; and al-Otaibi, “Vision 2030.”

100 Dozier, “Saudi Arabia Rebuffs Trump Administration's Requests to Stop Teaching Hate Speech in Schools”; and al-Otaibi, “Vision 2030.”

101 On the Muslim World League’s position in the Saudi state, see Sarah Feuer, Course Correction: The Muslim World League, Saudi Arabia’s Export of Islam, and Opportunities for Washington (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2019),

102 “US Christian Evangelical Delegation Meets Saudi Crown Prince,” Gulf News, September 11, 2019,; and

“In First, US Jewish Umbrella Group Sends Delegation to Saudi Arabia,” Times of Israel, February 13, 2020,

103 David Ignatius, “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Is Giving His Country Shock Therapy,” Washington Post, February 27, 2018,

104 “Two Saudi Officials Visit a Synagogue in Paris” (in Arabic), Euronews, November 11, 2017,; and

“The Charter of Makkah,” Saudi Embassy, May 27–29, 2019,

105 “Full Transcript: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Interview With Saudi Journalist Abdullah Al-Mudaifer.”

106 “The General Secretariat of the Council of Senior Scholars: His Highness the Crown Prince’s Affirms That the Kingdom’s Constitution and Its Permanent Approach Are From God’s Book in the Foundations on Which the Kingdom Was Built” (in Arabic), Saudi Press Agency, April 29, 2021,

107 Osama Al-Jamaan, “A Cooperation Agreement Between the Muslim World League and the Vatican to Achieve Common Goals” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, April 22, 2018,

108 “Islamic Leaders Make ‘Groundbreaking’ Visit to Auschwitz,” PBS, January 23, 2020,

109 Iman Al Hussein, “Centrism as a State Project in the Arab Gulf States” (in Arabic), Thamanyah, August 24, 2020,

110 Nathan J. Brown, “The Remaking of the Saudi State,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 9, 2017,

111 Hertog, Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats.

112 Kristin Smith Diwan, “Max Weber in Arabia: Saudi’s Character Enrichment Program,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, May 12, 2020,

113 Turki al-Sahil, “Shura Members on Dropping the National Unity Project: This Is Democracy” (in Arabic), Al Watan, June 25, 2015,;

“Why Did the Shura Council Reject the National Unity Project?” (in Arabic), Rotana,;

and Abdul Salam Muhammad Al-Balawi, “In the Corridors of the Shura Council . . . Legislation Aimed at the Fairness of Regulations and the Freedom of Opinion” (in Arabic), Al Riyadh, May 2, 2021,

114 Saeed al-Suraihi, “Al Sahwa and the Penetration of the Education System” (in Arabic), Al Watan, May 7, 2020,

115 Raihan Ismail, “How Is MBS’s Consolidation of Power Affecting Saudi Clerics in the Opposition?” Washington Post, June 4, 2019,; and “The Preacher ‘Al-Arifi’ Breaks His Silence and Comments for the First Time on the Qatari Crisis” (in Arabic), Al-Marsd, 2017,

116 Khaled al-Khalidi, “Two Years After the Oppression of the Saudi ‘Awakening Movement:’ The King Supported Them and His Son Crushed Them” (in Arabic), Al Araby, September 24, 2019,

117 “They Are Not Our Brothers: Hate Speech by Saudi Officials,” Human Rights Watch, 2017,

118 Hassan Al-Mustafa, “Vision 2030 Creating an Inclusive Saudi Identity,” Arab News, May 3, 2021,

119 “Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr: Saudi Arabia Executes Top Shia Cleric,” BBC, January 2, 2016,

120 Nathan J. Brown, “Who or What Is the Wali al-Amr: The Unposed Question,” Oñati Socio-Legal Series 10, no. 5 (2020), 985–1000,

121 Ahmed Al-Radiman, “This Is My Answer, Algerian Brother” (in Arabic), Al Watan, August 27, 2020,