There has long been debate about the longevity of the Saudi ruling family. My initial conclusion when I first visited Saudi Arabia exactly 40 years ago was: This can’t last. I would still maintain it cannot last even if my time line has changed given that the Saudi monarchy obviously has far greater resilience than I initially gave it credit for. One major reason for the doubts about the Al-Saud’s viability is obviously the Faustian bargain they made with the Wahhabis, proponents of a puritan, intolerant, discriminatory, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam.
It is a bargain that has produced the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history. Estimates of Saudi spending on the funding of Muslim cultural institutions across the globe and the forging of close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations that have bought into significant elements of the Wahhabi worldview range from $75 to $100 billion.
The campaign is not simply a product of the marriage between the Al-Sauds and the Wahhabis. It is central to Saudi soft power policy and the Al-Saud’s survival strategy. One reason, certainly not the only one, that the longevity of the Al Sauds is a matter of debate is the fact that the propagation of Wahhabism is having a backlash in countries across the globe. More than ever before theological or ideological similarities between Wahhabism or for that matter its theological parent, Salafism, and jihadism in general and the Islamic State in particular are under the spotlight.
The problem for the Al-Sauds is not just that their legitimacy is wholly dependent on their identification with Wahhabism. It is that the Al-Sauds since the launch of the campaign were often only nominally in control of it and that they have let a genie out of the bottle that now leads an independent life and that can’t be put back into the bottle.
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Al-Sauds and the Wahhabis are nearing a crunch point, one that will not necessarily offer solutions, but in fact one that could make things worse by sparking ever more militant splits that will make themselves felt across the Muslim world and in minority Muslim communities elsewhere in multiple ways including increasing sectarian attitudes in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The recent shooting in the southern Philippines of a prominent Saudi Wahhabi cleric whose popularity is evident in his following of 12 million on Twitter suggests that it is not just the government but the ulema who are becoming targets. And not just ulema who are totally subservient to the Saudi government.
Sheikh Aaidh Al-Qarni is a product of the fusion between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood that produced the Sahwa, a Saudi Salafist political reform movement. While Philippine investigators are operating on the assumption that IS was responsible for the shooting, Saudi media were quick to report that Saudi authorities had warned the Philippines days earlier that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were planning an attack.
Let’s take a step back to paint a framework in which the Saudi funding campaign should be viewed. For starters, one has to realise that while it all may be one pot of money the goal of the campaign differs for different parties. For the Wahhabi ulema it is about proselytisation, about the spreading of the faith. For the government it’s about soft power. At times the interests of the government and the ulema coincide, and at times they diverge.
By the same token, the campaign on some levels has been an unparalleled success, on others success is questionable and one could go even a step further to argue that it risks becoming a liability for the government.
It may be hard to conceive of Wahhabism as soft power but fact of the matter is that Salafism was a movement that had only sprouted miniscule communities in the centuries preceding the rise of Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab and only started to make real inroads into Muslim communities beyond the Arabian Peninsula 175 years after his death.
By the 1980s, the Saudi campaign had established Salafism as an integral part of the global community of Muslims and sparked greater religiosity in various Arab countries as well as the emergence of Islamist movements and organisations. The soft power aspect of it certainly in relation to the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran has paid off, particularly in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan where sectarian attitudes and attitudes towards minorities and Iran are hardening.
Wahhabism’s proselytising character served the Al-Saud’s purpose as they first sought to stymie Arab nationalism’s appeal and later that of Iran’s Islamic revolution, tectonic developments that promised to redraw the political map of the Middle East and North Africa in ways that potentially threatened Saudi Arabia’s rulers.
Both developments were revolutionary and involved the toppling of western-backed monarchs. Arab nationalism was secular and socialist in nature. The Islamic revolution in Iran was the first toppling of a US icon in the region and a moreover involved a monarch. The Islamic republic represented a form of revolutionary Islam that recognised a degree of popular sovereignty. Each in their own way posed a threat to the Al-Sauds who cloaked their legitimacy in a religious puritanism that demanded on theological grounds absolute obedience of the ruler.
Ultimately, the Saudi campaign benefited from Arab socialism’s failure to deliver jobs, public goods and services and the death knell to notions of Arab unity delivered by Israel’s overwhelming victory in the 1967 Middle East during which it conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.
Moreover, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s early rupture with the non-Salafist Muslim Brotherhood led many Brothers to join the stream of migrant workers that headed for the Gulf. They brought their activism with them and took up positions in education that few Saudis were able to fill. They also helped create and staff organisations like the Muslim World League, initially founded to counter Nasser’s Pan-Arab appeal. The campaign further exploited opportunities created by Nasser’s successor, Anwar Al-Sadat who defined himself as “the believing president”.
Sadat in contrast to Nasser allowed Muslim groups like the Brotherhood and Salafis to re-emerge and create social organisations, build mosques and found universities.
The rise of the Brotherhood in the kingdom sparked a fusion of the group’s political thinking with segments of the Wahhabi and Salafi community but also accentuated stark differences between the two. Saudi establishment clergy as well as militants took the Brotherhood to task for its willingness to accept the state and operate within the framework of its constrictions. They also accused it of creating division or fitna among Muslims by endorsing the formation of political groups and parties and demanding loyalty to the group rather than to God, Muslims and Islam.
The Saudi campaign was bolstered by the creation of various institutions including not only the Muslim World League and its multiple subsidiaries but also Al-Haramain, another charity, and the likes of the Islamic University of Medina. In virtually all of these instances, the Saudis were the funders. The executors were others often with agendas of their own such as the Brotherhood or in the case of Al-Haramain, more militant Islamists, if not jihadists. Saudi oversight was non-existent and the laissez faire attitude started at the top.
In sum, the complex relationship between the Al-Sauds and Wahhabism creates policy dilemmas for the Saudi government on multiple levels, complicates its relationship with the United States and its approach towards the multiple crises in the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria, IS and Yemen. Historian Richard Bulliet argues that Saudi “King Salman faces a difficult choice. Does he do what President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many Republican presidential hopefuls want him to do, namely, lead a Sunni alliance against the Islamic State? Or does he continue to ignore Syria, attack Shias in Yemen, and allow his subjects to volunteer money and lives to the ISIS caliph’s war against Shi‘ism?
The former option risks intensifying unrest, possibly fatal unrest, in the Saudi kingdom. The latter contributes to a growing sense in the West that Saudi Arabia is insensitive to the crimes being carried out around the world in the name of Sunni Islam. Prediction: In five years’ time, Saudi Arabia will either help defeat the Islamic State, or become it.”
The Al-Sauds’ problems are multiplied by the fact that Saudi Arabia’s clergy is tying itself into knots as a result of its sell-out to the regime and its close ideological affinity to more militant strands of Islam. Saudi scholar Madawi Al-Rasheed argues that the sectarianism that underwrites the anti-Iran campaign strengthens regime stability in the immediate term because it ensures “a divided society that is incapable of developing broad, grassroots solidarities to demand political reform… The divisions are enhanced by the regime’s promotion of an all-encompassing religious nationalism, anchored in Wahhabi teachings, which tend to be intolerant of religious diversity… Dissidence, therefore, centres on narrow regional, tribal and sectarian issues.”
The knots are also evident in approaches towards Syria. A Saudi royal decree banning Saudis from granting moral or material aid to groups including Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s official offshoot in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front, was countered more than a year later by a statement of more than 50 clerics that called on Sunni Muslims to unite against Russia, Iran, and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The statement described groups fighting the Assad regime as “holy warriors” in what was widely seen as an endorsement of jihadist groups.
By the same token, Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen in a bid to defeat Houthi rebels, the only group to have challenged Al-Qaeda advances in the country but that also threatened to undermine the kingdom’s dominant role in Yemeni politics, has effectively turned the Saudi air force into the jihadists’ air wing as Al-Qaeda expands its reach in the country.
Whether Bulliet is right or not in his prediction, Wahhabism is not what’s going to win Saudi Arabia lasting regional hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, as long as Wahhabism is a dominant player in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia is even less likely to win its battle for hegemony. At the end of the day, it is a perfect storm.