Opinion |

Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar's More Tolerant, Liberal Islam: Not What It Seems

The end of oil, the Abraham Accords and Turkey are forcing Gulf states to renegotiate the role of religion in their societies. Talking up openness and moderation, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha have different playbooks – but share a common aim

Sebastian Castelier
Sebastian Castelier
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Sebastian Castelier
Sebastian Castelier

It wasn’t long ago that Gulf states were actively promoting ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, and didn’t shy away from cultivating political Islam either. The U.S. National Intelligence Assessment from April 1970 judged Riyadh as "likely to support conservative non-governmental groups in the Arab world, such as the Muslim Brotherhood."

But times are changing. Gulf states are being forced into a comprehensive rethink of their religious, political and economic systems, triggered by, most immediately, the prospect of drastically declining oil revenues as global demand shifts away from dependence on hydrocarbons. 

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As Gulf states face the need to diversify their economies, they face questions about whether economic liberalization will be mirrored by religious liberalization, and whether political pluralism is part of the package, too. 

Often pushed by younger powerful royals, many Gulf states are now keen to show that a tolerant, liberalized "Islam is compatible with [contemporary] life," in the words of Sarah Elzeini, the Arab American CEO of a DC-based strategic advisory and lobbying firm, and with a globalizing world: "the 21st century ushered in the global community to be our neighborhood." 

Simultaneously, Gulf states face the question of changing regional political alliances: the accelerating integration of Israeli businesses since the signing of the Abraham Accords, and wider global reconfigurations within the Muslim world and beyond. As Elzeini puts it, the state-level "shift we see in Islamic orientations" comes as a result of "developing geopolitical shifts." 

Members of the Israeli media report in front of Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. September 1, 2020Credit: NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS

As questions about the role of religion in Gulf societies gain momentum, the regional picture is far from homogenous. Each Gulf state, not least the custodian of the founding sites of Islam, Saudi Arabia, has a different starting point and is aiming for different objectives. Their varying stances towards the Muslim Brotherhood is one such issue. But a single key intention is apparent: the ruling families do not intend for these changes to weaken their own autocratic grip on power; they just have different ideas about how best to ensure it. 

The United Arab Emirates is the noisiest of the Gulf states in rebranding itself as an open, tolerant, liberal society. Indeed, the UAE self-identifies as "the most open and tolerant society in the Middle East…[with] shared interests and values with the U.S." 

In the spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste, the federation of seven emirates capitalized on the COVID-19 crisis to pushing its framing as a forward-thinking global player open to talents, investors and tourists by doubling down on what seems to be an ongoing and drastic shift towards secularity.

After it welcomed Pope Francis in 2019 for the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula and normalized relations with Israel, Abu Dhabi announced in October a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws. It allowed unmarried couples to live together, which has long been a crime in the UAE, loosening restrictions on alcoholic beverages and permitting foreigners to avoid Islamic Shariah courts on familial issues such as marriage and divorce.

The shift also reflects the aspirations of the vast majority of young Emiratis. A mere 8 percent of Emiratis aged 18-24 view religion as central to their identity, the Arab Youth Survey 2020 found, in stark contrast to Egypt (69 percent) and Saudi Arabia (60 percent).

Workers clean the exterior of the Museum of the Future, currently under construction in Dubai's financial district on November 19, 2020Credit: KARIM SAHIB - AFP

Sohail Nakhooda, an expert in Islamic Studies at the theological think tank Kalam Research and Media, based in Jordan and the UAE, posits a crossover between the "pluralistic" workplace characteristic of the UAE (where 8 million of its 9.1 million population are foreign workers) and its "vision of how religion fits into society." Nakhooda suggests that the UAE could "serve as a progressive model for the region." 

Despite the liberal use of the word "liberal" by the UAE, it denotes a far from an exact equivalent to how the word is used in the West.

Apart from stringent laws against blasphemy, the ban on churches displaying crosses on external walls, and the criminalization of  consensual same-sex sexual relations (in common with every GCC state except Bahrain) the UAE is rated "not free" in Freedom House’s rankings: hereditary monarchies hold power, political parties are banned, civil liberties restricted and the Internet is subject to significant censorship and surveillance. 

The tournament's official logo for the 2022 Qatar World Cup is seen on the Doha Tower, in Doha, Qatar, September 3, 2019Credit: NASEEM ZEITOON/ REUTERS

The gas-rich emirate of Qatar offers both a comparison and a contrast. Like UAE, Doha likes the language of tolerance and openness, and wants to be part of a globalizing cultural events like the FIFA World Cup, which it is hosting in 2022, but it is holding tighter on its Islamic heritage - and has refused to excommunicate groups associated with political Islam, instead  maintaining its consistent support and sanctuary for them. Qatar was not part of the first wave of Gulf state normalizations with Israel, either.

Doha prides itself on its autonomous foreign policy, notable for both keen cooperation with Islamists, from Hamas to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and for performative acts of Muslim global solidarity. 

This year, at the same time as Saudis and Emiratis adopted an informal commercial boycott of Turkey over Ankara’s support for Islamist political groups, Qatar’s flagship supermarket removed French products from its shelves in protest at  French President Emmanuel Macron’s free speech defense of the right to caricature the prophet Muhammad. The supermarket stated it was acting "in a way that serves our country and our faith, and meets the aspirations of our customers."

Doha’s openness to more illiberal Muslim movements is not a stance tolerated by some other Gulf states, who have punished Qatar with a boycott, closed borders and invective accusing it of embracing reactionary social and religious norms.

That’s agitprop, according to Gerd Nonneman, a Professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University's campus in Qatar.

"The idea that Qatar is backwards-looking is comical to anybody who has actually visited the country," he told me. "Modernism is being pushed, with at the same time some concern for keeping the more conservative parts of the society on board."

Qatar’s constitution states that sharia, the Islamic legal code, shall be "a main source" of legislation. Though public worship for non-Islamic faiths is restricted, Christianity and Judaism are also protected from defamation, non-Muslims migrant workers, who make up nearly 88 percent of the population, are allowed to worship freely, as long as they worship in premises belonging to denominations registered by the state. That constrained freedom of worship is still illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Muslims pray at the top of Mount Al-Noor where, according to tradition, Prophet Mohammad received the first words of the Koran from the Angel Gabriel. Mecca, Saudi Arabia. January 16, 2016Credit: REUTERS

Tied to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi religious establishment by a historic pact, the Saudi monarchy has long tolerated radical interpretations of Islam, and exported the ultraconservative Wahhabi doctrine abroad.

In the wake  of 9/11, where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, calls from inside and outside the kingdom to rein in radicals have grown louder, as the threat they posed to the West and to the incumbent regime became ever more apparent. The calls to squash religious dissent in the name of liberalization now have a champion in the highest echelons of the royal palace.  

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has portrayed himself as a reformist pledged to crack down on radical preachers and reign over the Wahhabi clerical establishment. "We will not waste 30 years of our lives in dealing with extremist ideas, we will destroy them today," the kingdom’s de-facto ruler said in Riyadh in October 2017. 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin SalmanCredit: SAUDI ROYAL COURT/REUTERS

Saudi Arabia’s starting point, as the Guardian of the two holy sites of Mecca and Medina, is far less "secular" than the UAE, even for the younger generation: six young Saudis out of ten say religion is central to their identity. MBS’ keenness for carefully selected "liberalizing" steps faces more pushback, despite what appears to be an appetite for a less austere culture and opposition to the sometimes violent enforcement of Islamic norms.

"The state-led approach is meant to promote a different understanding of religion more compatible with the leadership’s social reforms," says Eman Alhussein, a Saudi fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "Some citizens" see aspects of those social reforms "as contrary to their religious views." 

However, human rights defenders claim Mohammed bin Salman has effectively hijacked the religious and cultural liberalization demands pushed by a generation of young Saudis, who are increasingly open to opportunities offered by the global economy and 21st century realities.

They claim MBS’ anti-religious extremism campaign is connected far less to the glorification of liberal values and a tolerant Islam than to the deeper embedding of autocratic power and the distancing of democracy.They charge that MBS’s liberalization strategy is laser-focused on strengthening his own grip on power.

When, in mid-2018, Saudi Arabia ended the world's last ban on female drivers, state media breathlessly branded the Crown Prince as a feminist reformer breaking years of religion-inspired prejudice. But, simultaneously, he had more than a dozen female activists who had campaigned for the right to drive arrested

An image made from video released by Loujain al-Hathloul on November 30, 2014, showing her driving towards the UAE-Saudi border before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014Credit: Loujain al-Hathloul,AP

At least three of them allegedly faced electric shocks, sexual assault and flogging in detention. "Their only crime was wanting women to drive before Mohammed bin Salman" wanted them to do so, Human Rights Watch’s former Middle East director declared. One of the detained women, Lujain al-Hathloul, appeared in court recently, only for her case to be transferred to the Terrorism Court’s jurisdiction.  

The "non-extremist" Islam that Saudi powers are pushing is punitively circumscribed. The kingdom is engaged in an ongoing crackdown targeting free-spirited religious leaders, whether conservative or reformist, who are labelled as an ideological competitor to the authority of the hereditary leadership.

"Any political Islam tendencies putting forward ideas of how societies might be organized are seen as an intolerably independent set of views," says Georgetown University's Nonneman.

At the same time, the kingdom's ‘reformist’ leaders like to exploit the idea that the Saudi grassroots are disposed towards radicalism. A Saudi activist who spoke on condition of anonymity told me the Saudi monarchy has long portrayed its own citizens as "backward and sympathetic to extremist ideas" to promote to the West the idea that "the only way to liberalize Saudis is to allow an autocratic regime." He added: "The truth is the Saudi leadership needs extremists to legitimize itself." 

Former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan during an October 2020 Al Arabiya TV series in which he called Palestinians 'liars, cheats and ungrateful' Credit: Screenshot

It’s not a new thesis for the Saudi ruling elite. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served as Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, and has emerged more recently as a flayer of traditional Saudi support for the Palestinians, often told American officials that a Taliban-style theocracy would be the likely alternative to the current regime if democratic elections were to take place in the kingdom. It was both an excuse, a threat and a justification.

Parallel to a state-led push for a shift towards "moderate" Islam, the kingdom’s leadership is moving fast to promote nationalism and national belonging to share space with religion as a core component of Saudi identity. New school textbooks were introduced last year which "emphasize the importance of "moderate Islam" as well as national identity," commented Alhussein. The same dynamic is clear in the Gulf-wide strengthening of the personality cult of ruling monarchs, from roadside portraits to online hagiography fed by state-sponsored trolls.

An inherently transnational political Islam thus poses a threat both to the state-sanctioned "moderate Islam" and to the nationalization of identity in the Gulf. Gulf monarchies remember all too well that ten years ago, the Arab Spring shook several of the entrenched regimes across the wider Middle East and in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate won the presidential election in 2012. 

Posters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on barbed wire as soldiers and riot police confront supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood at El-Thadiya presidential palace, Cairo. Nov 1, 2013Credit: REUTERS

That anathema is part of the hostility expressed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt towards Qatar; one of their 13 demands in order to lift the blockade on Doha is the severing of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is classified as a terrorist group in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.

Other Gulf countries consider Qatar’s cultivation of Islamist groups as hypocritical: "Qatar in its own country does not want this model of political Islam, but it is something it exports everywhere else," comments Nakhooda.

Following Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 U.S. elections, Riyadh launched a new campaign to denounce the Islamist political movement, claiming the Muslim Brotherhood calls for disobedience against the Saudi leadership. The kingdom’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh slammed the Brotherhood as a "deviant group" that "had no links to Islam whatsoever." 

All this illustrates the elasticity of the phrase "Islamic liberalization": Both women pushing for the relaxation of religion-based discrimination and Islamists are considered so threatening to the controlled pace and scope of opening up Gulf societies that they are classed as terrorists. "Dissenter" now usefully signifies any perceived enemy of the state.

Frustratingly for Riyadh, its much-vaunted but selective "liberalization" still hasn’t won it the plaudits in the West that the UAE often commands, even from Riyadh-friendly governments. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Saudi Arabia, among other countries like China, North Korea and Iran, as "countries of concern," according to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, for "engaging in systematic, ongoing, egregious religious freedom violations." 

The reconfiguration of power between mosque, monarchy and economy in Saudi Arabia may well have wider consequences regarding the kingdom’s jealously guarded role as leader of the Sunni Muslim world. 

As Riyadh reduces its religionspeak, the pretender to that leadership role, Turkey’s President Erdoğan, is burnishing his Islamist credentials and reigniting a centuries-old Ottoman-Wahhabi/ al-Saud rivalry. And while the UAE and other Gulf states talk openness, even multiculturalism, Erdogan is converting historic churches into mosques

"What is happening in Turkey is the reversal of what is happening in the UAE," says Nakhooda; in Turkey, Islam is "now intruding into government and public space." For the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, it's not just Erdogan: a reactionary trio of Turkey, Iran and Qatar "inject religion into every debate" whereas the UAE, he contends, along with Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are "thinking about their future, not their past." 

A man sells balloons at the Global Village in Dubai, United Arab Emirates November 17, 2020Credit: AHMED JADALLAH/ REUTERS

The "Islam debate" in the Gulf is about money and dynastic power as much as it is about faith, culture and ritual. If in the past Gulf monarchies still deferred to semi-autonomous religious authorities, assuming they would help perpetuate the "right" power hierarchies, now the monarchies have decided to fully tame religion and its representatives, becoming sole arbiters of the body politic and everyday life, the undisputed lords of the land. 

The real divide between Gulf states and ambitious Muslim-majority rivals is based less on a liberal/conservative religious fault line than on a power and governance line: in the analysis of Georgetown’s Nonneman, flexible, image-conscious yet autocratic types of leadership are now pitted against a "dramatically more authoritarian" approach that systematically represses critical voices. 

The next few years will reveal whether Gulf states’ bold decision to use economic change to justify reinventing the role of religion, thus consolidating their autocratic regimes, is actually sustainable - and who will buy and benefit from their "liberalizing" narrative.

Sebastian Castelier is a journalist who covers Gulf Arab states and labor migration. His work has appeared in several Middle Eastern and international media outlets. Twitter: @SCastelier

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