Sheikh Salman al-Ouda has been a towering yet ambivalent figure in Saudi Arabia for decades. His critics describe him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, while his supporters hail him as a moderate voice in the ultraconservative kingdom.
Even if one believes the latter, al-Ouda was not always a moderate. In the early 1990s, he belonged to Sahwa ( ‘awakening’), a movement inspired by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. His charismatic lectures and exhortations to jihad attracted the attention of the notorious al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who praised al-Ouda for ‘enlightening’ Muslim youth.
Despite the endorsement from extremists, al-Ouda’s followers say that he never explicitly sanctioned violence. However, he was a fiery political critic, like many of his peers in Sahwa. In 1991, the movement criticized the ruling family for allowing American troops into Saudi Arabia to push back Iraqi forces.
Tension mounted as Sahwa continued to pressure King Fahd to adopt political reforms. While Sahwa’s leaders claimed that they were the true voice of the people, the movement remained quite loyal to the state. The movement’s activism nonetheless violated the traditional relationship between the religious establishment and the ruling elite. The former was historically charged with controlling culture and religious affairs in the country, while the latter enjoyed a complete monopoly over politics.
Threatened by Sahwa’s political ambitions, the kingdom jailed al-Ouda and other prominent figures in 1994. When al-Ouda was released in 1999, he seemed to be a changed man.
His son, Abdullah al-Ouda, said that his father read many of the thinkers of the al-Nahda – or Arab enlightenment – in prison. These texts, claimed Abdullah, had a profound impact on his father’s evolution as a thinker and a sheikh.
“My father looks at himself as somebody that must always evolve,” Abdullah told Fanack Chronicle over the phone.
“In prison, he read everything he could get his hands on. Many of the views he absorbed made him more moderate on social issues.”
That might have been the case. But Dr Saad al-Fagih, a prominent Saudi dissenter and the director of the Movement of Reform in Arabia, suggested that al-Ouda wanted to become more of a celebrity than a sheikh once he left prison.
“Al-Ouda was sincere in his public image, but his advisors told him that he needed to become more liberal to reach a wider audience,” al-Fagih said.
Whatever his motivation, al-Ouda’s rhetoric became noticeably less sectarian. He also advocated fewer restrictions on women compared to his hardline counterparts in the state-backed clergy. As his views transformed, his following grew exponentially, so much so that the state joined forces with him to combat the growing threat of religious extremism. Al-Fagih said that the terms of the arrangement were clear: al-Ouda could say anything he wanted but could not undermine the ruling family.
The contradiction, al-Fagih argued, was that the regime’s crackdown on Sahwa and other political movements pushed many youth towards extremism in the first place. Nevertheless, al-Ouda took an explicitly oppositional stance to global jihad. He even shocked the Muslim world in 2007 when he published a letter to Bin Laden on the anniversary of 9/11.
‘My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt?’ the letter read. ‘How many innocent people, women, children and the elderly have been killed or displaced in the name of al-Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God Almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions on your back?’
Ten years later, the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) saw the elderly sheikh as more of a threat than an asset to his rule. On 9 September 2017, MBS ordered the arrest of al-Ouda for posting a tweet that read: ‘May God harmonize between their hearts for the good of their people’ – an apparent call for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been at loggerheads over Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism for more than a year.
“The House of Saud doesn’t have a problem with my father. It’s just MBS and his father who are after my father,” Abdullah al-Ouda told Fanack Chronicle. “My father has two characteristics that neither of those men have. He has religious legitimacy and his rhetoric is democratic, which runs counter to the ambitions of MBS.”
A year after his arrest, al-Ouda has been charged with 37 crimes, including spreading discord and incitement against the ruler. Abdullah says that his father is still languishing in prison, where he has been denied access to books except for the Koran. The Saudi courts are pushing for a death sentence.
Yehia Assiri, an activist and the director of the London-based Al-QST, which monitors rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, said that al-Ouda did not overtly criticize the kingdom. His arrest and possible death sentence prove that MBS is trying to silence anybody who promotes different views. And just like in 1994, the jailing of opponents risks pushing other dissidents to resort to violence in the name of jihad.
Al-Fagih added that he was not surprised that state-backed courts are trying to kill al-Ouda. MBS, he said, believes that the Middle East must be cleansed of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why he is trying to execute the leaders and scholars of political Islam. Al-Ouda appears to be high on the kill list.
The contradiction, noted Abdullah, is that MBS is presenting himself as a reformer while jailing moderate clerics and human rights activists. Worse still, the crown prince is emboldening religious extremists in the state-backed clergy, some of whom have claimed that all Shia Muslims are infidels. Unlike Salman al-Ouda, those clerics are subservient to MBS.
“The crown prince fears moderates like my father more than he fears jihadists,” said Abdullah. “That’s because the moderates are calling for democracy.”