Saudi Arabia and the Spectre of Protest

by - 3rd March 2011

By guest blogger, Irfan Al-Alawi

For the countries and immigrant communities professing Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia remains the most influential power in economic and political affairs, notwithstanding the retrograde nature of its social relationships.   Mass movements for structural reform overthrew the Tunisian government, forced the resignation of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, inaugurated civil protests in Bahrain, and fell victim to bloody civil war imposed by Muammar Al-Ghadafi in Libya.   But through all the turmoil of recent weeks moderate Muslims around the world have been drawn automatically to wonder how the spread of institutional change will affect the Saudi kingdom – land of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, and the country all believing Muslims hope to visit for the hajj pilgrimage.

The martyrdom of Libyan patriots slain by Al-Ghadafi’s loyalists and mercenaries has had a dampening effect on the ardour that seized the West, no less than the Arab countries and Iran, with the fall of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia.   Partisans of reform in Morocco, Algeria, and other states with well-entrenched ruling castes and no apparent disaffection in their militaries must recognize that some dictators are weaker than others, and that not all tyrants or their armed cohorts may be swept away by demonstrations and social networking.

Nevertheless, the Egyptian Revolution has given heart to the Green opposition movement in Iran, even as the Iranian clerical overlords have attempted to claim that the North African unrest heralded a thrust toward radical Islamist ideology similar to that of Khomeini.  The regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proved its own propaganda false when it not only prohibited Green leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – both veteran servants of the Iranian Islamic Republic – from leading demonstrations to support the Egyptian movement, but put both men under house arrest and installed steel gates to impede visitors to Mousavi’s home.

Libya has so far seen the worst atrocities, followed by Bahrain and Iran.  Further, in Bahrain, where blood was spilled gratuitously by the country’s rulers, the division of the populace between Sunni rulers and a Shia majority provided Tehran with an opportunity to project itself as a protagonist of change, even while Iran brutally repressed the Greens within its own borders.   In Bahrain the Sunni-controlled army fired on sleeping demonstrators; in Iran state-recruited thugs shot and killed marching protestors, in the name of a perverse theory of Shia governance.   For the victims, sectarian differences were irrelevant.  But the Sunni king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, then drew back in favour of negotiations, doubtless affected by the presence of the US Fifth Fleet, while the Iranian rulers threatened to hang Mousavi and Karroubi.   As February ended, demonstrations for popular sovereignty also erupted in the sultanate of Oman, where Islam is Ibadhi – a distinct sect, neither Sunni nor Shia. 

How do these events play out in Saudi Arabia, with Bahrain and Oman between its territory and that of Iran, and a turbulent Yemen at its other end?   As yet, the main Saudi role in the new revolt convulsing the Arab and Islamic world has been to calm the concerns of the trans-national energy exporters about the impact of lost Libyan oil production.  But a reform, or transformation, of the Saudi kingdom would unarguably provide a powerful, if not a decisive impetus to the emergence of new political structures in the Arab countries, as well as encouraging the Iranian opposition and inspiring forward-looking elements in other Muslim lands.  Western media state that on 28 February more than 100 Saudi academics and other prominent personalities petitioned Saudi king Abdullah for changes that would effectively install a constitutional monarchy.  The London Financial Times of 24 February reported that social-media appeals circulating inside the kingdom called for a ‘day of rage’ on 11 March. 

King Abdullah has lately returned to Saudi Arabia from medical treatments abroad, which had stimulated speculation about his health (he is 87).   According to the Saudi succession as defined in 2006, Abdullah would be replaced on the throne by the venal and opportunistic Crown Prince Sultan, who is also in his ‘80s and seriously ill.  With both gone, the new king would be elected by a council made up of the remaining sons, and the grandsons, of King Ibn Saud, who established the dynasty and died in 1953.  Abdullah and Sultan, who are half-brothers, are both sons of the founder.

On his arrival back in the country, King Abdullah immediately announced that UK£22 billion (US$37 billion) would be distributed to the Saudi populace in welfare payments, including wage increases, improved unemployment benefits, and provision for less-expensive housing.  The majority of Saudis believe in the reforming desires of the monarch, the most popular in their history (the Saudi kingdom was created by Ibn Saud in 1932).   Abdullah’s announcement of largesse reflected recognition that economic problems in the Arab countries, which have few independent means of ameliorating the effects of the global downturn, play a bigger role than Islamist ideology, at least for now, in the new mass movements.

Radical Islamist doctrines are a secondary issue in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, where collective anger has been in great part a product of naked institutional corruption and repressive habits of administration, and the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, it may be said, has entered the revolutionary movements ‘by the back door.’   But this is not true of either Iran or Saudi Arabia.  While foreigners and members of the Saudi elite talk nervously of fiscal issues in the kingdom, behind Saudi Arabia’s problems of high youth unemployment and endemic local poverty lurks another matter: that of Wahhabism, the official Saudi sect. 

Because of Wahhabism, Saudi subjects are anxious about the aforementioned royal succession.   If Abdullah and Sultan die within a short time of one another, the throne could be awarded by election of the princes or by a coup to Prince Nayef, another half-brother of Abdullah and full brother of Sultan.   Nayef, currently interior minister, is deeply feared by the Saudi people as the most fanatical Wahhabi in the top princely echelon.   Nayef has declared that the Saudi-Wahhabi order needs no change, and has obstructed efforts by King Abdullah, his presumptive superior, to ‘normalise’ the governance of the kingdom.  Nayef’s view of the rest of the Muslim world, as well as of non-Muslims, conforms to the most primitive expressions of Wahhabi hostility and aggression.   If Nayef becomes or is made king, a civil war is possible, as well as a new campaign of international terrorist atrocities.

Because of Wahhabism, so-called ‘moral’ standards enforced by Wahhabi clerics and the infamous ‘morals patrols’ or mutawiyin, are a major source of discontent among young Saudis.   Wahhabi restrictions on women have resulted in an absurd situation, where 80,000 Saudi women own motor vehicles but cannot drive them, forcing them to employ drivers or to dress as men when driving short distances.    Chauffeurs and other foreign labourers are frequently underpaid and mistreated, and if they are foreign Muslims such as Pakistanis, they are subject to ethnic and sectarian discrimination, with a prohibition against the import of Islamic books in their native languages.  If they are non-Muslims – including Hindus and Buddhists from India and Sri Lanka, as well as Christians from South Asia, the Philippines, and South Korea – their only religious rights may be, on paper, exercised within their homes.  But unlike Christian expatriates from the West, those from the eastern lands must always risk raids and other attacks by the mutawiyin.

Because of Wahhabism, other sections of the Saudi citizenry with deep feelings of resentment include the large Shia Muslim minority in the east of the country.  Comprising as much as a quarter of the Saudi population of 25 million, Shias have been objects of bigotry and violence by Wahhabis since the outbreak of the latter cult from the wilderness of Nejd in central Arabia in the 18th century.  Although generally well-educated and residing in the oil-producing region of the country, Saudi Shias are barred from career advancement and targeted as alleged apostates from Islam by the insistent, hateful propaganda of the Wahhabi clerics.

Because of Wahhabism, another point of contention in Saudi Arabia is intolerance against spiritual Sufis.  For most of the history of the post-1932 Saudi state, any manifestation of Sufi mystical practice was rigorously prohibited. Although Sufis had been present in Hejaz, the region of Mecca and Medina, since the early Islamic period, Wahhabism condemns them for traditional Islamic devotional customs, such as praying at tombs and other sacred sites and celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.  To non-Muslims such prohibitions are exceedingly strange and difficult to grasp – why would the Wahhabis, who claim to be the best of the Muslims, forbid honours to saintly Muslims of the past, and above all, to the Prophet of Islam himself?  But the perverse Wahhabi interpretation considers such exaltation (which is not worship) of outstanding Muslims of the past as a dilution of the uniqueness of God.   On the basis of this difference, the Wahhabis have taken many lives, destroyed many shrines, and wrecked whole communities of Muslims.

Because of Wahhabism, dissident and reform-minded Saudis refer to the countries from Kuwait to Yemen as ‘the crescent of normality’ because there women may dress as they choose and drive where they wish, and non-Muslim, Shia, and Sufi religious institutions are open for worship. 

To emphasise, at present most Saudis trust the reforming efforts of King Abdullah.  But his attempts to curb the Wahhabis, especially in their worldwide support for terrorist recruitment, have been impeded by the king’s isolation among the royals and the entrenchment of the Wahhabi clerics.      

On the international level, events involving the kingdom and its citizens continue to betray the influence of Wahhabi radicalism.   In the US in late February, Khalid Al-Dawsari, a 20-year old Saudi-born student at a Texas college, was arrested for planning terrorist bombings.  That news came just as a delegation of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the leading jihadist force in Pakistan and patron of numerous bloody massacres in that country, as well as a backer of the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, was welcomed to the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.  The university is known to Saudis as ‘the terrorist factory.’  

The JI visit followed a meeting in Jeddah between Sir Iqbal Sacranie, a leading representative of Wahhabism and associate of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK, and Ahmed Mohamed Ali, president of the Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank.  Sacranie and Ali signed a memorandum under which the IDB will cooperate with Muslim Aid, a global network chaired by Sacranie, the former secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, which was a creation of the Brotherhood.  Muslim Aid is widely known as a platform for Wahhabi preaching, establishment of Wahhabi Islamic schools, and radical recruitment.

Monetary gifts to the local poor and relief for the Saudi middle class, from the side of royal reform, and further adventurism in South Asia with more donations for radical outreach in other countries, as offered by the radicals, expose and highlight the essential problem of Saudi Arabia: the continuing religious hegemony of Wahhabism, the most fundamentalist, violent, and supremacist trend in Islamic history.   That is the primary challenge King Abdullah and the Saudi dissidents must confront and defeat, while avoiding, to the greatest extent possible, violence in the land of the two holy cities.   That is how the new Arab revolt will meet its Saudi, and wider Islamic, destiny.  

Irfan Al Alawi is Executive Director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, International Director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism and PhD lecturer in Islamic theology and Tasawwuf.