There exists a temptation to see a causal relationship between Saudi King Salman’s recent successful visit to Moscow and his son, the powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) calling for “moderate Islam” in a Kingdom known for practising one of the most awkward forms of “Islam” on the planet. Many mainstream Muslims, including many Sunni Muslims, regard the 18th century Islamic school of Wahhabism, which is the state version of Islam in Saudi, as an apostasy at its worst and at best, a form of backward looking Sunni Islam that places a greater emphasis on late-modern Islamic “scholarship” than on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, as revealed to Him by God and written in the Holy Quran.
While the Russian delegation that met with their Saudi counterparts, did include Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, it is not likely that his style of traditionalist Sunni Islam that is nevertheless integrated into the realities of the modern world, rubbed off on the Wahhabi delegates opposite. Instead, MBS’s statement is likely a kind of geo-political “virtue signal” designed to encapsulate the embryonic Saudi geo-political pivot or put more precisely, to test the waters and see how his statement will be received by new potential partners towards which Saudi is pivoting.
One of the biggest disagreements between Russia and Saudi in recent decades has been Saudi’s attempt to export Wahhabism throughout the Arab world and beyond through the use of the violent sponsorship of terrorism. This goes against the gain of both the traditional Soviet policy of befriending secular/socialist Arab states, as well as the contemporary Russian policies towards the Middle East which can be defined as creating a sustainable balance of power that ensures stability and general peace.
Russia does not particularly care what form of government or socio-cultural system Saudi or any other state practices. Indeed, this attitude of Russia’s was recently praised by the Saudi Foreign Minister during his most recent time in Moscow. This statement was not only meant to compliment Russia, but also to send a message to the US, that it will not tolerant interference in Saudi’s own domestic affairs. What Russia does care about however, is a Saudi foreign policy that ceases to be aggressive and imperial in its ambitions. Russia would like Saudi to cease meddling in other Arab states and would also like Saudi to reach an understanding that it will have to live near the Islamic Republic of Iran and should learn to do so in a non-provocative manner. Russia has already quietly put itself forward as a potential mediator, should Saudi and Iran agree that it is time to normalise relations.
The full set of quotes from MBS reveal that his statement was in fact more about foreign than domestic affairs. He stated,
“We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world. We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today. We will end extremism very soon”.
This translates to ‘We will no longer attempt to export Wahhabism through violence, bribery and intimidation’. Any domestic knock-on changes from this stance, will only serve to make Saudi more attractive to businessmen from non-energy sectors who may be less at ease spending potentially lengthy periods of time in a Wahhabi kingdom.
While MBS has often been thought of as a hardliner because of his hand in the dispute with Qatar and the horrific war on Yemen, in reality, MBS is something of Saudi’s rebel prince without a cause. The fact that his Qatar and Yemen policies have been disastrous is a symptom not of his intractability but more poignantly, of his lack of originality.
Now though, in the potential to diversify Saudi’s geo-political and geo-economic portfolio through new Eurasian and East Asian partnerships (Russia and China, in particular), MBS seems to have found his cause. As the leader of the “Vision 2030” plan which seeks to create a modern Saudi economy that is less than totally dependant on energy exports, MBS has struggled to find a place for Saudi in world that doesn’t begin at the oil pump and end in a car’s fuel tank. However, with increasingly few options from Saudis’ traditional western partners in respect of economic diversification, MBS is turning east.
Indeed, many have said openly, that the US would like to see, or might even try and foment a palace coup in Saudi, where the young and seemingly pugnacious MBS would be replaced by his former predecessor as Crown Prince, the currently house-arrested Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN).
Unlike MBS, MBN has little ambition to do anything other than continue the status quo of being dependant on energy based financial transactions with the US and European countries. MBS however, is clearly considering a future for Saudi where Russia and China will have a large role as economic partners.
Perhaps because of his youth, MBS has been able to see (or his advisers have been able to see) that as China asserts itself as the world’s most powerful and dynamic economy, the petro-trade will likely shift from one based on the petrodollar to the petroyuan.
While China, like Russia, does not particularly care about Saudi’s internal affairs, the message from Saudi is clear: a change is in the air and this will be most immediately felt in a foreign policy that is more pragmatic, less ambitions and consequently less “extreme”.
While the US does not care about Saudi’s internal socio-political situation any more than China and Russia, the US generally fears change in Riyadh, especially if this changes makes Saudi less inter-dependant on the US financial system. In this respect, Saudi’s sociological insularity has gone hand in hand with a predictable, however radical foreign policy.
The Saudi Monarch’s meeting with Vladimir Putin was very much casually related to the statement made by MBS, however, it has nothing to do with making Saudi into a Ba’athist or Nasserist style state on the model of traditional Russian and Soviet allies. On the contrary, Saudi is still a Wahhabi state and always will be, even if some of the more hard-line pronunciations from Wahhabi clerics are moderated by a slightly less insular political outlook. The shift instead, has everything to do with keeping ideology local, but economic opportunities diverse and global.