Of the many seismic political changes in Saudi Arabia in the King Salman era, perhaps none is more surprising than the weakening of the place of the Wahhabi religious creed and establishment. Evidence of the break with this once foundational religious interpretation and political class is now too clear to be denied. The changes extend from the limitation of authority over social norms, with the ending of the enforcement powers of the religious police in 2016; the curtailment of independent legal reasoning and control over courts with the impending reformation of the legal system, first hinted at by a public re-interpretation of hadith in an interview with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2021; to the erasure of Mohammed ibn Abdel Wahhab from the country's founding narrative with the establishment of a new "Founding Day" in 2022. From public life, to the courts, to the nation's very history: all indicate the rapid transition into the post-Wahhabi era.
How is such a profound break being achieved? And who are the new elites being brought to the fore?
Religious reformers and loyalists
Part of the story is surely one of replacement. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself announced an overhaul in a speech launching the country's Vision 2030 economic program before global investors in 2017, stating forthrightly, “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly, we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”
This speech was immediately preceded by a campaign to arrest or to sideline both hardline clerics as well as influential reformers perceived as insufficiently deferential to the Crown Prince and his program. All were demonized under the moniker of the now rejected Sahwa, the religious revival by Muslim Brotherhood-influenced clerics which had predominated in both state and social institutions. In 2019, a popular cleric, Aid al-Qarni, was enlisted to publicly confess and apologize for the sins of the Sahwa movement and to affirm its demise.
In their stead has been the promotion of clerics associated with the Crown Prince's program of religious change. Most prominent amongst these new religious elites is Mohammed al-Issa, the Secretary General of the Muslim World League (MWL), who could fairly be characterized as the spokesperson for this "moderate Islam”. The former Minister of Justice from 2009-2015, al-Issa was appointed to the MWL in 2016 and serves on the Council of Senior Scholars, the highest religious body in the Kingdom. Once the lead organization of pan-Islamic activism, the MWL under al-Issa has turned its focus to interfaith dialogue and to encouraging Muslim's residing in the West to abide by laws and respect the predominant culture in the countries in which they live. Al-Issa regularly undertakes high-profile missions abroad such as visiting Auschwitz and most recently convened the first ever assembly of world faith leaders within the Kingdom.
There are other religious elite who have gained favor in this new era, among them Dr. Sulaiman Abu Al-Khail, the chancellor of Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University; Adel al-Kalbani, an Imam at the Great Mosque in Mecca; and Dr. Walid bin Mohammed al-Samaani, the Minister of Justice. Yet these clerics tend to be selectively promoted at key moments or in key areas in which they are useful to the leadership and its program. Indeed, one could argue that religious discourse and programmatic authority are being concentrated in the hands of al-Issa. This includes the raising of his public profile domestically through media appearances such as a prominent Ramadan television program, and his leadership in new security bodies concerned with countering extremism from his position heading the Intellectual Warfare Center, a new body affiliated with the Saudi Ministry of Defense.
Clearly not all members of the religious establishment are true believers in the Crown Prince's approach to religion. Many members of the Higher Council of Scholars are on record criticizing aspects of the Vision 2030 program, and notably, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abdelaziz Al Sheikh publicly criticized the opening of cinemas and concerts due it leading to gender mixing. Instead, these clerics are better understood as remaining bound to the directive of wali al-amr or obedience to the ruler and advising him privately. The purge of more political-minded or critical clerics, both from courts and higher education, has certainly increased the numbers of these clerics adopting this loyalist approach.
The new non-religious elite
Still this story of the swapping of one set of religious elites with others of a more favorable or malleable interpretation fails to capture the full dynamic of what is happening in Saudi Arabia today. I would argue that the religious elite are not only being replaced, they are also being displaced with the decline in the overall representation of religion among Saudi elites and in Saudi public life more generally.
A fascinating analysis of this dynamic is provided by the Saudi legal sociologist Lojain al-Yamani in an upcoming study on legal reform and legal culture in the kingdom. As the codification of Saudi law advances, she asserts, a new class of legal experts are generating a new Saudi legal culture. These experts are being given a prominent role in public, she argues, introducing legal podcasts and call in shows that echo the fatwa-programs that have long been the purview of the old religious elite. This dynamic is replicated in other areas, such as in the way the more "secular" Public Decency lawshave replaced the religious-based public norms once enforced by the religious police.
One could likewise argue that the new entertainment culture is - quite intentionally - looking to displace to some degree the religious educational and civil society organizations that once dominated Saudi life. For example, the decline of the Jeddah-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth, once one of the largest Muslim youth organizations in the world, has been paralleled by the rise of the Muhammed bin Salman Foundation, or MISK, a charity providing Saudi youth with funding and educational opportunities in technology and creative fields. And the eleven new commissions established by the Ministry of Culture have identified and are already promoting new cultural elites in film, fashion, and visual arts, to name just a few. These cultural personalities are covered extensively in social and traditional Saudi media, as they attend events like the Cannes Film Festival, and the Venice Arts Biennale - something that could not have occurred previously.
Even as a source of values, religion is finding new competition in state initiatives such as the Saudi Character Enrichment Program, recently merged to create the Human Capability Development Program. Efforts here are concentrated on fleshing out the meaning of "moderate Islam" by identifying the new Saudi values in hard work, ambition, and optimism. Much like Max Weber's protestant ethic, such programs look to inculcate values consonant with work ethics of productivity, and to present new role models achieving entrepreneurial success.
Younger and more diverse elites
The shift in the Saudi religious program and the adoption of a program of "moderate Islam" has brought new religious elites to the fore, which while maintaining many old religious elites in religious councils, courts, and education, has resigned them to less public prominence.
In their place a new ruling class is emerging - in law, in entertainment, and in entrepreneurship. This projection beyond the religious field has yielded leaders who are more diverse: younger, more globally connected (or at least differently so) and with a much more pronounced female presence. Tomorrow's Saudi elite will draw much less from the religious field than it has in its history.
 The collection of traditions and sayings of the prophet Muhammad representing a major source of religious law and moral guidance.