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Feature Article

Clerics and Confidantes: Royal Crackdown or Seismic Shift?

Shaykh Salman al-Awda, one of the most high-profile religious figures in the Kingdom, faces the death penalty for his perceived opposition to official government policy. Is his case unique, and the severity of his actions such that he represents a genuine challenge to power, or does he represent a shift in dynamic of the Al Saud's partnership with the religious establishment?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Shaykh al-Awda first came to prominence after aligning himself with the kingdom's Sahwa (Awakening) movement, self-styled Islamic revivalist clerics responsible for shepherding in the Kingdom's ultraconservative religious policy which began to take shape in the late 1970s. Along with Osama bin Laden and others, he called for the expulsion of American troops who were stationed in Saudi during Operation Desert Storm. In 1994, he was arrested on the serious charge of inciting rebellion against the Kingdom, but was released in 1999, apparently a case study in deradicalization, and a product of Interior Minister Nayif's program of reintegrating extremists into society. al-Awda was a changed man, now preaching religious tolerance and pacifism, and even dipping his toes into the dangerous ground of political reform. With the explosion of social media, he became a popular figure, eventually amassing 13.4 million Twitter followers, sharing personal videos in the form of intimate talks which gave few hints of the firebrand speaker of youth.

The passion remained, however, leading him to speak out in support of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that swept through the region in 2011. Although he faced no consequences at the time, al-Awda was eventually arrested as part of the autumn 2017 crackdown which ensnared suspect royals, businessmen, academics and critics of the Kingdom. Almost a year later, in September 2018, the General Prosecutor finally hit al-Awda with a staggering 37 charges, consisting mainly of his support for the Arab Spring, and recommended the death penalty. Held incommunicado and allegedly tortured for forced confessions, al-Awda has now spent nearly two years in solitary confinement, on the basis of having ties to high-profile members of the Muslim Brotherhood (designated a terror organization by the country in 2014), and agitating in favor of a constitutional monarchy.

Although al-Awda was not the first, or only, cleric to come face to face with official displeasure since the rise of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (known as MbS), the fact that he was at one time considered close to the next in line to the throne makes the case unsettling. MbS, whilst still a relatively unknown royal, is known to have had at least three private meetings with al-Awda at the prince's request, during which he listened with apparent interest as the cleric praised the virtues of social reform and inclusive governance. And once installed as crown prince, MbS did seem to take up the mantle of reform, cracking down on the excesses of the Kingdom's feared religious police (the Hay'a) by limiting their powers of arrest, relaxing restrictions on women's right to manage their own affairs, and generally making it known that a more modern and less repressive style of Islam would bring the nation into the modern world. In light of his professed desire for reform, the impending execution of a modernizing cleric, who was once something of a confidante, is not only another chink in the crown prince's armor, calling into question the sincerity of his program, but instills dread and fear in a way that even the Hay'a, or the security apparatus of the Interior Ministry, did not, for at least there was an element of predictability. The rules (and punishment) were harsh, but for all that there were no surprises - if a shopkeeper did not close up at prayer time, or an unmarried couple were found holding hands in public, they knew what censure to expect. When there are no rules to know, and even the most prominent of public figures is at the mercy of royal whim, genuine terror ensues.

Was MbS simply, and cynically, leveraging al-Awda's large audience on his behalf? Leaving aside his questionable commitment to reform (activists campaigning for more continue to be treated harshly), there is a larger pattern at work, and in one sense the crown prince represents a return to royal form, however unpalatable his actions.

Related articles: Muhammad bin Salman And The Crushing Of Dissent: Derailing Succession Or Tightening The Grip?
Royal Dissidents And A Change Of House: The Gathering Storm?
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Page 2: ebb and flow?
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da Vinci and the Plumber: Royal Exceptions or the Rule?

Separate news events involving the crown prince and his sister highlight the often un-Islamic behavior of the royal family. Is this part of a long-standing pattern, or have the senior royals embarked on a dangerous and cynical new course?

Muhammad bin Salman and the Great Unknowns: A Closer Understanding or Distant Conceit?

Three big uncertainties surround the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, and his leadership role - what, if any, influence does his father, King Salman, have over domestic family politics; does the larger family, especially its senior members, still retain any influence over succession; and to what extent is a larger framework in place to govern executive decision making. The answers to these questions, however, are likely to be remain unanswered as events on the ground overtake a complete understanding of the unfolding dynamic.

Muhammad bin Salman And The Crushing Of Dissent: Derailing Succession Or Tightening The Grip?

It is no secret that the Kingdom has embarked on a campaign of repression, silencing any who might challenge the agenda and succession prospects of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. A ramping up of the intensity and extent of the crackdown raises the question of his survivability - will the king, committed to his son's prospects, take a knee and let the clock run out, or will an overconfident Muhammad celebrate too soon and see his world come crashing down?

A Father-Son Rift: Change Of Course Or Course Correction?

The news that King Salman has stripped his son Muhammad, the crown prince, of some financial and economic authority should be considered unsurprising. A widening rift at the top has been apparent for months, and calls to rein in the reckless heir to the throne have only accelerated in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Looking East: Hedging The Bet Or Cutting Losses?

As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman faces unrelenting international pressure, he has embarked upon a major Asian tour. At the same time, revelations continue to trickle out over his deep involvement with U.S. President Trump and his family. Is the Kingdom's de facto leader playing both sides, or has he given up on his American bet?