"The reign of the sale of the shariʿa": Al-Qa’ida Condemns Muhammad bin Salman’s Reform Efforts in Saudi Arabia

Adam Hoffman analyzes al-Qa'ida's criticism of Muhammad bin Salman's reform efforts in Saudi Arabia.

Mohammad bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman

Al-Qaʿida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken aim at the sweeping cultural and economic reforms initiated by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, in a recent online publication. AQAP described the reforms as "the sale of the shariʿa" and criticized the Kingdom for prioritizing public spending for Western-influenced cultural events.

In the third issue of Madad, an AQAP publication distributed through jihadi channels on the messaging application Telegram, the group condemned recent entertainment events in Saudi Arabia as well as the Crown Prince’s broader reform program. The publication described bin Salman's social and cultural efforts as "a repeat of Ataturk's scenario in Turkey" – referring to the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who enforced a strict program of top-down secularism and abolished the last caliphate.

Since he was promoted to Crown Prince in June 2017, bin Salman has promised to "return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam,” limited the powers of both the Saudi religious establishment (ulama) and the country's morality police, ended the ban on women driving in the Kingdom, and declared that women are "absolutely" equal to men. In the spirit of promoting women's rights in Saudi Arabia, a recent issue of Vogue Arabia, the Middle East edition of Vogue magazine, featured a photo of Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saʿud behind the wheel of a convertible on its cover.

In the AQAP publication, the author poses a question for the Crown Prince: "why has he adopted those aspects of the West that have spoiled their lives and caused them psychological crises and crises of disintegration of the family and the community?" The article also criticized the Crown Prince's priorities in terms of funding public projects in the Kingdom. AQAP asks why he is spending millions on music festivals instead of tackling the poverty and housing crises affecting the Kingdom. The article concludes with a sweeping condemnation of bin Salman’s reign: "this is the reign of [Muhammad] Ibn Salman, the reign of the sale of the shariʿa with the consent of America and the Jewish occupation!!"

Since the early 1990s, Osama bin Laden frequently criticized the Saudi regime for its close relationship with the United States and what he perceived as the failure of the Al Saʿud to properly implement the shariʿa. Throughout the mid-2000s, al-Qaʿida waged a deadly terrorist campaign inside the Kingdom until it was crushed by Saudi security forces  in the late 2000s. Yet, the Madad article was not the first time AQAP attacked bin Salman's reforms in Saudi Arabia. As noted by Cole Bunzel, a September 2017 statement issued by al-Qaʿida claimed, “what was hidden has now been laid bare,” in reference to the “westernizing reforms” of bin Salman and his arrests of several clerics that month. “The manifest hatred [of Saudi Arabia] for the faith [Islam] and its supporters has become clear.”

Jihadists have come to see the Crown Prince’s reform project as both an opportunity and a threat. On the one hand, the reforms serve as an opportunity to expose the "true nature" of Saudi Arabia's "war against Islam,” and positions al-Qaʿida as the champions of "pure Islam." However, on the other hand, if these changes remain popular amongst large swaths of Saudi youth, the ideological appeal of Jihadist groups is likely to become increasingly obsolete. AQAP's statement was published  as authorities in the Kingdom faced criticism over the arrests of prominent female activists just weeks before the ban is set to be lifted, and most recently the first group of Saudi women received their driver's licenses. AQAP's news bulletin critiqued the Kingdom from the jihadi perspective, a viewpoint which is growing increasingly irrelevant amidst social and cultural – if not political – liberalization in Saudi Arabia.