Don't expect the country to turn to Western-style secularism any time soon

When I first visited Saudi Arabia, I was with a group of colleagues going to a restaurant but it had closed for prayer time. The rule is that if you’re already inside you can carry on your meal, but you cannot enter and instead wait or go to prayer. This was reinforced by the Mutawa (religious police), cruising the streets urging stragglers like ourselves to go to prayer.

To visit Saudi I have to declare my religion and denomination on my visa application form. I cannot wear religious symbols or proselytize, but I am permitted a Bible for personal use. There are no churches for me to attend, though Christian services do take place on Fridays in embassies, and some small Christian house groups do gather. We are very far off from religious integration within Saudi society, but there is not complete indifference.

Things are changing, even the famed Mutawa have now had their wings severely clipped. Saudi is in the midst of an economic and social revolution. Heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by the moniker MBS, is driving change to move Saudi from oil-dependency into a diversified economy. He has launched a raft of reforms called Vision 2030, including a planned $100 billion share sale of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company.

Most interesting was the announcement this week by MBS that he will lead his country back to “moderate Islam.” I suggest one inspiration for such moderation is the 14th century Muslim philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406AD), arguably the founding father of sociology. In explaining the dynamics of society and history, Ibn Khaldun explained that empires rise and fall in relationship to the people’s sense of social cohesion or asabiyyah. When society begins to lose this social cohesion it becomes increasingly sedentary and weakened, and new social groups overthrow the old order.

This social cohesion is central to understanding authority in Saudi, which is different from secular liberalism and western democracy. The political philosophy of Saudi is a political theology underpinning a clan-based theocratic state. But this theocracy is not the image conjured up by hysterical western commentary, it is more deeply rooted in Ibn Khaldun’s explanation of social cohesion. MBS wants to forge a new social contract, but forget Hobbes and Rousseau, think Ibn Khaldun and you’ll begin to unlock how this return to moderation may well come about.

We need to talk about moderation, because of how Islam has erupted in geopolitical influence since the 1979 Iranian revolution and 9/11. Weber’s secularization thesis to explain religious change, much beloved by social scientists in the 20th century, has proven woefully inadequate. There are better ways to talk about the issues. I have had many interesting theological discussions with Saudis about Islam. Foreign visitors with me are usually very squeamish when they are present, because there is an expat mantra that you don’t discuss Islam in Saudi. They need not be offended on behalf of Saudis. I have learned a lot from my Saudi contacts, and I believe it has been mutual.

Since 2005, Saudi has been involved in inter-religious dialogue globally, holding an International conference on dialogue in Mecca with 500 international Muslim scholars, and then in 2007 the late King Abdullah met with Pope Benedict. This led to an agreement by the Saudi, Austrian and Spanish governments to establish the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID). The centre was inaugurated in Vienna in 2012, with representatives from major world religions and the Holy See as a Founding Observer.

This is significant for global interfaith relations, but leaves untouched the absence of other religions in Saudi due to the belief that the Arab peninsula should be for Muslims only. My recent interview in the Catholic Herald with Bishop Hinder in Abu Dhabi explains how things work there in a more liberalized situation. The Emirati experience suggests this view can be challenged, but we are still a long way off to extending a collaborative hand to Christians in Saudi.

Effecting such change means maintaining social cohesion based on Islamic identity, so there are four things you can look out for. First, there will be small hints signalling change. Second, expect increasing diplomatic religious dialogue. Third, if moderation takes hold there will be an easing of other religious practices. Lastly, any Christian dialogue and change will likely be directed through relationships with the Vatican and regional Catholic church structures, rather than other denominations.

What the Saudis do want, and I hear this from a lot of young Saudis, is to keep their religious faith and identity and avoid some of the excesses of Western secularism. MBS has stated education is needed. If these young Saudis are to be believed then moderation will come about gradually and social cohesion maintained, though this still leaves the economic questions to be answered. Weber’s thesis doesn’t help us here and Western social and political scientists would do well to study Ibn Khaldun. It’s not just the Saudis who need moderation in understanding Islam.