Saudi Arabia

By Mike Burnard

On Thursday [1 August 2019], Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers announced their approval of a royal decree to reform the Kingdom’s wilayah, or guardianship system, a jumble of regulations that Human Rights Watch has said constitute “the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the country”. The new laws, at least some of which are expected to go into effect at the end of August, indicate that women over the age of 21 will be able to obtain passports and travel abroad without requiring a close male relative’s permission. Reforms will also improve Saudi women’s protection against employment discrimination and grant a greater degree of autonomy over family matters, enabling them to register births, marriages or divorces — previously the purview of male relatives. (TIME)

The centrality of Saudi Arabia and calls for change

Saudi Arabia is seen by many as the guardian of ‘true’ Islam, as the Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca and buried in Medina. Muslims around the world attempt to visit there if they are able, in order to participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage. According to Wikipedia, “virtually all Saudi citizens are Muslims (officially, all are), and between 75% and 90% are Sunni Muslims with the remaining 10–25% being Shia Muslim”. Christians are allowed to enter the country temporarily as foreign workers, but these visitors are not allowed to practice their faith openly. Officially, there are no Saudi Arabian Christians, and conversion from Islam is forbidden and punishable by death, as is apostasy (renouncing one’s religious beliefs). Atheists and agnostics are officially considered ‘terrorists’ in Saudi Arabia.

The approval of the new royal decree concerning women and the guardianship system is likely to prompt new interpretations of conservative theology that could spiral into a form of ‘Islamic reformation’. As far back as 2007, Saudi activists like Mansour al-Nogaidan called for Islamic leaders “with the courage of Martin Luther … to reinterpret Quranic verses in favour of a more modern Islam.”

A younger generation and a powerful crown prince

A key factor in Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of reforming their restrictive and conservative religion seems to be a changing generation. Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s youngest populations, with approximately 56 percent of the population under 30 years of age. This young generation – with its more liberal expression of faith and more technological exposure to the West – is a central driving force behind the initiatives of the young crown prince who understands the mindset of a millennial. Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), is the son of Saudi Arabia’s 81-year-old king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and his powerful position as crown prince could allow him to lead Islam in a different direction in the 21st century.

Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince in 2017, and immediately assumed the positions of Chief of the Royal Court, Minister of State, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, all at the age of 32. This made him the youngest minister of defence in the world. But despite his age, MBS has made his presence felt in the Islamic community. In 2018, he was recognised by the “Muslim 500” (an annual list of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims) as the 13th most powerful Islamic leader and the 7th most powerful political leader. He has a PhD in International Law and is fluent in Arabic, English and French. He is one of the youngest billionaires in the world with an estimated net worth of more than $10 billion.

The crown prince has come to represent a new ‘face’ of Islam, and his reforms are challenging the conservative views of religious clerics in Saudi Arabia. In his future role as king, which could span decades, he would assume the roles of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, controller of the world’s largest oil reserves, head of the world’s largest Da’wa (Islamic ‘missions’) network and head of a nine-state coalition in the region.

On 24 October 2017, MBS addressed some 3,500 delegates from around the world, saying the following:  “We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today. We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” These were not the words of a secular European Muslim leader seeking solidarity as a minority in a Christian community – these were the words of one of the most powerful leaders in Islam today.

The potentially faith-changing declaration echoed around the world, and pointed to some kind of Islamic ‘reformation’. Since then, MBS has spearheaded some real changes that have been sweeping and were unthinkable a few years ago. He has limited the powers of the ‘religious police’ who enforced gender segregation and conservative public dress codes for women, and young people can be seen mixing on streets and in cafés where music is played. A few Saudi women have been emboldened to uncover their hair and wear colourful robes. The crown prince also lifted a ban on women driving, allowed the staging of concerts and approved the opening of the first movie theatre in many years.

The next few years are likely to be a defining season, not only for Saudi Arabia but also for Islam around the globe. Within Islam, a clash of doctrines and theologies is expected, and MBS is positioned to be a key role-player within these battles.


Any ‘reformation’ within Islam will impact Muslims and the way they practice and express their faith in modern society. But a ‘reformed’ Islam will also affect the way non-Muslims on the outside perceive the religion in a modern society.

A major challenge for reformers in the Muslim world is that Islam encompasses a conservative and conformist culture, not just a strict religion. Changing a religion is much easier than changing a culture, and reforming Islam in a non-Muslim country like the United States would be far simpler than in a country with a conservative culture like Saudi Arabia. Conversely, if changes do happen in Saudi Arabia (the ‘heart’ of Islam), they are likely to filter into other Muslim communities in the West. And the Church needs to be ready to respond.

Most young Muslims who have access to television and have tasted or glimpsed freedoms of thoughts and dreams support the ‘liberalising’ of Islam. Reforming Islam could encourage those who are disillusioned with a controlling religion to also consider other faith alternatives. This is most likely to happen in places where Muslims are a minority and there is freedom to explore different faiths, such as in Europe where many Middle Eastern refugees have settled. In such contexts, the Church needs to be prepared to reach out and engage with those who are seeking answers in eternal matters.

There are also those who grew up in an Islamic culture and are seeking more than a traditional faith. Among these Muslims too, there could be a flow of converts and a ripening of the harvest field as leading figures like MBS implement changes in long-held practices.

Strategies for strengthening the Church in the Middle East should be a priority of the Church in the West, at a time when opportunities are growing and before these opportunities disappear.



  • For more opportunities for Saudi women to be exposed to the gospel as they begin to experience greater freedom
  • For a loosening of restrictions on belief
  • For the Lord’s Kingdom to be advanced in Saudi Arabia