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Project April 1, 2014

Saudi Arabia's Shifting Islamic Landscape

Image by Caryle Murphy. Saudi Arabia, 2014.

The religious landscape of Saudi Arabia, a state founded on religion, is being altered by new forces from outside and inside the kingdom. External forces include sharpened tensions between Sunni and Shia; the rise of politically-oriented Salafism and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a major political force.

Internally, new influences are social media, rising education levels among the kingdom's largest-ever "youth bulge," increased exposure to non-Saudi cultures, and growing strains between the exigencies of national development and the ultraconservative Wahhabist religious mandates formally espoused by the state.

Wahhabi dominance in Saudi cultural and social spheres has eroded as young people search for a more appropriate application of Islam in tune with their problems and aspirations. Atheism is said to be growing.

Politically, religious hardliners have lost influence within the government, although they remain dominant in the courts and education.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government has broken with the Muslim Brotherhood, declaring it a "terrorist" group and making it unlawful to show any support—a move likely to have repercussions for the government because the influential movement has thousands of Saudi sympathizers.

The kingdom's evolving religious landscape will impact its future governance because of the legitimacy that religion bestows on the royal family. The Saudi state will continue to use Islam to reinforce its authority. But it may have to allow more religious diversity and non-Wahhabi voices than in the past in order to maintain domestic peace and attain its goal of becoming a globally competitive economy.