Vision 2030 creating an inclusive Saudi identity
During his interview with Saudi journalist Abdullah Al-Mudaifer that was broadcast last week, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said: “When we commit ourselves to a certain school or scholar, this means that we are deifying human beings. God Almighty did not put a barrier between Himself and people. He revealed the Qur’an and the Prophet (peace be upon him) implemented it and the space for interpretation is open permanently.”
These words define the crown prince’s view toward the concept of moderation and the religious discourse he wants to establish — a discourse based on “sectarian pluralism” and respect for diverse Islamic communities.
In Saudi Arabia, there are four main Sunni Muslim sects, namely the Hanbali, the Hanafi, the Shafi’i and the Maliki, without forgetting Sufi methods. There are also three main Shiite Muslim sects: Jafari, Ismaili and Zaidi. This sectarian pluralism results in a wide range of doctrinal and dogmatic jurisprudence, which the hard-liners are seeking to abolish, while trying to impose a single view of “pure Islam.” The crown prince rejects this, stressing: “There are no fixed schools of thought and there is no infallible person. We should engage in continuous interpretation of Qur’anic texts and the same goes for the Sunnah of the Prophet.”
The crown prince understands that bigotry is a major obstacle to society’s progress, and that Vision 2030 needs an enlightened, liberal and social atmosphere, far from radicalization. Therefore, in his interview, he explicitly noted that “we cannot grow, we cannot attract capital, we cannot have tourism, we cannot progress with such extremist thinking in Saudi Arabia.”
Instilling moderation and sectarian pluralism is not a temporary act, but a pillar of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 and part of the enlightenment process. This bold view has been positively reflected in the followers of Saudi Arabia’s diverse Islamic sects; they are practicing their rituals more freely, without fear of hard-line clerics.
If we take the Saudi Shiites, for example, they are witnessing one of their most brilliant historic stages after the Kingdom strongly prevented, by force of law, any acts of incitement against them or vandalism of their mosques or hussainiyas, which were the targets of more than one terrorist attack by Daesh.
Shiites in the Kingdom today present themselves as “Saudis,” not “Shiites,” without hiding their sectarian identity. That means the national identity has become clearer and a source of pride for them. They are working hard to solve the problems that followed the demonstrations in the Eastern Region, specifically Qatif governorate, shortly after 2011 and the terrorist operations launched by armed cells. These led to chaos and were denounced by the majority of citizens, religious scholars and intellectuals, out of their belief in the importance of maintaining security and that weapons should not be outside the control of the state.
During his interview with The Atlantic’s Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg in April 2018, the crown prince stressed that “the Shiites are living normally in Saudi Arabia. We have no problem with the Shiites and Shiism.” His interview received widespread attention at the time, as he talked about Shiite citizens openly and transparently, noting that “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.”
This “sectarian diversity” that the crown prince talked about is a key pillar of the power of Saudi society that the hard-liners are seeking to eradicate.
In March 2018, during a meeting with a number of Egyptian media figures, the crown prince was quoted by Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper as saying: “I have Shiite friends, there are Shiites in leadership positions, and the leaders of many of the Kingdom’s giant companies are Shiites.”
NEOM is considered to be one of the leading projects in Saudi Arabia and the whole world. The CEO of the project is Nadhmi Al-Nasr, who worked for many years at the oil giant Aramco and was commissioned by the late King Abdullah to establish King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, one of the most important academic hubs in the Kingdom.
Al-Nasr is a Saudi Shiite national from Saihat. He has served in many senior positions, not because he is Shiite but because of his experience and competence. The appointment of Al-Nasr was a clear political message: That efficiency is the only and sole requirement, that the Saudi leadership does not differentiate between citizens, and that all doctrines are respected.
Aramco, the Kingdom’s main economic company, is headed by Amin Nasser. He is a Saudi national from Safwa, on the eastern coast, where his relatives still live. Nasser has a Shiite background and is from a city where Sunnis and Shiites have coexisted for decades.
The crown prince wants to establish a discourse based on sectarian pluralism and respect for diverse Islamic communities.
Furthermore, Saudi writer and researcher Kamel Al-Khatti has been appointed as a consultant at the Department of Awqaf and Islamic Inheritance at Qatif, with the mission of developing the department’s judicial system and expanding its powers toward turning it into a sophisticated body that serves citizens with high efficiency.
These are examples of Saudi figures who contribute to the reform process, adopt a national discourse and believe that they are “Saudi first,” which has made them widely respected across the Kingdom.
The positive change among Saudi Shiites is just one of dozens of examples of the effectiveness of the crown prince’s ideas. And they are not just slogans, but practical programs that come true day after day.
Besides developing the economy, diversifying the sources of income and reducing unemployment rates, the most important thing that Vision 2030 can accomplish is creating an inclusive Saudi national identity — a modern liberal civic identity that interacts with the world freely and without fear.
- Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa