Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Spread of Terrorism

The New York Times published a lengthy article, “Both Arsonists and Firefighters: Saudis Promote Jihadist Ideology but also Fight Terrorism,” on August 26, 2017 ( What was striking about this article was the delay in its publication. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been in the forefront of spreading its puritanical and deviant form of Islam, Wahhabism, for decades.  The question arises: why are we just now seeing exposes of the KSA and its relationship to the spread of terrorism? 

The key variable neglected in the New York Times article is the lack of a historical and political economic context.  It also fails to address whether the United States, and its Western allies in the EU, will try to pressure the KSA to reduce its support for radicalism around the world, which is amply documented in the article.

KSA influence has been directly correlated with the collapse of the state system in the Middle East.  This collapse is not recent but has been a long time in the making and was evident by the abject defeat of Arab states by Israel in the June 5-10, 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War The June War began the decline of one party authoritarian states, such as Jamal cAbd al-Nasir’s (Nasser) Egypt and Ba’thist Syria and Iraq, which lost legitimacy given their inability to keep their promise to bring victory to the Palestinian people in their struggle with Israel.  Once the residents of Egypt’s Suez Canal cities were forced to move westward following the war, many to Cairo, and other Delta towns, and the Canal was shut down with the consequent loss of transit revenues, the Nasir regime found itself facing severe economic hardship.

Egypt’s economic dependency on the KSA The KSA’s used its extensive oil wealth to weaken the Nasir regime - which it saw as its main adversary in the Arab Middle East – by creating an economic dependency in which a tacit agreement was forged, leading Nasser to tone down his anti-Saudi and anti-monarchical rhetoric in exchange for financial aid.

KSA political and ideological penetration of Egypt However, the critical post-1967 war legacy was the ability of the Saudis to use their new found influence in Egypt to support the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political forces.  The US tacitly supported this effort because the Nasir regime was seen as a Soviet ally in the Middle East.  

US support for Islamism The same mistake of supporting intolerant Islamism following the 1967 War presaged the mistake the US made again when it trained and militarily supported Islamist forces (so-called al-mujahideen) in ousting Soviet forces from Afghanistan during the late 1980s.  In both cases, the US felt that the KSA could be used to promote its Cold War agenda, namely reducing Soviet influence in the oil-rich Middle East.  In both instances, the US learned the meaning all too well of the admonition “play with fire and you'll get burned."

Wahhabism as a ploy for Western economic and military ties Among its shortcomings, the New York Times article fails to mention a key reason why Wahhabism is viewed in instrumental and not just ideological  terms by the Saudi royal family.  Anyone who has visited the KSA knows that the social-cultural reality of the public sphere differs dramatically from the behavior of the political elite behind closed doors in private palaces and mansions. (Johnny Walker Red was the alcohol du jour when I visited the KSA). 

By empowering an austere and repressive clergy to control behavior in the public sphere, and enforce strict codes of gender relations (, the royal family can manipulate Wahhabism, an ersatz caricature of Islam (better referred to as al-inhiraf), to offset criticism of the close economic and military ties which the KSA maintains with the West, especially the United States.  Using the public veneer of what the KSA calls “Islam” – Wahhabism – Saudi royals make the argument to the KSA’s citizenry, and Muslims elsewhere, that the kingdom’s public persona makes it the most “authentic” (asil) Muslim state on the planet.
Domestic, regional and global Wahhabism As the New York Times article correctly notes, the KSA’s alliance with Wahhabism serves an important  legitimating function.  However, the relationship cannot be comprehended only by referencing the ties of the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn cAbd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), with the Al Sacud tribe in the al-Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula.  To fully understand the significance of this relationship requires situating it in the contemporary politics of the Middle East.

As noted, Wahhabism serves a domestic function by allowing the KSA to suppress internal dissent, e.g., directed against the regime’s authoritarianism, corruption, and dependency on the West, through arguing that the kingdom embodies the “true form” of Islam.
Saudi blogger Raif Badawi - flogged for seeking free expression
At the regional level, Wahhabism has been used to combat republicanism in the form of Arab nationalism and socialism, e.g., in Algeria and in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.  It is not true that the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 represented the key stimulus for the KSA to promote Wahhabism regionally.  Let’s not forget that Egypt and the KSA were fighting a proxy war in Yemen just prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War after a clique of army officers, led by Abdallah al-Sallal, who were sympathetic to Nasir, overthrew the monarchy of Imam Muhammad al-Badr in 1962.

In the current political situation in the Middle East, Wahhabism has assumed a virulent anti-Shi'a tone.  The anti-Shi'a rhetoric is directed against the KSA's current nemesis, the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran.  This policy only feeds into the brutal policies developed by the so-called Islamic State which made killing Shi'a one of its signature acts of violence.

At the global level, Wahhabism represents a strategy for offsetting a mono-culture economy, namely one built on oil wealth, a relatively small population, and, apart from the Hijaz, a weak entrepreneurial sector of the overall economy.  By exporting Wahhabism to the nation-states of the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and countries and regions farther away, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Central Asia and North America, the KSA has created not only a global network of ideological ties but a parallel network of political, economic and cultural ties as well. 

To give examples of Saudi behavior, during the UN sanctions regime of the 1990, the kingdom paid money to Iraqi Sunnis who agreed to pray 5 times a day and to Iraqi Sunni women who wore the hijab .  When a Saudi delegation arrived in the Kurdish region of Iraq, after the 3 majority Kurdish provinces broke away from Saddam Husayn's regime after the 1991 Gulf War, they informed the Kurds that they have arrived with funds to help them build their new autonomous political entity.

The Kurds, in turn, informed the Saudis that they welcomed the visit because they needed funds for schools, hospitals roads and municipal services.  When the Saudis replied that the funds they had brought were only for building mosques, the Kurds immediately realized the hidden Wahhabi agenda and sent the Saudi delegation packing.

The “chickens come home to roost” The title of the New York Times article conflates two phenomena, spreading radical Islamism and fighting terrorism.  The KSA only began to take terrorism seriously after al-Qacida was established and set up shop in Yemen, and attacks against the kingdom were initiated by the so-called Islamic State (Dacish).  In other words, if we review KSA policies extending back to the 19670s and afterwards, there were no efforts to fight terrorism in the MENA region.

It is true that the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by Saudi religious radicals in 1979 constituted a serious attack against the Saudi monarchy (an uprising which some analysts claim was actually suppressed by Israeli troops in unmarked uniforms after Saudi forces were unsuccessful in recapturing the mosque). 

Only after the 1991 Gulf War, when Usama bin Ladin used the presence of US military forces on Saudi soil to establish al-Qacida, did fighting terrorism become part of the KSA political agenda. Thus the title, “Both Arsonists and Firefighters” is misleading, because the KSA is a late-comer to fighting terrorism, and only once it threatened the Saudi homeland.

Will the US change its policy towards the KSA? Don’t expect any meaningful change of US policy towards the KSA, whether during the remainder of the Obama administration or under what will probably be a Clinton presidency.  Because the KSA feels highly threatened by the P5+1 deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons development program, the US and its allies do not want to alienate the KSA and other Sunni allies such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, by exerting pressure on the KSA to stop its global promotion of Wahhabism and, with it, Saudi political influence.

Further, there is a tacit alliance between the KSA and Israel who have been cooperating for years in intelligence sharing (  This unstated alliance includes Egypt, Jordan and the Arab Gulf states, and is considered essential to the United States in its struggle against the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist organizations operating in the  Middle East.  Thus the US is reluctant to put too much pressure on the KSA to force it to curtail its financial support of radical Islamist organizations, including so-called "charities" and "religious schools" (al-madrasa; pl. al-madaris).

The role of the “oil curse” The only variable which may lead the Saudi monarchy to play down it reliance on Wahhabism is the collapse of oil prices in the world market.  While highly conservative, the current KSA leadership realizes that, unless the regime changes its economic development model, the Saudi state could experience some rough sledding in the coming decades. 

The political economic contradictions of Wahhabism If the Saudi state does not remove Wahhabi clerics from positions of power within the kingdom, women will not be able to be fully integrated into the Saudi economy.  Saudi males will not be able to be taught the types of business and entrepreneurial skills which would allow the economy to move from its overarching dependence on oil to one characterized by economic diversity.

Saudi youth and future of the KSA Perhaps most important is the simmering discontent of large segments of Saudi society, especially the large youth demographic which chafes at the social and cultural restrictions, which many consider Medieval, and the lack of any meaningful political participation for those outside the royal family in the political system.  Unless Saudi youth can be motivated to support the monarchy, and that can only happen through greater political participation and personal freedoms - at this point a contradiction in terms - the KSA faces yet another enormous impediment to implementing reformist change.

The role of Iran Given the large Shica population in the KSA’s 2 oil-rich provinces of al-Hasa and al-Qatif in the northeast of the country and the growth of Shica populations in the Arab Gulf, the future behavior of Iran will strongly influence any moves towards reform by the Saudi monarchy.  If the current radical elite of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Guardian Council and the Revolutionary Guards continue to spew vitriol against the KSA and the Arab Gulf states as lackeys of “the Great Satan,” then those within the monarchy who seek to curtail Wahhabi influence will face a difficult time.

In the KSA, Islam explains everything and Islam explains nothing Islam – or more precisely Wahhabism, a deviant form of Islamism – is ubiquitous in the KSA.  As I have argued, the manipulation of Wahhabism has little to do with orthodox Islamic doctrine and everything to do with protecting and expanding the domestic, regional and global power and influence of the Saudi royal family and political elite.

Journalists and analysts who write for The New York Times and other forms of mass media in the West do their readers no service by constantly viewing the contemporary Middle East through the prism of something they call “Islam,” to the detriment of other forms of explanation, especially historical context, and the political economy of inter-elite and inter-state conflict, and the efforts of states such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to cast a global political and economic reach.


Manicmuslim said...

What an amazing article. Best I've read on the issue so far. Mind if I reblog?

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