The Saudis Take On Radical Islam


The crown prince charts a course toward moderation, which prevailed before the 1979 attack on Mecca.


By Adel Al-Toraifi


The year 1979 was a watershed for the Middle East. Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the shah, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Sunni Islamic extremists tried to take over the Grand Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest shrine. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hadn’t been born, but he is fighting the ghosts of 1979 as he dramatically reforms the kingdom.


The attempted takeover of Mecca was a defining event in my country, mainly because of what happened next. Saudi rulers, fearing Iran’s revolutionary example, decided to give more space to the Salafi clerical establishment in hope of countering the radicals. Traditional Salafi preachers are neither violent nor political, but they hold a rigid view of Islam. Their legal rulings and attempts to police morals made the kingdom increasingly intolerant, setting back the gradual opening up that had occurred in the 1960s and ’70s.


In Saudi schools, education was largely in the hands of foreign nationals, many with Muslim Brotherhood backgrounds. In the 1960s and ’70s, Saudi Arabia was more concerned with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalism than with Islamist radicalism. Thus the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t much of a worry. But the combination of the brotherhood’s political outlook and the rigid Salafi doctrine injected a virus into the Saudi education system. That virus allowed Osama bin Laden to recruit 15 Saudis to take part in that terrible deed on Sept. 11, 2001. We Saudis failed those young men, and that failure had global implications.


The Salafi clerics and Muslim Brotherhood imports also worked in concert as they were given unsupervised access to private donations to fund mosques and madrasas from Karachi to Cairo, where they generally favored the most conservative preachers.


The policy makers’ idea was simple: Give the political Islamists and their Salafi affiliates room to influence educational, judicial and religious affairs, and we will continue to control foreign policy, the economy, and defense. Saudi rulers were handling the hardware, while radicals rewrote the nation’s software. Saudi society, and the Muslim world, is still reeling from the effects.


Crown Prince Mohammed’s critics describe him as a young man in a hurry. They’re right—and he should be. As he told all of us in his cabinet constantly: “Time is our enemy. We cannot wait any longer to reform our country. The time is now.”


He is clear about the problem. “Political Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite, Muslim Brotherhood or jihadi Salafist, has damaged Muslim nations,” he once told me. “It also gives Islam a bad name. Therefore, it is the role of Muslim countries to face these evil ideologies and groups and to stand with our world allies in the West and East to confront them once and for all.”


King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed have already ushered in some head-spinning changes. The crown prince has led the effort to roll back the powerful religious police. These self-righteous moralizers no longer have the right to stop anyone on the street or take matters into their own hands. They have been effectively marginalized.


Saudi Arabia's heir to the throne, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, talks to 60 Minutes

The king and crown prince have granted women their long-awaited rights to drive and attend sports. Women are no longer required to wear headscarves. I expect to see more women appointed to senior positions in government, even at the ministerial level. Once Saudi Arabia unleashes the potential of women, there is no telling how far we can go.


Building on the past decade’s education reforms, the crown prince has launched the MiSK Foundation to provide young Saudis with world-class skills training. He has also led the way in normalizing life in Saudi Arabia for young people, who are increasingly fed up by social restrictions. The new General Entertainment Authority is giving Saudis foreign concerts, theater and cinemas and soon a Royal Opera House.


He has done something more intangible but also vital: bridged the deep generational divide between ruler and ruled. Like some three-fourths of Saudis, he is under 35. He speaks their language. He uses their apps. He knows their frustrations, including with corruption.


The recent crackdown on corruption should be seen in this light. Business as usual was not working, and the crown prince was willing to pull up the carpet to clean the rot underneath.


At an October 2017 conference for international investors, Crown Prince Mohammed laid out his ideas for moderate Islam. “Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979,” he said. “We want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that’s open to all religions. We want to live a normal life . . . coexist and contribute to the world. . . . We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with these destructive ideas.”


During my time in office, I came to realize that while Saudi Arabia will continue to face challenges, for the first time in four decades the ghosts haunting Saudi Arabia are in retreat. Mistakes are inevitable, and there is no universal guidebook on how to reform a country. But leaders like the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore show how far a country can go with the right policies.


Saudi Arabia has a long journey ahead. It will not be without bumps and bruises. Change never comes easy. But the crown prince has raised expectations dramatically. The genie is out of the bottle, and it can’t go back in.


Mr. Al-Toraifi was Saudi minister of culture and information, 2015-17.