European Eye on Radicalization interviewed Khaled al-Addad, a Saudi researcher and writer. The interview covered the factors and influences that have impacted the evolution of Islamic movements inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the various reforms undertaken in the Kingdom to confront the extremist and terrorist ideologies, and attempts at intellectual infiltration of Saudi society by terrorist organizations, most particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Addad outlined the pivotal role played by King Abdul Aziz (r. 1932-1953), the founder of the modern Saudi state who is often known as “Ibn Saud” in the West, in handling the political events of his time and endeavoring to set the Saudi realm on the path to modernity. The writer believes that King Abdul Aziz was wise to begin his modernization efforts with the religious institution, while taking into account the particularity of Saudi religious affairs, where complete obedience to sheikhs and religious scholars was the norm and had been the reason for postponement of progress and urbanization in society. King Abdul Aziz changed this after he overcame the rebellion of the Ikhwan, known formally as Ikhwan men ataa Allah (literally, “The Brothers Who Obey God”). Although King Abdul Aziz met broad opposition to his reforms from sheikhs, his approach was radically different from the Ikhwan’s; rather than revolutionary upheaval, the King proceeded quietly, mostly in the form of offering advice, enabling the soft opposition to be eliminated and the country to move towards progress, while still preserving the status of sheikhs in the hearts of the people.
In addition, Al-Addad highlighted the impact of international events on the development of Islamist movements within Saudi Arabia. The US military striking into Afghanistan to depose the Taliban in October 2001 and into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein in March 2003 led to a review of how to address political Islamism in Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of Saddam’s fall, and with the Arab spring events beginning in 2010, regional dynamics changed such that there was growing Iranian influence and a spread of the Muslim Brotherhood, which came into power in several countries and convinced Western states to accept it. All this prompted the Saudi government and people to reassess, and position themselves in the face of political Islam, manifested most prominently in the Kingdom in the form of the Sahwa movement.
Speaking on the historical development of the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood within Saudi society, Al-Addad stressed the existence of the group’s influence before the beginning of 1940s. The Muslim Brotherhood tried to take advantage of the prevailing religious thought and culture within Saudi society, a Salafi culture that was completely different from the Brotherhood’s approach. It sought to find a common ground with Salafists and thus infiltrate them to serve its organizational purposes, which enabled the group and its programs to win over and recruit members of Saudi society.
The secretive and years-long work of the Muslim Brotherhood laid the groundwork from which the Sahwa movement in Saudi Arabia later began in the late 1980s. This movement brought about intellectual conflicts, especially after Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait, where it espoused a political stance in favor of Saddam—contrary to the official Saudi position that Saddam had to come out of Kuwait—and adopted some intellectual projects that were presented to the Saudi state, such as the “Memorandum of Advice”. Tensions with the state did not work out well for the Sahwa movement: their ranks were disrupted, and ultimately the movement would fragment. The various splinters from the Sahwa movement would join other, highly various movements—everything from jihadist groups to human rights NGOs—by the dawn of the twenty-first century.
The major change came in 2017, according to Al-Addad: after that year, no political Islamist organizations have been able to operate above the surface and recruit cadres in Saudi Arabia. A package of comprehensive changes and reforms was introduced by King Salman that year, marking an unprecedented watershed at the political and security levels, putting an end to decades of trouble. The Saudi Vision 2030, which employed the development aspect as a vital element to combat extremism, and the government-directed shift in Saudi political discourse, have contributed to combating extremism and terrorism in all its ideological forms—religious, ethnic, and sectarian. Moreover, the institutional and legal development within the Kingdom, with the establishment of the Presidency of State Security, also in 2017, and the issuance of the Law on Combating Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing in 2018, have greatly augmented the efforts to fight terrorism and extremism.
Nevertheless, Al-Addad pointed out that there is no definitive guarantee that Islamist extremism will not make a comeback in a new shape and with a different face, unless the state is able to construct a new and comprehensive intellectual system derived from the tolerance and genuine purity of Islam. Religious discourse has struggled to keep up with the fierce challenge from the Islamists. Now, with the strength and firmness of the political decision-makers and the security forces behind the forces of moderation, Saudi society stands a better chance of coping with the remarkable developments and changes that have taken place, and resisting the efforts by the Brotherhood-Awakening forces to undermine the reform, development, and urbanization of the Kingdom.
In conclusion, Al-Addad said that the wise political decisions and tight security measures, as well as the Saudis’ preoccupation with attaining their Vision 2030, have brought the Islamist movements to a point where they are unlikely to achieve any new gains inside Saudi Arabia.