Saudi Arabia and Interfaith Dialogue

“The trials and disasters that we are undergoing are actually opportunities and challenges that demand that all of us do some introspection, re-examine our positions, and correct the flaws – so as to emerge from [the crises] stronger than when we encountered them. The [most] lethal disaster is to face crises while doing nothing and without making decisions, which accusing others [instead of] dedicating ourselves to our role, taking full responsibility. Changing the unfortunate reality will only happen if we first change ourselves…”

– King Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud, Muscat, December 2001

Last week members of different faiths gathered in Geneva to continue the interfaith dialogue initiated by Saudi King Abdullah in November 2007 when he visited the Vatican and met Pope Benedict XVI. This week’s gathering in Geneva follows on similar interfaith sessions organized by the Saudi monarch in Madrid in July 2008, and at the United Nations in New York in November 2008.

Underlying the initiative is the Saudi King’s understanding that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance and not one of violent extremism. Addressing 500 Muslim delegates from 50 Muslim countries last June in Mecca, King Abdullah declared, “You have gathered today to tell the whole world that we … are a voice of justice and values and humanity, that we are a voice of coexistence and a just and rational dialogue.”

Sunni-Shiite Dialogue

It is equally clear that he understands that whilst there is an urgent need for an interfaith dialogue, there is also a need for an intrafaith dialogue within Islam – for instance given the historic animosity between Sunnis and Shiites. For this reason, King Abdullah entered the conference room in June 2008 with powerful Iranian cleric and politician Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who sat next to King Abdullah on the stage.

The symbolism was not lost on the delegates. For his part, Ayatollah Rafsanjani called for greater understanding between Sunnis and Shiites and told the audience, “We should support each other … not weaken each other or sully each other’s reputation. As a Muslim and a Shiite and an expert in Islamic issues … I tell you that there are many things in common between us and there’s no need to look at differences.”

For King Abdullah, his initiative is more than mere words at conferences. It is also actions that reflect in the kingdom’s domestic and foreign policy. At the level of intrafaith dialogue, there has been a legitimation of the Shafi’i, Hanafi and Maliki religious schools of jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia, in addition to the dominant Wahhabi-Hanbali school. This legitimation has taken the form of the appointment of members of these schools to the Senior Clerics Council, the country’s supreme religious institution.

At the level of interfaith dialogue, Jewish Rabbis have also participated in these Saudi-sponsored conferences. Within Saudi foreign policy, this is seen in Riyadh’s promotion of the peace process between Israel and the Arab world through the Beirut Peace Plan, which proposes full recognition of the State of Israel in exchange for Israel returning to the 1967 borders.

There are some detractors, however, who view King Abdullah’s interfaith dialogue as merely a giant public relations exercise. These further argue that the Kingdom and its intolerant Wahhabist creed undermine the human rights of the proverbial other and that Saudi Arabia remains a breeding ground for terrorism. Such a position, however, assumes that there are no changes taking place in the Kingdom. Such a position is patently false and does a grave disservice to the reforms the King has undertaken. Consider the following:

  • The Chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, the ultra-conservative Sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan was fired from his post. He was infamous for issuing a fatwa permitting the killing of the owners of satellite television channels on the basis that they were spreading corruption
  • Another arch-conservative, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith, Director-General of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – the religious police – was also summarily dismissed and his organization has had their powers curtailed.
  • The recent appointment of Dr Noura al-Fayez as Deputy Education Minister represents a watershed in Saudi politics since it is the first time that a woman holds a ministerial post. The Saudi Shura Council has also approved the International Labour Organization recommendation demanding the implementation of absolute equality between men and women and condemning discrimination against women.
  • At the level of counter-terrorism, Saudi Arabia has arrested over 500 Al Qaeda operatives and thwarted 180 attempts to carry out attacks in the Kingdom since 2008. In addition, over 3,200 extremist preachers lost their jobs whilst extremist literature was removed from schools
  • This is the point, change is occurring inside Saudi Arabia and these changes are also reflected internationally by such initiatives as the interfaith dialogue.

    In Geneva last week, 127 delegates representing every major faith and region in the world dialogued on the need for common human values and the need for peaceful coexistence. Delegates opposed the notion of a clash of civilizations, which the media continues to promote, and spoke of the need for a dialogue of civilizations. In a world increasingly beset by religious cleavages and strife, this is a welcome initiative and should be supported by all.

    That being said, however, there is still a need to transform a noble initiative into a workable plan of action. In Geneva, for instance, discussions and papers presented covered aspects as diverse as prostitution, economics and the environment. In addition, issues of narcotics, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Turkey’s proposed membership of the European Union and the Israeli-Palestinian and India-Pakistan conflicts were also discussed. This unfortunately is more a wish-list than a plan of action that can be implemented.


    For the vision to be translated into reality, several measures have to be taken. First, prioritize.

    Choose no more than three areas of priority so resources are not uselessly expended over a wide array of initiatives which, whilst well-meaning, do not go anywhere.

    Second, link each of these priority areas with specific outcomes and timeframes.

    Third, a dedicated secretariat should be established and should be tasked with the overall strategic planning and coordination to ensure that the specified objectives in the priority areas are met in the timeframes specified.

    Fourth, national chapters that will engage in research and advocacy work should be established in each country, and an interface needs to be created between national chapters and the international secretariat.

    Finally, strategic partnerships need to be developed between this initiative and other like-minded partners such as the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations. Only in this way will vision be translated into reality.

    The views reflected in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IIIS.

    The International Institute of Islamic Studies (IIIS) aims to provide insight and solutions to issues associated with the Islamic world.