In a bid to clean up its image, Saudi Arabia is giving up a key European mosque

A Handover.
A Handover.
Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
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Saudi Arabia is giving up control of Belgium’s largest mosque.

Since 1969, Belgium leased the Grand Mosque in Brussels to Saudi Arabia in return for cheaper oil for its industry, according to Reuters. The deal gave Saudi-backed imams important access to the growing Muslim community in Belgium. But that’s all about to change.

Belgium decision to end the deal and Saudi’s lack of resistance points to two important trends: Europe’s wariness of the ultra conservative brand of Islam exported by Saudi Arabia, and the eagerness of the latter to change that reputation.

Last year, a British study claimed that Saudi Arabia plays a key role in exporting extremism to Europe. The report notes: “Saudi Arabia has, since the 1960s, sponsored a multimillion-dollar effort to export Wahhabi Islam across the Islamic world, including to Muslim communities in the west.” Wahhabism, which insists on some of the strictest interpretation of Islam, is the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is on a mission to reform. Last year, Saudi Arabia announced it will re-open movie theaters after a 35-year ban. The resolution follows a number of other economic and social reforms, including the royal decree that allows women to drive from June 2018. More recently, a Saudi cleric said women shouldn’t be forced to wear the abaya, a loose fitted robe, in public, further highlighting the unprecedented change the country is undergoing.

Despite this, Europe remains wary. This is particularly true of Belgium, which has the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Iraq and Syria. “Everyone knows that all mosques in Brussels are in the hands of Salafists,” Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur said in an interview last year. “We need to change this, we need new mosques that follow our democratic rules and that are being controlled by the government.”

The Grand Mosque in Brussels denies it espouses violence. It remains unclear who will go on to operate the mosque.