Why you should care
Because Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman isn’t letting anyone oppose the House of Saud.
On a hot September night in 1994, hundreds of people gathered in a city in northern Saudi Arabia to listen to a 37-year-old cleric. Wearing a traditional ankle-length white tunic, he called for reform in the Gulf kingdom, criticizing the ruling family for betraying the laws of Islam and refusing to share power. When he was done, the crowd followed him into the streets of Buraydah, the heartland of Wahhabism. The House of Saud was on notice that Salman al-Awda had become a fervent voice of dissent, unafraid to issue a direct challenge.
At the time, authorities preferred to pacify, co-opt or buy off opponents rather than persecute them — unless they were jihadis. But such a brazen act of defiance resulted in al-Awda’s immediate arrest, along with those of more than a thousand of his supporters.
“The Saudi state didn’t practice the kind of heavy-handed, blind repression that other countries in the region practiced. It wasn’t used to putting 1,000 people in jail,” says Stéphane Lacroix, a scholar of politics and religion in the Gulf and the author of Awakening Islam.
The crackdown in Buraydah was unprecedented, and an early foreshadowing of how the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS) rules the kingdom today. Al-Awda was released after five years, but 23 years later, MBS had the sheikh arrested after he tweeted in September 2017 to millions of his followers that he hoped Saudi Arabia and Qatar could reconcile their differences. Al-Awda, now 62, is facing the death penalty while being held in solitary confinement, his health deteriorating.
Human rights groups see al-Awda’s recent arrest as part of a larger campaign by the crown prince to silence dissent and any perceived rival. But the outspoken cleric may have also been targeted for a very specific reason: He serves as the face of a rebellious generation known as the Sahwa, or Awakening.
Sahwa was inspired by the tenets of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members took refuge in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and ’60s after fleeing persecution in Egypt and Syria. Hundreds of these exiles were hired by government ministries and given prominent posts in universities. Over time, they cultivated a generation of politically conscious Saudis pushing for greater rights and demanding that Islam play a larger role in the ultraconservative kingdom.
The House of Saud was unaware of the growing internal threat — until Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. King Fahd feared that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would come after his oil next, so he called on his ally the United States, which sent hundreds of thousands of troops to defend the kingdom.
The decision enraged young Saudis — including al-Awda.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi expert on politics and religion in the Arab world and a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics, says the mass opposition to American troops was rooted in questions of sovereignty. Having financed so many foreign wars — the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein against Iran — Saudis were skeptical that their country couldn’t defend itself. “There were U.S. troops all over the place and even American women driving in the kingdom. It was very overwhelming,” says al-Rasheed.
Al-Awda, an Islamist and nationalist, emerged as a popular voice to articulate the collective grievances. He delivered fiery sermons in homes and mosques criticizing the presence of American troops as un-Islamic. His lectures were recorded on cassettes and distributed to tens of thousands of people throughout the kingdom. Sa’ad al-Faqih, a political exile who knew al-Awda, remembers listening to his speeches. “His sermons spoke to the ordinary man without using overblown political language,” al-Faqih tells me from his home in London. “He knew not to give the regime ammunition.”
Al-Awda wasn’t like anybody in the state-backed clergy. He had street credibility.
Ali al-Ahmed, Saudi journalist
In the winter of 1992, al-Awda signed his name to a 46-page document titled “The Memorandum of Advice,” which in turn was signed by 109 religious figures, including members of the state-backed clergy. It was the first time religious scholars attempted to undo the founding pact of Saudi Arabia — established in 1744 — which gave the father of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, control over social norms and religion as long as the House of Saud ruled Arabia unchallenged.
But al-Awda was issuing calls for the House of Saud to share power, even after King Fahd removed him from his university post and ordered him to stop speaking in public. “Al-Awda wasn’t like anybody in the state-backed clergy,” says Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi journalist living in the U.S. “He had street credibility.”
Then came the September night in 1994, followed by al-Awda’s arrest and imprisonment. He was treated relatively well during his five-year incarceration and released after agreeing to help the House of Saud combat the growing threat of extremism. That was then. Today he awaits a trial that is set to begin in December, his persecution a warning of the deadly consequences of awakening in the Saudi kingdom.