Saudi Arabias Shift: From Spreading Wahhabism to Embracing Openness and Reforms

Sami Al-qsaimi

2024 / 5 / 31


For decades, Saudi Arabia has played a key role in spreading Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, throughout the Islamic world. The Kingdom used this role as a means to enhance its political and religious influence, funding schools, mosques, and Islamic institutions that promote this ideology. However, with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the new reforms adopted by the Kingdom, it seems that Saudi Arabia has abandoned this role, moving towards openness and entertainment to increase its tourism income. In this article, we will discuss how Saudi Arabia used and spread Wahhabism, the impact on neighboring countries, and how Saudi Arabia is now moving towards a different path while other countries suffer from the consequences of this spread.

Spreading Wahhabism: Reasons and Means
Religious Politics and Saudi Funding

Since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has been using its oil wealth to spread Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world. This was done by funding the construction of mosques and religious schools, sending preachers, and distributing free religious books. The goal was to enhance the Kingdom s influence and address intellectual and political challenges from secular nationalist movements and Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. According to multiple sources, it is estimated that the Kingdom spent billions of dollars on these efforts, making Wahhabism part of the religious identity in many countries.

Impact on Neighboring Countries

1. Social and Cultural Impacts Saudi funding led to the spread of strict religious values and traditions in countries like Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, and others. These policies contributed to the decline of women s rights, the restriction of personal freedoms, and the reinforcement of sectarian divisions. Societies that adopted Wahhabism became less tolerant and more closed, affecting social and cultural progress in these countries.

2. Economic Impacts Some countries relied on Saudi funding to support their religious and charitable projects. When Saudi Arabia stopped this funding, these countries faced a severe resource shortage, leading to economic deterioration and increased poverty.

3. Political Impacts Using religion as a tool for political control led to instability in many countries. Sectarian and political tensions increased due to Saudi support for extremist Islamic movements, leading to internal conflicts and social divisions. Extremist groups that emerged from Wahhabism, such as ISIS, contributed to the destruction of many countries in the region.

The Rise of Terrorist Groups and Their Impact
The Afghan Jihad and Its Impact

Saudi Arabia supported Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s with funding and armaments as part of international efforts led by the United States to counter the Soviet --union--. After the war ended, some of these mujahideen turned into extremist movements, such as Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, was one of these mujahideen and used the resources and experiences he gained during the Afghan war to carry out global terrorist attacks, most notably the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Afghan jihad experience contributed to the creation of a global network of Islamic fighters who received extensive training and funding, later leading to instability in many countries.

The Emergence of ISIS

The Islamic State (ISIS) is considered one of the most violent terrorist groups in modern history. Although the Kingdom did not --dir--ectly support ISIS, the intellectual environment that emerged from the spread of Wahhabism contributed to the rise of such groups. ISIS adopted strict interpretations of Islam and promoted violence and terrorism in the name of religion, causing widespread destruction in Iraq and Syria and displacing millions of people.

Saudi Change: From Wahhabism to Openness and Reforms Led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took office, Saudi Arabia has been adopting radical reforms aimed at modernizing Saudi society and reducing its reliance on oil. These reforms include Vision 2030, which aims to diversify the Saudi economy and develop new sectors such as tourism and entertainment. The Kingdom is now seeking to attract tourists from around the world by developing massive projects like the city of NEOM, holding festivals and concerts, and easing social restrictions such as allowing women to drive and work in new fields. The goal is to create a new image of the Kingdom as a modern and open state.

Towards Tourism and Openness

Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in the tourism and entertainment industry, reflecting a significant shift in its internal and external policies. This shift comes at a time when neighboring countries are moving towards more turmoil due to the vacuum left by the withdrawal of Saudi support for their religious and social institutions.

Abandoning Neighboring Countries: Consequences and Implications
Deteriorating Conditions in Neighboring Countries

As Saudi Arabia turns towards internal reforms and openness, the Kingdom has stopped supporting religious institutions in neighboring countries. This abandonment has left these countries struggling with the vacuum created by the cessation of Saudi funding. Yemen, for example, is suffering from an ongoing civil war and severe economic and humanitarian deterioration. Syria, Iraq, and other areas are experiencing similar impacts due to the withdrawal of Saudi support and increasing sectarian and political tensions.

Saudi Responsibility

Saudi Arabia, which was the main driver in spreading Wahhabism in these countries, now bears significant responsibility for rectifying the damage it caused. It is crucial for the Kingdom to adopt compensatory policies that support economic and social development in these countries and help promote stability and peace. There are increasing calls for the Kingdom to undertake a reverse process aimed at funding developmental and educational programs to eradicate extremist ideas and spread moderate thought.

Calls for Reverse Reform

Saudi Arabia should invest its money in projects that help improve infrastructure and the economy in neighboring countries, and support human rights organizations and civil society to promote freedoms and women s rights. In this way, Saudi Arabia can contribute to restoring stability and growth in the region, thereby enhancing peace and prosperity for all.
International Criticism of Saudi Arabia
International criticism focuses on how Saudi Arabia used its financial resources to spread Wahhabism and turn it into a political and religious tool for control and influence. This trend reflects Saudi Arabia s attempts to rewrite its history and reduce the role of Wahhabism in shaping the modern Saudi state, in its pursuit to improve its international image and present itself as a modern and open state.


Saudi Arabia plays a complex and contradictory role in the Islamic world. On the one hand, it contributed to the spread of Wahhabism, which led to the radicalization of some groups and the destabilization of many countries. On the other hand, it is now moving towards a new path aimed at openness and modernization. Saudi Arabia bears an ethical and political responsibility to rectify the damage caused by the spread of extremist ideology. By adopting compensatory policies and supporting development in neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia can contribute to restoring stability and growth in the region, thereby enhancing peace and prosperity for all.
The impact of Saudi policies on neighboring countries has had many negative aspects, from the proliferation of conservative thought to economic and political impacts. These countries need to work on improving their internal conditions and developing new policies to achieve progress and stability. Through international cooperation and internal reforms, these countries can overcome the challenges they face and build a better future for their people. Saudi Arabia, as a major regional power with significant influence, bears an ethical and political responsibility to rectify the damage caused by the spread of extremist ideology. By funding developmental and educational projects and supporting human rights, Saudi Arabia can contribute to restoring stability and growth in neighboring countries, thereby enhancing peace and prosperity throughout the region.
Modern Discussion