Mohammed bin Salman Isn’t Saudi Arabia’s First Fake Reformer

The United States has a long history of getting duped by Saudi leaders promising to change their country for the better.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 23. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 23. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul extinguished Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation in the United States and Europe as a liberalizing reformer of his country. What the West must now do is ask itself why Salman enjoyed such a reputation to begin with. This is not the first time a Saudi leader has presented himself to the world as a liberalizer—and it’s not the first time the world has found itself duped.

The premise of Mohammed bin Salman’s reform effort has been that, prior to 1979—when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established an Islamic theocracy in Iran and Juhayman al-Otaybi seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca—Saudi Arabia was a moderate kingdom that respected the diversity and civil rights of its subjects. In March, CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell asked the crown prince whether the last 40 years represents the “real Saudi Arabia,” and he replied, “I would ask your viewers to use their smartphones to find out. And they can google Saudi Arabia in the ’70s and ’60s, and they will see the real Saudi Arabia easily in the pictures.” In an interview this spring with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Mohammed bin Salman similarly portrayed the Saudi Arabia of the 1960s and ’70s as comparatively liberal—always citing 1979 as the turning point. “Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia. … In the 1960s, women didn’t travel with male guardians,” he said.

The problem is that this story is a myth—indeed, it’s the very myth that Saudi rulers in the decades prior to 1979 peddled to the United States in exchange for its material and diplomatic support in the region. Saudi Arabia’s promised reforms, however, went systematically ignored. If anything, they were often a prelude to crackdowns on dissidents and unpredictable regional policies. Rather than a break from that pattern, Mohammed bin Salman represents its continuation. Today, as in the 1960s and ’70s, Saudi Arabia is not only experiencing a disruption of its royal succession and a proxy war in Yemen between Riyadh and another regional power, but it is also offering a disingenuous pledge to liberalize in exchange for U.S. political support. Khashoggi is the latest casualty of this pattern—and there’s no reason to expect the outcome will be any different.

When U.S. President John F. Kennedy assumed power in 1961, the reputation of Saudi Arabia’s King Saud in Washington was as a good-natured but simple-minded man. Even as a prince, Saud was known for opulent spending. “You will separate yourself from your people. Stop that nonsense. Live simply, and the kingdom will be better off,” his father allegedly warned. Saud ignored this advice and instead went on a construction spree that enriched himself and those close to him, including Osama bin Laden’s father, who owned a construction firm and was also close to Saud’s half-brother Prince Faisal. The U.S. Embassy in the early 1960s preferred to work through Faisal—and the prince had ambitions to match. By 1962, Faisal, much like Mohammed bin Salman today, was effectively running Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy; two years later, he drove Saud from the crown.

The new King Faisal desperately wanted assurances of support from the Kennedy administration, especially because North Yemen was engulfed in a civil war in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia supported two different factions. Faisal believed Cairo was supporting the revolutionaries who deposed North Yemen’s leader as a prelude to challenge Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity—the same accusation Riyadh now levies against Iran and Qatar.

In exchange, the Kennedy administration wanted to see reforms in the country, including an end to slavery. Despite official denials, slavery remained an established institution in the kingdom at the beginning of the 1960s. Mali’s ambassador showed U.S. diplomat Parker Hart documents proving that his citizens were being kept in Mecca’s houses as slaves. “They are coming to me and I’ve got my yard full of them. I’m putting up tents so that they cannot be recaptured by the police and taken back to Mecca to be servants of families where they’ve been abused,” he complained to Hart. Officially, King Saud abolished slavery by royal decree in 1962, but the initiative belonged to then-Crown Prince Faisal and followed his personal assurance to Kennedy that he could be counted on to reform the country.

Faisal’s record otherwise, however, was decidedly mixed. Although he claimed a willingness to challenge clerics on matters of education, including for women, in practice his policies were hardly progressive. In the early 1960s there was only one school for women known to the U.S. Embassy, Dar al-Hanan in Jeddah, and it was founded by Queen Iffat al-Thunayan, a wife of Faisal. The Saudi government responded to pressure from the United States by establishing new schools for girls in extremely conservative areas such as Buraydah.

Faisal, however, chose to fill the shortage of qualified professors in the country by turning to Egyptian and Syrian clerics seeking to escape imprisonment by their own country’s secular leaders. This would significantly change the country’s religious landscape—and not in a progressive direction. Diplomats were sheltered from these changes while kept in the comparatively cosmopolitan Jeddah. “King Faisal didn’t feel that he could have the embassies there [Riyadh] because the religious ulema didn’t even permit cigarettes to be sold on the street at that time; it was very puritanical,” recalled Slator Blackiston, who served as an economic officer in Saudi Arabi from 1964 to 1966.

These educational policies increased the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia. In the 1940s, the group’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, formally tried to establish the organization in Saudi Arabia but was rejected by King Abdulaziz, the country’s founding ruler. This changed during the 1960s and ’70s, when the Brotherhood’s members and those of other Islamist groups began to flock to teach in Saudi schools at the invitation of a government ostensibly liberalizing its school system.

Sheikh Abdel Rahman, commonly known as the “blind sheikh” in the West and a member of groups more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood, was among those who came to teach in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s after being imprisoned in Egypt in part for calling Gamal Abdel Nasser “the wicked pharaoh.” He would later be implicated in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Said Hawwa, a key figure of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, also taught in Saudi Arabia for four years in the late 1960s. During that time, he wrote his famous book Jund Allah, or Soldiers of God, in which he railed against the traditional clerics for disavowing violence and encouraging political quietism. Muhammad Qutb, the brother of one of modern political Islam’s intellectual leaders, Sayyid Qutb, also taught Islamic law in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

Muslim Brotherhood figures helped Faisal design Saudi Arabia’s new national education policy in 1970. According to Stéphane Lacroix, an expert in Saudi Arabia’s Islamist movements, the “totalizing conception of Islam [taught in Saudi schools] owes more to the thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood than to traditional Wahhabism.” The group injected a dose of Islamist activism into Saudi Arabia that contributed to a noticeable radicalization of its society and influenced Saudi citizens who later embraced terrorism, including Osama bin Laden.

Mohammad bin Salman’s message to the West is that the country became more reactionary in 1979 as a result of pressures stemming from the Islamic revolution in Iran and the subsequent siege at Mecca’s Grand Mosque; this is echoed by the Saudi press, which marks 1979 as the decisive turning point for everything from the decline of music in Saudi Arabia to the radicalization of school curricula and rise of the Sahwa clerical movement, which questioned the very legitimacy of the state. But the Saudi government itself laid the groundwork for its reactionary shift in the late 1970s, with seeds planted by foreign Islamists whom the government had invited in and empowered. Indeed, the Grand Mosque attack’s leader, Juhayman al-Otaybi, was largely influenced by Muhammad al-Albani, an Albanian who traveled to the kingdom via Syria in the 1960s—and both men were partly enabled by Sheikh Ibn Baz, who would later become the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia. Ibn Baz personally endorsed many of their early initiatives, including the destruction of portraits in public spaces.

The Saudi government did not turn away even those whom the Muslim Brotherhood considered too extreme. Muhammad Surur moved to the kingdom in 1965 over disagreements with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s acceptance of Sufis. According to previous Saudi Deputy Minister of Islamic Affairs Tawfiq bin Abdulaziz, “The Al-Sururi organization started dragging the carpet gradually through the schools, recruiting students in universities, until their followers increased.” In the late 1970s, Surur and his followers were critical of the Saudi state but increasingly focused on opposing Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. The Saudi government soon officially followed in these footsteps.

Today, Mohammed bin Salman excoriates the Sururi movement as a menace. Yet at the same time, he defends the kingdom’s history of interactions with the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamist groups: “If we went back in time, we would do the same thing. We would use these people again. Because we were confronting a bigger danger—getting rid of communism. Later on we had to see how we could deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. Remember, one of the presidents of the United States called these people freedom fighters.”

“We tried to control and manage their movements. But then came 1979, which exploded everything. The Iranian revolution [created] a regime based on an ideology of pure evil,” he told the Atlantic’s Goldberg.

The crown prince may be able to sell a revisionist history to a kingdom where the majority of people were born after 1979, but Washington should consult its institutional memory. The ongoing quagmire in Yemen and alleged murder of Khashoggi presents an opportunity to reconsider the repeated patterns, misconceptions, and broken promises of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Riyadh has a history of framing regional competition as an existential threat to gain Washington’s support in proxy conflicts. Washington has a history of demanding compartmentalized reforms in the kingdom that are either cosmetic or occur at the expense of anyone who dissents. A new wave of activist and clerical arrests inside Saudi Arabia, as well as Khashoggi’s disappearance, is a testament to the flaws of this model of expedited and disingenuous reform.

Adam Weinstein is a researcher who focuses on South Asia and Iran.

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