Mohammed bin Salman – The Great Reformer?

12 August 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme Download PDF

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have a definite agenda to revamp the Kingdom’s economic and social systems. In order to accomplish those goals, he has ensured that he will not face political or other distractions. While that has led to some very dramatic and unpleasant situations, MbS could yet be the reformer that Saudi Arabia needs.

Key Points

  • Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have a definite agenda to revamp the Kingdom’s economic and social systems.
  • In order to accomplish those goals, he has ensured that he will not face political or other distractions.
  • That led to some very hard and dramatic situations, such as the incarceration of hundreds of people in a Saudi hotel.
  • In that incident and others that followed, however, he has shown that he had some justification for his approach.
  • MbS could well be the reformer that Saudi Arabia needs.


In early 2018, Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, sat down to an interview with the US edition of the “60 Minutes” TV programme. In the course of that interview, the Crown Prince, who is commonly referred to by his initials, MbS, made two very striking announcements. When asked, ‘Does Saudi Arabia need nuclear weapons to counter Iran?’, he was unequivocal in his response, saying, ‘Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.’ And, in a message obviously directed at the Iranian theocracy and its ambitions of becoming the regional and ideological leaders of the Muslim world, MBS was blunt:

Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia.

His actions may appear to be heavy-handed, even dictatorial, but they are effective. In November 2017, for example, MBS invited hundreds of current and former government ministers, media moguls, prominent businessmen and at least 11 princes to a meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. He accused each of them of stealing from the state and incarcerated them in the hotel until they either paid back the amounts that they stole or proved their innocence. As Mohammed al-Sheikh, a Harvard-trained lawyer and one of MBS’s closest advisers pointed out, the authorities could not account for a significant part of the funds set aside for public development, saying, ‘Probably 5 to 10 per cent of the annual spend by the government, which was roughly, I would say anywhere between [US]$10-20 billion, maybe even more, on an annual basis.’ As an outcome of the mass incarceration, a huge sum of lost funds was recovered. MbS put that in concrete terms, saying:

The amount exceeds $100 billion, but the real objective was not this amount or any other amount. The idea is not to get money, but to punish the corrupt and send a clear signal that whoever engages in corrupt deals will face the law.

MBS disclosed his plans to revise the Saudi educational system. Saudi Arabia adheres to a power-sharing arrangement between the House of Saud and Wahhabi Islam, the strict, predominant faith in Saudi Arabia. MBS was at pains to point out, however, that it is not Islam but extremists within Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who have infiltrated Saudi society, including its schools. To revise the educational system, therefore, would be to curb the influence of those extremists.

True to his word, MbS issued a royal decree in 2017 lifting the ban on women driving and less than a month later, in October 2017, appointed his cousin, Princess Reema bint Bandar as the first Saudi woman to head a sports federation The Crown Prince’s crackdown on corruption was accompanied by guarantees of women’s rights (in early 2018 women were allowed into stadiums accompanied by their families to watch football matches), major revisions to the entertainment industry (in April 2018 the ban on cinemas was revoked) and a shake-up of the country’s economic sector (in June 2018, the Saudi Arabian stock exchange (Tadawul) was upgraded and joined the MSCI Emerging Market Index). Arguably more importantly, the Crown Prince has since introduced major reforms to the judicial process followed in the kingdom, as one report shows. The reforms continue in small but incremental ways. Saudi women may now register to undertake the annual pilgrimage to Mecca without needing a male “guardian” to accompany them and Saudi shops may remain open for business during the five daily prayer times.

MbS has, in short, provided valid explanations for what appear at first glance to be heavy-handed actions and showed the rational basis for his plans. He has also shown the ability to follow up his stated plans with action. That demands further examination.


Lost among the many issues discussed during the interview was that of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative approach to religion. Replying to the question, ‘There is a widespread perception that the kind of Islam practiced inside Arabia is harsh, it’s strict, it’s intolerant. Is there any truth to that?’, MbS said, ‘After 1979, that’s true. We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal.’ MbS lays most of Saudi Arabia’s problems to the year 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established an Islamic theocracy in Iran. The same year, religious extremists in Saudi Arabia took over Islam’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In order to appease their own religious radicals, the Saudis began emphasising their own conservatism.

That insight should have provoked far more discussion and debate than it did. It would have provided greater insight into what MbS has in mind for his kingdom. If the Crown Prince is to carry out the reforms that he seeks, he knows that 70 per cent of the population – those Saudi citizens who are below the age of 35, are educated and like people their age the world over, demand more social, political and economic freedom – would support him. He will also be very aware that the remaining 30 per cent, many of whom are in positions of considerable power, will oppose any revisions to Saudi society that they believe go against Qur’anic injunctions.

Having established himself politically, such that he has no worthwhile opposition to his future rule as monarch, and economically, the Crown Prince recognises that if he is to carry out his reforms, he will need to negate the potential threat posed to his reforms by conservatives, including the vast majority of clerics, who use the Qur’an to ensure their own positions. He must re-interpret the Qur’an in such a way as to legally and in a theologically-correct manner liberalise Saudi society and thinking.

The Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be the Islamic deity’s word that was given to Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, over the course of 23 years. It has been, according to believing Muslims, unaltered since it was handed down. It is hardly surprising then that the Qur’an is, literally, the Constitution of Saudi Arabia. All of the kingdom’s economic, political and social systems are predicated to one degree or another upon it. The Qur’an is not, however, as clear in many parts as it is in others, requiring a degree of interpretation (tafsir, in Arabic). Tafsir is, in other words, the explanation, elucidation and clarification of the words and intended meanings of the Qur’an. As the Imam Jalal-al-Din as-Suyuti noted in his magisterial text, Al-itqan Fi ‘ulum Al-Qur’an (The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur’an), however, some scholars have defined tafsir more broadly as the science of the revelation of the Qur’anic verses, the occasion or context of their revelation, the reasons for their revelation, the Meccan versus the Medinan verses, the clear versus the unclear verses, the abrogated versus the abrogating verses, the specific versus the general verses, the absolute versus the limited verses, the prohibiting and the permitting verses and those verses that warn, command and recount lessons and parables. To be clear, as-Suyuti is not the sole interpreter of the Qur’an; other prominent tafsir specialists include at-Tabari, al-Qurtubi, ibn Kathir, ibn Hayyan and Muhammad ibn Ali al-Shawkani.

In order to re-interpret the Qur’an, however, MbS will need to reconsider the Sunnah, i.e., the actions, sayings and implied approval or disapproval of various issues of the founder of Islam. If, as Muslims believe, Mohammed was the perfect being, it stands to reason that his conduct and utterances must have been perfect, too. His alleged sayings, known collectively as ahadith (singular hadith), therefore, take on an added importance and serve as an explanation themselves of some Qur’anic verses. It was likely that reasoning that led Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari al-Jufi (better known as al-Bukhari, “the man from Bukhara”, the city in present day Uzbekistan) to undertake a sixteen-year journey to the various centres of learning in the Muslim world and, according to legend, listened to over one thousand scholars and collect over 600 thousand alleged sayings of the founder of Islam. In compiling his collection of hadith, however, (al-Jami’ as-Sahih or, as they are more commonly known, the Sahih (authenticated) Bukhari), he retained less than 7,300 of those. His student, Imam Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj al-Naysaburi, would go on to compile his own list of around 7,500 sahih hadith. The two lists, by al-Bukhari and Imam Muslim, would eventually become known as the “Sahihain”, or the “Two Sahihs”. Their importance in Islamic Law is second only to the Qur’an.

Muslim scholars usually divide the hadith into four categories according to the degree of their authenticity and reliability. The four categories are:

  1. Sahih: The genuine, authentic and strongly-reliable traditions.
  2. Moothaq: Almost as authentic as the Sahih, but the chain of   narration is not as strong.
  3. Hassan: The fair traditions, albeit authentically inferior.
  4. Dha’eef: The weak traditions which are not so reliable.

The Crown Prince sat down to another interview, this one with the state-owned Rotana TV, towards the end of April this year. While the main objective of the interview was to take stock of the kingdom’s progress five years after MbS launched Vision2030, the socio-economic plan to wean the kingdom off its dependence on oil revenue by diversifying its economy, the conversation eventually drifted towards religious matters and the intersection between religion in the kingdom and its economy.

After reiterating that the Constitution of kingdom is the Qur’an, as stipulated by Article 1 of the Basic Law promulgated by King Fahd in 1992, MbS made some important clarifications about the Sunnah, the collection of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and deeds. If in theory the Sunnah is the second source of law after the Qur’an, de facto it is the most important, because it is a guide to the interpretation of the Islamic Holy Book and above all because the Qur’an contains only a few legal provisions, contrary to common belief. In contrast, there are more than one million hadith, most of which have legal implications. Jurists have always concentrated on distinguishing true hadith from false ones, in order to derive the norms exclusively from the authentic Sunnah.

While Sharia principles are no longer applied in most Muslim countries directly, even though they may inspire the law in some states, the Crown Prince’s claims could have direct repercussions in the Saudi context, where judges rule on the basis of Islamic jurisprudence with a high level of discretion in many instances. In this regard, MbS specified that in the Kingdom ‘a punishment must be applied only in the presence of a clear Qur’anic stipulation or a mutawatir hadith’, i.e. a hadith transmitted over the centuries through an uninterrupted and numerically significant chain of transmitters. As MbS explained, those hadith are binding, unlike ahadi hadiths, which are often transmitted by single narrators, which become binding only when they are corroborated by Qur’anic verses, and khabar hadith, sayings that are essentially identical at the core but vary in their detail, the authenticity of which is doubtful and which, therefore, cannot be used as legal sources.

Essentially, MbS was shifting the criteria by which hadith are to be validated, i.e. not according to the reputation of a narrator such as al-Bukhari or al-Muslim, but according to the number of narrators. In other words, the more widespread a hadith, the more likely its validity.

While that change may appear to be superficial, it is, in fact, a complete upheaval of Saudi legal jurisprudence. Based on the Crown Prince’s criteria, the number of sahih hadith, even from al-Bukhari and al-Muslim, will be reduced from over seven thousand each, to a few hundred or less. Moreover, most of the mutawatir hadith refer to prayer, purification, pilgrimage, jihad, burial, marriage and so on. In the interview, the Crown Prince referred to the case of adultery. According to Qur’anic injunction, the punishment for the unmarried adulterer and adulteress is one hundred lashes. The practice of stoning of married adulterers, however, stems from a hadith. Since that hadith is ahadi, however (i.e. based on a single narrator or source), it may easily be dismissed legally and even removed from the legal code if the Crown Prince’s re-interpretation of the hadith is adopted. MbS argued that even if the Qur’an stipulated a specific punishment but Mohammed, the founder of Islam, did not enforce it, the punishment ought to be nullified based on the example set by the perfect man.

To be clear, there are some problems with that argument, but the objective is clear: to remove residual power from the clutches of the conservative clergy, liberalise the social norms of the kingdom and establish a legal system based on internationally-accepted laws. The Crown Prince’s argument could remove the penalty for the consumption of alcohol, i.e. forty lashes, since while Mohammed is said to have lashed a man forty times for drinking alcohol, the Qur’an stipulates no punishment even though it decries alcohol. Similarly, the punishment for apostasy: the hadith impose the death penalty but the Qur’an does not stipulate an earthly punishment.

The Crown Prince also appears to be eager to please. When a delegation of US Evangelists asked if they could build a place of worship in the kingdom, that being a crime punishable by incarceration currently, the Crown Prince’s reply was, ‘Not now.’ He did say, however, that he would ask his religious scholars to define the “Arabian Peninsula”, whether that term referred to the entire kingdom or only to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Once again a hadith is the source of the discussion; it states that the founder of Islam said that no two religions could exist in the Arabian Peninsula. As for the “not now”, it is more than likely that the Crown Prince is biding his time, strengthening his position until he can carry out all the reforms that he chooses without setting Saudi society in turmoil.

There has been much criticism of the 2018 “60 Minutes” interview. Questions were thrown at the interviewer and others by people in the media themselves and others; one striking example is here. Many of those questions were of the “If he said that, what about this?” kind. If the Crown Prince is to carry out the reforms that are required to bring an entire country into the twenty-first century, especially one as conservative as Saudi Arabia, it would be impractical, to say the least, to expect him to enact all of them at once. There will be a process – one that takes time – which he will need to follow.

With a little bit of luck, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could, indeed, be Saudi Arabia’s great reformer.


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