EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: While purporting to be focused on promoting a more tolerant form of Islam, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is instituting reforms that are designed to centralize power around himself. His moves include embracing European and Western far-right groups that are hardly beacons of tolerance and respect.
Saudi funding, which was traditionally focused on ultra-conservative Sunni Islam, has been streamlined and fine-tuned in the era of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to ensure that it serves his geopolitical ambitions. Those ambitions primarily include stymying the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and North Africa and enhancing the kingdom’s global impact.
This effort has produced a mixed bag so far. Spending is down but more targeted. Saudi Arabia has, for example, handed over control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels in a move designed to demonstrate the kingdom’s newly found moderation and to reduce the reputational damage of a Saudi ultra-conservative management that had become contentious in Belgium. Yet monies still flow to militant, ultra-conservative madrassas (religious seminaries) that dot the Pakistani-Iranian border. The kingdom’s focus, moreover, has shifted in selected countries to the promotion of a strand of Salafi ultra-conservatism that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler, a corollary to Prince Muhammad’s crackdown on critics and activists at home.