The Religious Compact That Constrains Saudi Economic Reform

Mohammed bin Salman, son of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his deputy crown prince, is commonly referred to as the power behind the throne. That phrase falls short after this week’s unveiling of his Vision 2030, the most ambitious reform programme in the kingdom’s history. Whether he succeeds or fails, for now he is the power. While no one can fault MbS for his boldness, his programme resembles a mobilisation of technocrats to bypass big political obstacles. The biggest of these is the cornerstone of the state: the historic compact between the House of Saud and the House of ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century preacher behind the most extreme version of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy ever attempted as a form of governance. The ruling family has until now relied on the Wahhabi establishment — as reactionary and bigoted as ever — for its legitimacy, in exchange for clerical control over areas such as education and the judiciary, as well as the segregation of women.

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