The New Saudi Arabia: A meeting with King Salman

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Sunday 3 Oct 2021

One of the king’s viewpoints is that no Arab vision can materialize without Egypt and that regional and international challenges cannot be overcome without the presence of Egypt assuming its natural role.

I met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, on several occasions; when he was the emir of Riyadh, the crown prince, and as king. In two of those meetings, I had the opportunity to sit down with him for a long time. These were chances to get to know more about what was going on in his mind.

The first was when I visited him with prominent scientist Dr. Ahmed Zewail in Riyadh city. Seated next to him was Prince Mohamed bin Salman. The second time, I was with former president Adli Mansour in Jeddah city.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz was born in 1935. In 1954, at the age of 19, he became acting prince of Riyadh, and a year later, when he was 20, he was declared the prince of Riyadh.

After spending more than half a century as the Riyadh prince, King Salman was appointed minister of defense, then he became crown prince while he maintained his position as defense minister. In 2015, he became king.

Egyptians remember that King Salman volunteered to serve in the Egyptian army in 1956, when he was prince of Riyadh, to take part in the battle against the tripartite aggression against Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel.

At that time, Egypt was still trying to find its way through the storm. The aggression was carried out faster than expected, putting Egypt in an early and dangerous face-off.

The war ended with the defeat of the three allies. The assistance provided by noble friends at this critical juncture is etched in the memory of Egyptians. At the forefront stands King Salman, who has been greatly appreciated by Egyptians ever since.

In 2016, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi hailed King Salman’s role, saying, “The Egyptian people have not forgotten your noble stances and your volunteering with your brothers in the Egyptian Armed Forces during the public mobilization against the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt in 1956, and your role in supporting the military efforts during the War of Attrition, which culminated in the October victory.”

When Salman became king, Western intellectual circles expected him to be more conservative than his predecessor, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. The US’ Washington Post newspaper said King Salman was conservative and would not support reform and change.

The king proved them wrong. Along with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, King Salman embarked on wide reform: the conservatives were weakened, extremist circles cornered, and religious institutions directed toward moderation. The kingdom’s Vision 2030 was also launched, receiving a positive response. In May 2021, King Salman performed Eid Al-Fitr prayers in the city of Neom, which is regarded as a symbol of the new vision.

I was with Dr. Ahmed Zewail the first time I met with King Salman in the Riyadh Palace. On our way to the palace, Dr. Zewail told me, “Saudi Arabia has more significance to me than it does to Arabs and Muslims. It is the foundation upon which my family, Dema, Nabil, and Hani, were brought up. You know the story, of course. We published it in the memoirs.”

Dr. Zewail was referring to his book The Age of Science, which I had the honor of editing. The book included Dr. Zewail’s life story, and its honorary foreword was written by internationally acclaimed laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

In 1989, Dr. Ahmed Zewail won the international King Faisal Prize. At the award ceremony, he met Dr. Dema Faham, who became his wife. Dr. Zewail said in his book ‘The Age of Science’ that “I was the first Arab to receive this award in science or medicine. The Saudi hosts were proud of me, and they welcomed me with affection. I met in Riyadh a young lady named Dema Faham, who came with her father, Dr. Shakir Faham, who was awarded the King Faisal Prize in Literature. Dr. Faham was the Minister of Education in Syria. We spoke repeatedly on the phone upon my return to Pasadena, and when, in May 1989, we could no longer afford to pay the phone bills, I traveled to Syria.”

Right before arriving at the palace, Dr. Zewail told me, “Riyadh represents magnificent memories: the prize and the family.”

Our meeting with King Salman took place in early 2008. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques was then the emir of Riyadh. The architectural style of the palace caught the attention of Dr. Zewail. He told me, “This palace is exquisitely an amalgam of originality and modernity. We have to know more about its history.”

King Salman governed the Riyadh emirate from his office in the palace for 50 years. The office is elegant, with the library taking center-stage opposite the main salon.

At the beginning of the meeting, King Salman told me, “El-Moslemany is a big family in Ha’il Province, is it connected to Egypt’s El-Moslemany family?”

The amicable question was, to me, an ice breaker in the meeting that lasted for 90 minutes.

King Salman at that time had already had a clear vision and sharp ideas. Following the meeting, Dr. Zewail told me, “Prince Salman is a well-versed reader. It is rare to find an Arab official making references to books and citations. I was also surprised by his vision for reform. As a scientist, I found the meeting closer to my mind. His ideas are totally clear and his words are far from those of politicians who use general talk, vague vocabulary, and words that may have two opposite meanings.”

Dr. Zewail added, “Prince Mohamed bin Salman was nodding in agreement to the conversation. It seems they have talked about and agreed on the path the kingdom should adopt towards reform.”

King Salman spoke with us about the theory of the state in the Saudi experience. He also discussed the history of Islam, the kingdom’s geography, and the regional and international status quo.

The king’s convictions became apparent to me in the following: The first standpoint concerned the threat posed by Iran, and the dangers of Shiite expansion in the region and the world. The king spoke for a long time about Tehran’s insistence on exporting the revolution, which means exporting its doctrine, intellect, jurisprudence and politics, until it eventually spreads Khomeini’s theory of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist in other regions of the Islamic world.

The king warned against the growth of a Shiite empire in the same form of the Fatimid state if the Islamic world does not stand against the Iranian project. He called on one of his assistants to bring from the library a book by historian Gamal Badawi about the Fatimid state.

The king knew where the book was placed in the library, saying he frequently referred back to it, especially to the parts on the Fatimid mechanisms of infiltrating Sunni communities.

The king believed a compromise with the Iranian project is very difficult, and that it is not easy to bridge the ideological gap between Iran and the Islamic world. The king stressed that the rivalry was with the project, not the state, and that the discord did not exist at the time of the Shah, when Sunni and Shia matters were not raised, until Khomeini rose to the helm and divisions appeared in the Islamic world.

The king opined that it is difficult to attain “religious peace” if the Iranian project remains in the same form, that the situation may later become an “existential conflict, not a border conflict,” and that the entire region may slide to the brink of war, which must be prevented by any means.

The second vantage point, according to the king, is the role of religion in protecting the kingdom. He said, “Saudi Arabia is a vast land. It comprises many tribes. It is difficult for all these tribes to live in this spacious land without a real unification project. This project is Islam. Islam is the bond upon which the state was established; without this bond, there would have been no state. It will always be in the state’s interest to rely on religious legitimacy. This is what will preserve it.”

Dr. Ahmed Zewail said, “Some Western media outlets claim that Saudi Arabia is governed by Wahhabism and that ‘Wahhabi Islam’ is the foundation of the state’s legitimacy.”

The king replied that “there is no such thing as Wahhabism. They attack us using this term. We are Sunni Muslims who respect the four schools of thought. We follow Islam’s Prophet (Muhammad, peace be upon him), and not anyone else.”

“Imam Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahab was a prominent jurist and a man of knowledge, but he did not introduce anything new. The first Saudi state did not establish a new school of thought. They make this claim to link us to extremism and terrorism. This is not true. The Islamic thought, which rules in Saudi Arabia, stands against extremism and fights terrorism. We have grown tired of being described as Wahhabis. This is incorrect and unacceptable.”

Then the king spoke about the kingdom’s need for modernization and opening up to the world. He said, “Development is the norm in life. Some of our laws cannot persist, such as banning women to drive. Moreover, the performance of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice should be re-evaluated and reviewed. We have a large number of youths who are finely educated, and hundreds of thousands of young people were educated abroad. All of them want to see a ‘new Saudi Arabia’ that is fit for their ambitions and aspirations. We are well aware of that, and this change is going to come.”

One of the king’s viewpoints is that no Arab vision can materialize without Egypt and that regional and international challenges cannot be overcome without the presence of Egypt assuming its natural role.

The king repeated these words during the meeting with former president Adli Mansour. The king spoke about his deep knowledge of Cairo that may exceed the Egyptians’ understanding of the capital. He spoke about the time he volunteered in the Egyptian army in the 1956 war and his great attachment to the Egyptian culture and lifestyle.

Today, Saudi Arabia, as the king stated years ago, is continuously trying to adjust the balance with Iran and weaken the theory of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist.

The kingdom is ushering in a bold era of modernization and openness. Some people may see these steps as taking place faster and on a wider scale than expected, and that a number of them were, until some time ago, impossible to materialize.

Despite the openness, the kingdom is still trying to strike a balance between religious rulings and the state’s needs, between values and the age’s modernism, between the mosque and modernity.

Visitors to the kingdom say the atmosphere is getting better and that youth and women, in addition to many circles of intellectuals, are becoming more hopeful.

Many eyes are closely monitoring the kingdom. Neighboring countries are well aware that if Riyadh sneezes, the Gulf will catch a cold. The kingdom and the region are facing historical challenges. The better they overcome them the better the future will be.

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