Saudi Arabia’s controversial crown prince drew condemnation from critics on Tuesday after walking on the roof of the Kaaba, the cube-shaped building that stands on the holiest site in Islam.
Mohammed bin Salman was visiting the Kaaba in Mecca, to which Muslims around the world pray five times daily, in order to inspect the construction work underway to renovate and expand the vast Grand Mosque complex surrounding it, known to Muslims as the Masjid al-Haram.
The Saudi government’s oversight of the complex marks one of its claims to authority and legitimacy. Saudi King Salman’s formal title is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the first in Mecca and the second in nearby Medina.
But the Tuesday visit by the crown prince, who wields de facto executive power in the country, comes amid widespread criticism over a crackdown against dissidents, a regional clash with Shiite Iran that has seen a bloody intervention in Yemen and an accompanying and ongoing humanitarian disaster there, and the October murder in Istanbul by Saudi agents of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, which drew withering international condemnation and hurt Riyadh’s relations with some Western governments.
A Twitter hashtag “Mohammed bin Salman in the Holy Mosque” offered a window into the opposition the Saudi monarchy faces.
A Saudi feminist charged that the prince was attempting to mollify Islamists with the visit after a “backlash” caused by his “liberation reforms.”
Bin Salman has been excoriated by conservatives for ending some of the kingdom’s most criticized social restrictions, such as the ban on women driving, and by liberals and Western governments for simultaneously cracking down on women’s rights activists and other dissenters.
#MBS is currently in Mecca to discuss a future holy mosque expanding project. This isn’t surprising considering the backlash MBS has been receiving due to his liberation reforms.
More publicity stunts designed to boost his image with Islamists.
— Amani Al-Ahmadi | أماني الأحمدي (@amani_aal) February 12, 2019
Some accused the crown prince of treating the holy site “like his garden.”
World’s Muslim Feel Angry seeing Brutal Killer Mohammad Bin Salman walking on the roof of The Kaaba like his garden.#SaudiDictatorRegime is using Holy Kaaba as his personal property, it should be jointly managed by Muslim World.#DemocracyInSaudi
— The Arabian Republic (@ArabianRepublic) February 13, 2019
One user identifying himself as a Yemeni Salafist called the Saudi prince a “criminal,” and was among many who slammed the visit because it forced the removal of ordinary worshipers from the holy site, a long-controversial policy during visits by dignitaries.
Another user mocked the crown prince’s photo standing and praying at the Kaaba wall, comparing it to US President Donald Trump praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
— فهد الهاجري ???????? (@Q_FAHAD_R) February 13, 2019
One user urged the crown prince to take Machiavelli’s advice that a prince should avoid “being hated and despised.”
An English-language school in Riyadh noticed the anger, and decided to offer a free lesson: “Instead of using ‘very angry’ to express your emotions use the correct synonym: annoyed, frustrated, angry, furious or enraged!” it wrote using the MBS hashtag.