A most proper custodian

Issa’s daily programme, Billati Hiya Ahsan (“Righteous Deeds”), airs on Saudi broadcaster MBC and promulgates Saudi Arabia’s revamped religious message. He has spoken on the show about the brotherhood of Sunnis and Shias and the need to open up to other religions – messages that reflect the resolve of Saudi leadership to carry this message forward, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic and economic recession.

Saudi Arabia also increased its budget to fund the annual breaking of the fast for 1 million Muslims in eighteen countries. Saudi Arabia initially mandated closures of mosques, as had the UAE. But a few days later King Salman reversed course, announcing that Mecca and Medina’s mosques would officially remain open for the seasonal Ramadan taraweeh prayer, though with severely limited access. This change in policy indicated the kingdom’s overriding concern about its leadership of the two holy mosques and its image as their most proper custodian.

The mark of Sunni

Bahrain distinguished itself by being the first Arab state to declare the opening of its Al-Fateh Grand Mosque during Ramadan for evening, taraweeh, and Friday prayers, while maintaining social distancing and limiting worship to five people at a time. Continuing services in the state’s official mosque – a Sunni institution in a Shia-majority country – allowed the kingdom to reinforce its official Sunni stamp.

This was a safe strategy to follow because Shias do not conduct taraweeh prayers, thereby muting the potential criticism of opening a Sunni mosque but not Shia equivalents, which went virtual for Ramadan events.

Among the region’s countries taking the hardest economic hit from the pandemic, Bahrain eased its restrictions on retail and industry during Ramadan and into Eid ul-Fitr, with the hope of speeding its economic recovery. Similarly, Saudi and Emirati authorities relaxed curfew hours and allowed select stores to re-open during Ramadan, even as infections were on the rise.

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