Saudi Arabia might finally be serious about reform.
Earlier this week, the kingdom announced that it would lift its longstanding ban on women being able to drive by June of next year. A week earlier, the monarchy repealed prohibitions on women entering sports stadiums. The moves were a reminder of just how oppressive and retrograde official Saudi policy can be. But they’re potentially earth-shifting nonetheless—signs that the country’s monarchs see the long-term necessity of loosening some of the control they wield over 22 million subjects, 44 percent of whom are under the age of 25. Manal al-Sharif, an activist who led the effort to repeal the driving ban, doesn’t see this as a symbolic or isolated move, tweeting: “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.”
At minimum, Riyadh appears eager to communicate that it’s actually intent on change: That the driving ban repeal was also announced through a press conference at the Saudi embassy in Washington is perhaps an acknowledgement of the damage that the law had inflicted on the government’s international standing. But there’s another outreach effort underway too, in an area where the Saudi monarchy also has something of a negative reputation: religion.
Last week, Muslim World League Secretary General Mohammed al-Issa presided over an “International Conference on Civilization Communication between the United States of America and the Muslim World,” held in New York. The event culminated with a five-page “communique on rapprochement” which stressed the importance of “promoting a culture of coexistence and communication within Islamic and western societies.” According to a press release, the conference’s speakers included Suzan Johnson Cook, the US ambassador-at-large for religious freedom during Barack Obama’s second term, as well as the priest in charge of interreligious affairs at the archdiocese of New York and Ali Rashid al-Nuaimi, a leading Emirati religious authority and head of the Muslim Council of Elders, a UAE-based group partly aimed at promoting an alternative Qatar’s more pro-Muslim Brotherhood ideology. Al-Issa included the Jewish community in visit to New York—he met with Malcolm Hoenlein “to discuss ways to strengthen interfaith ties and counter forces of hate,” per the press release.
Al-Issa isn’t just any Saudi cleric. He served as justice minister between 2009 and 2015, and is closely associated with the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s clique. The Muslim World League is one of Riyadh’s most important instruments of soft power, funding faith-related charity and education work and spreading the kingdom’s austere and deeply conservative Wahabi religious ideology throughout the Muslim world and beyond. Wahabism has fundamentalist overtones. The Saudi court is often criticized for exporting an extreme version of Islam, and in the process seeding the violence religious extremism that’s cropped up across the world over the past few decades. But in the current Middle East, the Saudi state ideology is sharply at odds with that of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, groups who follow more instrumental and activist forms of Islamism that seek to overturn the existing political order within Muslim countries.
Al-Issa himself is viewed as a moderate, at least by the standards of high-ranking Saudi officialdom—hardliners cheered when he left his post as justice minister in 2015. But his record is far from spotless: During Congressional testimony this past July, Nina Shea, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, testified that during a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2011, al-Issa defended the teaching of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as historical fact in Saudi textbooks to her.
Al-Issa’s interfaith tour is far-reaching. According to the press release, Liberty University senior vice president David Nasser “offered to host [al-Issa] on his university’s campus to ‘continue to work together towards rapprochement.’” A highly connected Saudi religious authority, and the global emissary for the monarchy’s vision of Islam, has now been invited to one of the major institutions of the American evangelical community. Al-Issa was also in Rome this week, meeting with Pope Francis and announcing the establishment of “joint permanent committee” of the Vatican and the Muslim World League. Like the end of the driving ban, al-Issa’s efforts are a step towards a different image for Riyadh. Less clear, for now, is whether it’s a step towards a different reality as well.