While Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and deputy crown prince headed to America for a summit with President Barack Obama and other officials from the Persian Gulf states, King Salman stayed home, ostensibly to supervise a humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen.
Now that he is no longer headed to the US to meet President Obama, what is the Saudi monarch doing with his open schedule? While the king took time to inaugurate a Yemen relief center in Riyadh on Wednesday, he also took advantage of another free day on Tuesday to host a group of senior princes and religious officials at his palace.
Included in the meeting were some of Arabia’s most offensive clerics.
Seated immediately to the king’s left and seen chatting with him during the event was Saleh Mohammed al-Luhaidan, whom the late King Abdullah once suspended from his position as the government’s top judge after calling for the execution of Muslim media owners who broadcast “depravity.” In 2005, during the US's occupation of Iraq, Luhaidan also reportedly encouraged any young Saudi who “is capable of entering Iraq in order to join the fight” to travel to the country. Last December, Reuters characterized him as one of the older conservatives who, along with Saleh al-Fawzan, “dominat[e]” the state’s high-ranking religious establishment.
Fawzan, meanwhile, was seated two spots past Luhaidan from King Salman and was photographed enthusiastically shaking the king’s hand. Fawzan is notorious for advocating slavery, insisting that the sun revolves around the earth, and calling for racist anti-miscegenation laws to ban Arab Muslims from marrying non-Arabs. He has also allegedly peddled the outrageous conspiracy theory that the Islamic State is a creation of “Zionists, Crusaders, and Safavids.”
President Obama hosted a top Saudi prince Wednesday morning at the Oval Office, Mohammed bin Nayef Al Saud, the king's heir. Saudi media reported that Bin Nayef specifically sought out and kissed Fawzan during a ceremony last month when Saudi elites came to pledge loyalty to him as the new crown prince.
Sitting next over from Fawzan and likely also photographed reaching for King Salman’s hand was Saleh bin Humeid, who delivered a sermon at Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca last year condemning homosexuality as an affliction that “seeks to strip man of his humanity” and “darkens and covers the soul.”
It's worth noting that government-published Saudi textbooks, at least as of last year, taught students that the only debate worth having about LGBT individuals is how best to murder them.
Two other Saudi clerics seated just to the side of the king appear to have been Abdullah al-Mutlaq and Abdullah al-Turki, both of whom have used their positions of authority to promote anti-Semitism.
According to the Dubai-based Gulf News, when 15 Arab-Israeli students getting their Masters in counseling from the University of Haifa created a website with Quranic resources on the subject, Mutlaq condemned it as a tool “to serve Israeli Zionist projects in the world.” The Emirati paper elaborated: “in a statement to Gulf News, Dr. Al Mutlaq stressed that the Israeli Quranet project should not be trusted by Muslims since it is run by Jews who openly show their hatred to Islam and Muslims.” Mutlaq also has forbidden men and women from even digitally interacting with each other through social media.
Abdullah al-Turki, meanwhile, is chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League, which has strived to spread the kingdom’s austere brand of Salafism to Muslim communities around the world. Two years ago, Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who is under International Criminal Court indictment for genocide and crimes against humanity, awarded al-Turki his government’s “First-Class Order of Two Niles” medal in recognition of his proselytization in this regard.
But translation of the Quran’s message into Hebrew apparently was going too far for al-Turki, who reportedly called it “an attempt to realize their [Israelis] aim of enmity toward the religion of Islam” and that “the Jews’ distortion of the book of Allah … is not a new matter — it is the natural disposition of the Jews who inherited this deception from their forefathers.” His statement concluded that “the new Hebrew translation of the meaning of the Holy Qur’an adds a new perfidy to the perfidies of the Jews.”
The nominal reason these preachers have a position at the King of Saudi Arabia’s side is their status as members of the state’s highest religious body, the Senior Ulema Council. But this lofty official status is itself an indicator of how intolerance passes for normal within Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored religious sector.
When King Salman inherited the throne in January, he dismissed only one member of the Council: a jurist considered to be a relative reformer. Salman also fired a cleric who had been seeking to constrain the kingdom’s repressive religious police. According to the Wall Street Journal, the vigilante force has subsequently become more aggressive since King Salman came to power.
The new king also appointed a cleric named Nasser al-Shethri as an advisor to his court. Shethri’s preferred means of condemning the Islamic State is by calling it “more infidel than Jews and Christians.”
Lastly, the new king’s choice for Minister of Islamic Affairs proclaimed just last year that Islam is under “attack” by “a dangerous triad of Jews and Christians and polytheists,” a common derogatory term in Saudi Arabia for Shi’ite Muslims.
That King Salman would surround himself with such a rogues' gallery suggests that predictions he would be a reformer upon inheriting the throne were tragically and perhaps comically off the mark. The monarch, who has been centralizing authoritarian power in the hands of an even narrower clique, is no moderate, and he is certainly no reformer. US decision-makers should take note.
No doubt, tamping down the logic of sectarian warfare in the region requires pushing back against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, which should be a key focus of tomorrow’s summit.
It also requires tough talk with Saudi leaders at Camp David and beyond.
David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg