The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, visits the UK on March 7 for a three-day state visit during which he will meet with Prime Minister Theresa May, government officials and the royal family. A statement from the Prime Minister declared this a ‘new era’.
Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS, as he is known locally, has been praised by some for bringing social and economic reforms to Saudi Arabia. But will this modernisation mean greater freedom for Christians? We spoke to foreign Christians living and working in Saudi Arabia.
“Change is in the air. That is for sure,” one Western Christian, working in Saudi Arabia, said. “Everything is changing. Some people are more open to the Gospel, but others are radicalising.
“This is a crossroads. If it works, it will bring huge change and more freedom to this country. If it fails, Saudi might be the next Yemen - only worse. If the fundamentalists win the battle that is now being fought behind the curtains and spark a civil war, this place will go back to the dark ages. So, this is either going to be a huge awakening or it will be one of the biggest bloodbaths in history.”
‘CHRISTIANS ARE PLANKTON’
With the oil revenues declining, the crown prince aims to make his country less dependent on oil. The goal of modernisation is to draw more foreign investors. In his wave of reforms, MBS has taken on corruption. At the end of 2017, dozens of Saudi Arabia’s political elite were arrested on corruption charges and ordered to pay millions of dollars in fines. Although MBS’s adversaries see his fight against corruption an excuse to take down his political opposition.
According to one Christian this new focus means that currently, no-one in the government seems to care about Christians and churches in Saudi. “Christians are plankton compared to the whales that are now being hunted. So, they simply don’t have time to care. As long as believers keep their heads low and don’t get themselves reported in the government, they will be fine,” she said.
An Indian pastor working and living in Saudi Arabia points out that the Muttawah, Saudi’s religious police department, was stripped of its authority to make arrests in 2016. “Before that, nobody could carry a Bible in the streets without getting arrested and harassed. Now we can,” he said. “Before, it was very dangerous for a non-Christian to visit a Christian meeting but now there is less fear.”
IS IT AS GOOD AS IT SEEMS?
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the speed at which Saudi Arabia has begun to change or the methods involved. “Change can lead to disruption. No-one knows what will happen if large groups of people start feeling left behind in their own country,” warned one man.
The new crown prince may be progressive, but his critics point out that he isn’t peace-loving. He seeks to re-position Saudi Arabia as the most dominant country in the region, seemingly by any means necessary.
By engaging in bloody proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, he attempts to bring Iran’s expansionism to a halt. This continuing interference in neighbouring country has led the UN to label it as possibly “the world's worst humanitarian disaster for 50 years.”
FAITH IN SAUDI ARABIA
Despite MBS’s promise to return the kingdom to a more ‘moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples’ all Saudis are still considered Muslims; conversion to another religion is punishable by death.
For local Saudis, following Christ is an enormous risk. Most believers keep their newfound faith a complete secret from their families out of fear of being disowned, abused or even killed by their relatives. Nevertheless, numbers of Christians are growing and some still share their faith publicly, despite the consequences.
Most Christians in Saudi Arabia are expatriates or migrant workers (from India, the Philippines and Africa). Places of worship are denied to non-Islamic religions but foreign Christians are permitted to organise their own, small-scale meetings as long as they don’t cause any disturbances. However, raids on house churches still occur.
There is a growing community of believers among migrant workers, but their employers or 'sponsors' have a great deal of power over them, and they are frequently exposed to verbal, physical and sexual abuse – there have been reports of workers being threatened with rape unless they convert to Islam.
Saudi Arabia is number 12 on the Open Doors World Watch List.