By James M. Dorsey
Traditionally focussed on ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam, Saudi funding in the era of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has been streamlined and finetuned to ensure that it serves his geopolitical ambitions, primarily stymying the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and North Africa and enhancing the kingdom’s global impact.
The effort, however, has so far produced a mixed bag. Spending is down but more targeted. Saudi Arabia has handed over control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels in a move designed to demonstrate its newly found moderation and reduce the reputational damage of a Saudi ultra-conservative management that had become contentious in Belgium.
Yet, monies still flowed to militant, ultra-conservative madrassas or religious seminaries that dot the Pakistani-Iranian border. The kingdom’s focus, moreover has shifted in selected countries to the promotion of a strand of Salafi ultra-conservatism that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler, a corollary to Prince Mohammed’s crackdown on critics and activists at home.
Saudi governmental non-governmental organizations that once distributed the kingdom’s largesse to advance ultra-conservatism as well as officials have adopted the language of tolerance and respect and principles of inter-faith but have little tangible change at home to back it up.
To be sure, Prince Mohammed has lifted the ban on women’s driving, enhanced women’s work and leisure opportunities and kickstarted the creation of a modern entertainment industry but none of these measures amount to his promise to foster an unidentified but truly moderate form of Islam.
The prince’s moves, moreover, have been accompanied by an embrace of the European right and far-right as well as Western ultra-conservative groups that by and large are hardly beacons of tolerance and mutual respect.
“Saudi Arabia with MBS as Crown Prince has not been advocating Islamic religious reform,” said Middle East scholar HA Hellyer, referring to the Saudi leader by his initials.
“The existing Saudi religious establishment has not been encouraged to engage in a genuine rethinking of its ideas that draws it closer to the normative Sunni mainstream, nor listen to existing Saudi religious scholars who advocate more normative and mainstream approaches. Rather, the establishment has been muzzled. MBS’s ‘reforms’ in this arena are about centralizing power—they are not about restoring the Saudi religious establishment to a normative Sunnism,” Mr. Hellyer added.
Prince Mohammed’s interest in non-Muslim ultra-conservative groups in the West fits a global pattern, highlighted by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, in which technological advances and the increased importance of soft power that lie at the root of Russian intervention in elections in the United States and Europe, have informed the information and public relations policies of multiple autocratic states.
Technology and soft power are, according to Messrs. Mounk and Foa, are likely to spark greater efforts by authoritarians and autocrats in general to influence Western nations and undermine confidence in democracy.
“Indeed, China is already stepping up ideological pressure on its overseas residents and establishing influential Confucius Institutes in major centres of learning. And over the past two years, Saudi Arabia has dramatically upped its payments to registered U.S. lobbyists, increasing the number of registered foreign agents working on its behalf from 25 to 145… The rise of authoritarian soft power is already apparent across a variety of domains, including academia, popular culture, foreign investment, and development aid,” Messrs. Mounk and Foa said.
Saudi Arabia alongside other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, as well as China, have furthermore been major donors to Western universities and think tanks and developed media outlets of their own such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera, Turkey’s TRT World China’s CCTV, and Russia’s RT that reach global audiences. They compete with the likes of the BBC and CNN.
The need for Saudi Arabia to acquire soft power was driven home by mounting Western criticism of its war in Yemen and condemnation of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi effort to do so by garnering conservative, right-wing and far-right support was evident in Northern Ireland.
Investigating a remarkable campaign by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a key support pillar of British prime minister Teresa May’s government, in favour of Britain’s exit from the European Union, Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole suggested that a senior member of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family and former head of the country’s intelligence service, Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, as well as its just replaced ambassador to Britain, had funded the anti-Brexit effort through a commercial tie-up with a relatively obscure Scottish conservative activist of modest means, Richard Cook.
The ambassador, Prince Nawaf’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al Saud, was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain until last month’s Saudi cabinet reshuffle.
“It may be entirely co-incidental that the man who channelled £425,622 to the DUP had such extremely high-level Saudi connections. We simply don’t know. We also don’t know whether the… Saudi ambassador had any knowledge of his father’s connection to Richard Cook,” Mr. O’Toole said.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia has invited dozens of British members of parliament on all-expenses paid visits to the kingdom and showered at least 50 members of the government, including Ms. May, with enormous hampers of food weighing up to 18 pounds.
One package destined for a member of the House of Lords included seaweed and garlic mayonnaise; smoked salmon, trout and mussels; and a kilogram of Stilton cheese. Others contained bottles of claret, white wine, champagne, and Talisker whisky despite the kingdom’s ban of alcohol.
In a move similar to Russian efforts to influence European politics, Saudi Arabia has also forged close ties to conservative and far-right groups in Europe that include the Danish People’s Party and the Sweden Democrats as well as other Islamophobes, according to member of the European parliament Eldar Mamedov.
Writing on LobeLog, Mr. Mamedov said the kingdom frequently worked through the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) bloc, the third largest grouping in the European parliament. Saudi Arabia also enjoyed the support of European parliament member Mario Borghezio of Italy’s Lega, who is a member of Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), a bloc of far-right parties in the parliament.
The kingdom’s strategy, in a twist of irony, although in pursuit of different goals, resembles to a degree that of one of its nemeses, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim non-governmental organization that has opposition to Saudi Arabia’s puritan strand of Islam carved into its DNA and has forged close ties to the European right and far-right in its bid to reform the faith.
The Saudi strategy could prove tricky, particularly in the United States, dependent on the evolution of US special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 election that brought President Donald J. Trump to office.
Mr. Mueller reportedly is set in court filings to unveil efforts by Saudi Arabia, its reputation in the US tarnished by the Khashoggi killing, and the United Arab Emirates, the kingdom’s closest ally, to influence American politics.
Said Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney. “I guess what Mueller has to date has turned out to be pretty rich and detailed and more than we anticipated. This could turn out to be a rich part of the overall story.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom