New Wahhabism center shows conservatism still central to Saudi Arabia's soul
Labourers restore an old building in the historical UNESCO World Heritage Atturaif district on the outskirts of Riyadh on July 13, 2015, part of a major development project shepherded by Saudi King Salman (AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine)

Saudi Arabia's new research centre on Wahhabism, set to open on the edge of the capital Riyadh, looks fitting for a branch of Islam considered inflexible, intolerant and unchanging.

Imposing with its limestone blocks, their bulk lightened only by glass-enclosed bridges, the centre is part of a major development project shepherded by Saudi King Salman.

The building honours Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, the 18th-century fundamentalist preacher who co-founded the Saudi state.

It is a clear sign that his legacy remains central to the Saudi soul despite his strict doctrine and accusations it is fuelling deadly Sunni extremism around the world, including the murderous drive of Islamic State (IS) group militants.

Featuring cafes and palm trees decorated with tiny lights, the project is set in Addiriyah, birthplace of the ruling Saud dynasty, and includes the UNESCO World Heritage Atturaif district.

"It has very high historical value for the government and for us," said Abdullah Arrakban, the urban development manager for the High Commission for the Development of Addiriyah.

Here, King Salman, monarch of the world's biggest oil exporter, has a turreted palace overlooking the crumbled mud brick homes of his ancestors now undergoing preservation.

And it was here that Abdul Wahhab's partnership with a contemporary local chief, Imam Mohammed bin Saud, laid the foundations for today's kingdom and its reliance on the sheikh's 270-year-old teachings.

Conceived in 2000, the project is targeted for completion by the end of next year.

It has begun to refurbish the district, restore its ancient Atturaif oasis community and create crucial green space in this heart of the Arabian peninsula.

Five mini-museums will depict life in the first Saudi state, which lasted from 1744 to 1818 when it fell to Turkish-Egyptian invaders.

- A crucial alliance -

"We are trying to keep the atmosphere of Addiriyah -- the nature, the colour, the original architecture," Arrakban said, fingering blue prayer beads while being interviewed in his book-filled office.

Although the heart of the 750-million-riyal ($200-million/179-million-euro) project will be Atturaif, the adjacent Abdul Wahhab Foundation is designed to honour the sheikh's role as co-founder of the state and tell "the truth" about his intellectual heritage, Arrakban said.

It will feature a library of books and documents about his teachings, available for research, as well as a multimedia "Memorial Hall" illustrating the religious movement he inspired.

At the centre of the foundation complex is a modern incarnation of the sheikh's original house of worship.

"The media, they try to say 'No, he tried to kill, to make war'... I think this is not right," Arrakban said.

Abdul Wahhab preached "tawhid" -- the oneness of God -- which meant opposition to the worship of saints and to Shiism, a prohibition on images of living beings and the implementation of sharia law.

He saw his doctrine as a return to Islam as practised by the first generation of Muslims.

His pact with Saud in the 1740s gave legitimacy to the first head of the royal house, who in return implemented Abdul Wahhab's strict version of the Islamic faith.

The partnership continues to this day, with the ruling family maintaining its tight grip on political life and puritanical clerics preaching strict codes of conduct that make Saudi Arabia among the world's most conservative countries.

Women are forbidden from driving, there is no intermingling of the sexes, and cinemas and alcohol are banned, while the militant preaching associated with Wahhabi thought is accused of inspiring extremists from Osama bin Laden to IS.

- 'Extremist cleric' -

Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, said honouring Abdul Wahhab and preserving Addiriyah is "hypocrisy" at a time when "Islamic heritage is being wiped away" elsewhere in the kingdom.

"If you honour an extremist cleric why could you not honour the Prophet of Peace?" Alawi asked.

In keeping with Abdul Wahhab's teaching against idolatry, authorities have made no effort to preserve sites linked to the Prophet Mohammed in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, said Alawi, a prominent supporter of Islamic pluralism.

Some of these sites have already disappeared in redevelopment, he said.

Alawi is among those who contend that Wahhabism has inspired militants of IS, also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh.

"You have first, Wahhabi ideology, and then you have offshoots which have become even more extreme," he said.

Yet "Saudi Arabia is not Daesh," said Stephane Lacroix of Sciences Po university in Paris, stating that Abdul Wahhab left politics to the politicians.

"The political authority puts a number of constraints on the religious authority which in a sense limits the kind of radicalism that can come out," he said.

Lacroix added that some of the country's youth "don't really feel Wahhabi at all", as Saudi society changes under modern influences.

In April Salman opened part of the development, parks and restaurants in Al-Bujeiri quarter which overlooks the Atturaif ruins.

On a recent evening, women clothed in black according to local custom sat on concrete benches as families pushed strollers across a central plaza.

Tariq al-Muaiseb, 24, one month into a banking career, said he and colleague Abdullah al-Khayyal, 23, hoped to explore the Atturaif ruins to see "how our grandfathers lived" in contrast to their own "Western lifestyle".

Leaving an outdoor cafe, they walked over to photograph the Abdul Wahhab mosque.

"He's had a large effect on this country," Muaiseb said.