As the country looks to change its international image, new debates about the future of the Kingdom open up contentious questions between conservatives and those of a more liberal persuasion.

The Saudi Crown Prince and heir apparent to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), saw an ally pass away last week.

Ali Al-Huwairini was seen by some amongst the Saudi elite as a liberal and reform minded individual - a man of his time given the different direction that MBS has sought to chart the absolute monarchy towards.

A Saudi actor, director, thinker and poet, and the first Saudi to earn a degree in film directing from Hollywood, Al-Huwairini, was also known for what some considered controversial views on Islamic history, and his passing has once again sparked debate about the ongoing "reforms" in Saudi Arabia.

In an interview in recent years, Al-Huwairini called the Islamic presence in Al-Andalus, which was the Muslim-ruled area in the Iberian peninsula, as a form of "Arab backwardness."

Most of the Iberian peninsula was controlled by Muslims from the 8th to 15th century and is widely considered by historians as one of the golden periods of Islam and a key conduit to the transfer of knowledge in medieval Europe.

For more than 800 years, Al-Andalus was a centre of knowledge for both the Muslim world and Europe. The Iberian peninsula was ultimately re-conquered in what is known as the Christian Reconquista - led by several Spanish monarchs - who destroyed much of what had been built, leaving only the world-famous Alhambra palace standing.

When asked about this period, Al-Huwairini dismissively rejected any notion that anything of significance occurred in the region.

"These are aspects of culture that we have no right to be proud of. What's there to be proud of? 800 years and you left nothing behind except the Alhambra?" he said.

Al-Huwairini’s interpretation of Muslim expansion to the Iberian peninsula by "sword of the Arab" viewed Islamic history from a narrative that some have said is akin to "demonising" Islam and Muslims.

"Islam isn't an expansionist [movement]. Islam is a conveyed message. Convey Islam and leave him to accept it within his abilities: don't force your level of belief on me," Al-Huwairini said.

Western academics in recent decades have concluded that Islamic states across the Muslim world rarely, if ever, had policies that forced local populations to convert.

Al-Huwairini views on Islamic history, however, also reflected a changing zeitgeist within Saudi Arabia in recent years.

Saudi Arabia has sought to re-frame Islam in the Kingdom. Increasingly Islamic scholars that offer anything but praise towards the new reforms have either stopped speaking in public or are behind bars.

According to one analyst, religious identity in the Kingdom has become "incompatible with the current leadership's vision." In its place, Saudi Arabia's rising leader has cultivated "a new nationalism aimed at guaranteeing the rise to power of a younger leadership and bolstering an accompanying programme of radical reform."

One recent example of the new social shift in the increasingly less conservative Kingdom is the four-day electronic music festival held in the country's capital at the close of last year.

The authorities boasted that the festival attracted more than 700,000 visitors in an effort to shape a new image about the country.

In another move that raised some eyebrows, the Kingdom also implemented new rules at the Great Mosque of Makkah, Islam's holiest site, which required worshipers to socially distance in a bid to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Again, a rule that seemingly didn't apply to a music festival - the contrast could not have been more stark.

It's hard to gauge how popular such moves are in a country that is not only the home of Islam but whose identity and culture is so steeped in faith and conservatism.

But in replacing one form of top-down requirement of obedience with another more nationalist framework that "demands the loyalty of the population" to the project, according to a Saudi analyst, risks creating new fissures in a society not accustomed to rapid changes uproot settled social norms.

Source: TRT World