The Wahhabi-Saud pact has held the desert kingdom together since the 1920s; now it is pulling apartby John R Bradley / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
One humid evening last Ramadan in the plush garden of a villa belonging to one of Jeddah’s oldest merchant families, a select gathering of Saudi men and women sipped orange juice and fanned themselves as they listened to a lecture attacking Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s austere brand of Islam. The lecturer was Sami Angawi, a self-proclaimed Sufi leader of the vast swathe of Saudi Arabia known as the Hijaz, which runs along the Red sea and is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
For some time after the al-Saud imposed their rule on the area in 1925 regular elections continued to be held for the town councils in Hijaz, but by the 1960s they had been phased out. Moreover, Wahhabi Islam imported from al-Najd, the central region, had gradually stamped out other expressions of non-Wahhabi thinking once taken for granted in the Hijaz cities.
With the aid of a slideshow, Angawi reminded his audience of how Wahhabism had eroded the historic Hijazi urban culture of tolerance and diversity. There were periodic gasps of outrage as the images showed how Wahhabi domination had led to the destruction or neglect of almost all of the Islamic and pre-Islamic history of the Hijaz. The private house in Medina of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, was shown in a state of advanced decay, the rubble finally being reduced to dust under the giant wheels of yellow bulldozers.
Angawi documented the destruction of historic (mostly Ottoman) monuments; the lack of tolerance for all schools of Islamic law and thought other than the Hanbali one, from which Wahhabism derives; and the promotion of hatred for the “infidels”-Jews and Christians-of the west, as well as for the non- Wahhabi Muslims in their midst like Sufis and Shi’i.
One detail alone from that evening is proof that the west coast has nevertheless retained its own culture: Saudi men and women sitting next to someone who might not be a direct relative, in an audience where only a few of the women were veiled. Some of Angawi’s audience were old enough to recall the carnage of the 1920s, when the al-Saud unleashed its army of Wahhabi zealots against what they called the “little infidels” of the Hijaz. Their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters-wearing modest but colourful traditional Hijazi dresses, instead of the all-enveloping black gown of the al-Najd-have grown up with stories about Wahhabi massacres in the nearby mountain resort of Taif.
The climax of the slideshow was a photograph of a beautiful Ottoman building in Medina, the roof of which had just been crushed by the arm of a crane. On the left of the screen, an image then appeared of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan, as they were being destroyed by the Taleban, whose numbers had been swollen in the 1980s by Saudi mujahedin. Then, slowly, an image of the World Trade Centre in flames came into focus between the first two photographs. Angawi’s message was clear: the roots of global Islamic terror can be traced back to the fanatical puritanism of the Bedouin zealots known as the Wahhabis. It is time, he hinted, that Hijazis reclaimed their non-Wahhabi inheritance.
The western media, too, are preoccupied with Wahhabism, and the freeze in US-Saudi relations after 11th September. The fact that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi shook the historic oil-for-security deal which had stood since 14th February 1945, when the kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, met President Roosevelt on the USS Quincy in the Suez canal.
The only way to root out Islamist terror, it is argued in parts of the US media, is to take on the ruling al-Saud family, which has allowed such extremism to fester. A consensus, inside and outside the Bush administration, has emerged that Saudi-backed Islamic fundamentalism, inspired by Wahhabi doctrine, is behind many of the world’s conflicts-from Algeria to Indonesia, Bosnia to Chechnya.
Wahhabism’s origins can be traced to the back-to-basics ideals of an 18th-century scholar, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, whose birthplace, al-Najd, is also the ancestral home of the al-Saud dynasty. The followers of Abdul Wahhab, the ikhwan or brotherhood, fought alongside the al-Saud dynasty to help it conquer the land which was unified as Saudi Arabia in 1932. The al-Saud family and the descendants of Abdul Wahhab have ruled the kingdom in an uneasy partnership for the last seven decades. But it was a marriage of convenience from the start. In Taif in the 1920s, for instance, the Wahhabis carried out their slaughter despite protestations from Ibn Saud. And in 1931, the king put down a rebellion in the eastern al-Hasa region by a group of ikhwan leaders. The rebels considered him insufficiently Islamic because he had allowed the Shi’i minority to practise their rites in private and had signed security pacts with the British, the main colonial power. The seeds of future instability were sown-with the House of Saud torn between a jihad-inspired religious establishment needed to impose order at home and ties to western colonial forces to guarantee its external security.
Having defeated the rebels among the ikhwan, and no longer in need of a conquering army since he had already thrown his lot in with the British, Ibn Saud dissolved his army and used its remnants to establish a national guard (presently headed by the de facto leader, Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz). Ibn Saud proposed a pact to the less fanatical Wahhabis who still make up the religious establishment: let the al-Saud dynasty run the government and take care of the budget, national security and foreign policy, and you can impose a strictly interpreted Islamic social order and run the education and judicial systems according to Wahhabi principles. Ibn Saud was using the Wahhabi doctrine to pacify a diverse and often rebellious people spread out across a largely desert country the size of western Europe.
Since 11th September, the al-Saud have faced calls for change not just from liberal Saudis in the Hijaz, but also from the kingdom’s many other aggrieved constituents, not least the tribes from the south. Anything from 40 to 60 per cent of the nearly 20m Saudi nationals still identify strongly with a tribe. Allegiance to tribe and Islamic heritage loosened somewhat during the 1970s oil boom, as a new national identity emerged and tribal leaders began to receive benefits from state agencies. However, the southern region of Asir, a remote and mountainous land bordering Yemen, is still defined by its tribal culture, and it is from there that the majority of the 15 Saudi hijackers came.
Most western commentators incorrectly characterised the Saudi hijackers as products of the dominant Wahhabi ideology. In fact, the people of Asir, like those of the Hijaz and the Shi’i of the Eastern Province, have always been reluctant partners in the Saudi state and never fully accepted the Wahhabi doctrine. As I found on a recent trip, the mountains of Asir are still populated by “flowermen”-men and boys who wear flowers and herbs in their hair and cultivate a passion for perfume. It is also not unusual to see women driving pick-up trucks, although Wahhabi custom means that elsewhere women are officially banned from driving.
Originally part of Yemen, Asir was a small theocracy under the descendants of a Sufi holy man, Ahmed Ibn Idris, who was revered as a saint. But in 1922 Ibn Saud sent 6,000 men to punish the Asiris for their resistance to invading Saudi forces. Asir’s incorporation into the Saudi state was achieved mainly by Ibn Saud buying off tribal sheikhs, and arranging marriages between the al-Saud clan and the women of various tribes. The subsequent loyalty of the Asir tribes has not, say dissidents, been properly rewarded. They are never considered for the highest positions in the government and despite making up as much as 10 per cent of the population, they do not have a single university in their region. Power cuts are common in the cities, and corruption among local officials is endemic.
Most people of Asir know by heart a particular Hadith, or saying of the Prophet, to the effect that the final triumph of Islam will be brought about by the people of southern Arabia; historically they have resented the Bedouins of the al-Najd region, whom they consider inferior. Many of them have been eager recruits to Osama bin Laden, not only because he shares their Yemeni-Saudi tribal roots, but also because, again like him, they resent being ruled by a clan which, they believe, does not enforce its Islamic authority with sufficient rigour and, in many cases, lives by double standards. By attacking the US guarantors of Saudi security and survival, these tribal Saudis were targeting the historic Saudi-Wahhabi alliance.
One Asir tribe, the 1m-strong al-Ghamdi, has an especially central role in 11th September and subsequent al Qaeda operations in Saudi Arabia. Five, possibly six, of the Saudi hijackers were al-Ghamdis. The cave in Afghanistan where the plan for 11th September was hatched was named the “al-Ghamdi house.” When Bin Laden wrote a poem praising the tribes of Asir, he made special mention of the al-Ghamdis. The man visiting Bin Laden in the video in which he reflects on the “victory” of 11th September was called Sheikh al-Ghamdi. At least three, and possibly four, of the al Qaeda cell who carried out the 12th May attacks in Riyadh this year were al-Ghamdis, including the alleged mastermind, Ali Abdul Rahman al-Faqaasi al-Ghamdi. However, when his capture was announced by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, Ali al-Ghamdi’s tribal name was left out and, following protocol, none of the Saudi newspapers therefore carried it the next day. What the media did report almost every day for the next month were official statements and photographs showing tribal leaders from the Hijaz and Asir meeting Crown Prince Abdullah and Interior Minister Prince Naif in Taif, scene of the Wahhabi massacres in the 1920s. In almost identical speeches, all these leaders pledged loyalty to the kingdom and its “wise leadership.”
Crown Prince Abdullah, a Saudi reformist, took over the day-to-day running of the government in 1995, when his half-brother, King Fahd, suffered a stroke. A simple, emotional man known for speaking his mind and for shunning indulgence, Abdullah has supported moves towards greater privatisation and diversification of the economy away from oil. He has also spoken of the need to make ordinary citizens less dependent on the state. In his first government shake-up, he appointed 15 new members to the cabinet of 29, to make better use, as he put it, of “Saudi expertise.” But Abdullah is in a minority among the upper echelons of the royal family, most of whose senior members (unlike him, full brothers of the king) are conservatives closely aligned with the kingdom’s religious establishment. While King Fahd remains alive, Abdullah does not have sufficient authority and support to carry through a reform programme.
Indeed, since 11th September, the Islamists and conservatives in the royal family have been able to use anti-US feeling to strengthen their power base. The anti-Saudi media campaign in the west, coupled with resentment at US support for Israel’s suppression of the Palestinian intifada, meant that fewer ordinary Saudis supported calls for reform and democracy. Outsiders pushing for regime change have made life harder for the assortment of reformers-Islamic and secular-campaigning for progress within Saudi Arabia for most of the 1990s.
According to senior princes, regional elections and a radical overhaul of the education curriculum had been edging closer prior to 11th September. After the attacks, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal admitted that although he found 5 per cent of the content of the kingdom’s school books “abhorrent,” to delete the offensive passages was impossible, because the government would have laid itself open to charges that it was acting under pressure from a “Zionist-inspired” campaign. In addition, Sami Angawi and anti-Wahhabi Saudis like him have been accused by conservatives of having a pro-American agenda. They have been damned on Islamist websites as infidels, and self-appointed Wahhabi religious leaders have issued religious fatwas against them.
However, the domestic reform debate was not completely extinguished after 11th September. A visit by Abdullah to a slum in a Riyadh suburb at the end of last year, broadcast live on Saudi television, focused public attention on deprivation and inequality as never before. The impromptu visit was organised after Abdullah tired of advisers telling him, whenever he inquired about social conditions, that everything in the kingdom was “perfect.” The day after Abdullah’s visit, all newspapers carried a front-page picture of an elderly man in his impoverished house, his finger pointing at Abdullah’s face as he lectures the leader on the hardship which hundreds of thousands of Saudis suffer. This image has come to define a new Saudi era in which social problems are openly debated. Not since the days of Ibn Saud has a Saudi leader seemed so at ease among his people, and so willing to listen.
Arabs in neighbouring countries have even started reading the Saudi dailies because they are freer in their coverage of social issues than their own press. The Hijaz-based Okaz daily ran a frank three-part series by an undercover reporter on Kerantina, a slum to the south of Jeddah, where prostitution, drug abuse and alcohol smuggling are rife.
For so long virtually crime free, the kingdom is coming to terms with a new reality caused by a population boom, rapid social change (epitomised by near-universal access to satellite television and the internet), and a big reduction in oil revenue. Official crime statistics are not available, but the Al-Riyadh daily has reported that in 1999 Shari’a courts dealt with 616 murder cases-the largest number of which took place in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. “People here are confused. They don’t understand how crime can keep rising in this Muslim society,” the newspaper said in a two-page special report on crime.
Although the kingdom applies a strict form of Shari’a, which includes public beheading for murder, drug trafficking, rape and adultery, and which results in thieves occasionally having their hands amputated in public, there has been an increasing recognition that the death penalty is not working as a deterrent. There is a new emphasis on crime prevention. The kingdom, for instance, has started to hold regular conferences on child abuse, after years of issuing official statements to the effect that “there is no child abuse in the birthplace of Islam”; and, perhaps more astonishingly, a number of rehabilitation centres for drug addicts have opened in the three major cities.
During the 1970s oil boom, a generation of state-subsidised Saudis grew up with the idea that guest workers do all the work, while princes made millions from commissions on business deals. From the time of Ibn Saud, the Saudi state has been characterised by a system of patronage and subsidies: first to tribal and religious leaders, then in the form of a generous welfare state. In the two decades after the 1973 oil embargo the kingdom’s health, social and infrastructure indicators improved faster than in any other developing country. Saudis enjoyed for free, and took for granted, ever-improving levels of social welfare.
However, the vast majority of Saudis who came of age in the 1990s can no longer look to the state for support because the government can no longer afford to provide it. Per capita annual income is now $8,000, compared with $24,000 in the 1980s, and at almost 4 per cent per annum, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. The newspapers are full of stories about substandard medical care. Unemployment is anything up to 30 per cent. And there are places for only 30,000 school leavers in the six universities each year, although as many as 300,000 may have the necessary grades.
The 1998 oil slump, in which prices fell back to pre-1973 levels, was disastrous for the Saudi treasury. Abdullah famously remarked that Saudis “have to tighten their belts,” but many ordinary Saudis replied, in private, that if their government was asking sacrifice from its people, then maybe it was time that the people should demand more of the government. The al-Saud’s patronage system-the basis of the Saudi state-was crumbling.
While the outside world is analysing how 11th September challenged the 60-year-old US-Saudi special relationship, it has remained largely unaware of the extent to which it also increased the pressures on those fragile internal alliances-religious, tribal and regional-already threatened by economic hardship. One response to this came in August this year when Abdullah announced the establishment of the first official Saudi think tank, which aims to encourage debate on tolerance and national unity. Abdullah mentioned the importance of “national unity” four times in one sentence in the speech to launch the think tank, and repeatedly returned to the theme of combating regional, tribal and ideological alliances.
Yet it would be hard to imagine a country in which the leaders are more out of touch with the people. Up to 60 per cent of the population is under 21, while all its leaders are over 70. Those leaders have at least been able to enjoy the respect that oil wealth can buy beyond their borders, but that too changed after 11th September. The Saudis suffered a devastating loss of status on the world stage. Young Saudis studying and living outside the kingdom returned home complaining of the hatred and discrimination they had experienced as a result of the Bin Laden connection, especially in their favourite playground, the US. This connection was hardly played down by the July report of the US joint congressional committee on intelligence into security failures before 11th September. It laid out a web of connections among Saudi businessmen, the royal family, charities and banks that may have aided the suicide hijackers. Those who have read the unpublished 28 classified pages say they even raise the possibility of a Saudi intelligence link to some of the hijackers.
After 11th September, with those Saudi students returning from the US with stories of abuse, and with rising resentment among ordinary Saudis at what they saw as a campaign against Islam in the western media, the House of Saud found itself caught between a rock and a hard place-between maintaining its historic ties with the US and pacifying an increasingly unstable and anti-American domestic constituency. By the beginning of this year, the word “reform” was again on everybody’s lips.
A wide range of interest groups, from the most western/liberal to the most traditional/Islamic, sensed that the time was right to push for change-they included liberal Hijazis like Angawi in the west, persecuted Shi’i in the Eastern Province, emboldened Sunni Islamists, and businessmen, journalists and academics suffocating under intolerable bureaucratic constraints and censorship.
It was Abdullah who, once again, took the initiative, this time by accepting a petition signed by 104 prominent Saudi businessmen, intellectuals, academics and moderate Islamists. It called for a new social contract based on the ideals of Islamic democracy and, eventually, constitutional rule. Dozens of pro-reform articles appeared in local newspapers, including a front-page editorial in the government-guided Okaz entitled “Yes to Reforms.” However, the Shura council, Saudi Arabia’s unelected consultative assembly, complained that it had not had a chance to debate the petition; and a website detailing its agenda was blocked by the government. There were other signs that many leaders still opposed reforms. An edition of the pan-Arab, Saudi-funded al-Hayat daily appeared with an in-house advertisement instead of a planned article on the reform agenda. I was told by Dawood al-Shirian, al-Hayat’s Riyadh-based Gulf chief, that it was removed by the ministry of information.
Khalid al-Dakhil, a Riyadh university professor and one of the petition signatories, says that the reformists forged a tacit understanding with Abdullah that they would not raise too noisy a public debate. “There is fear of a backlash from the Islamists,” he told me, adding that the crown prince agreed that change was needed but said he could not bring it about on his own. Following a meeting between reformers and the crown prince in January, Dakhil summarised the prince’s thoughts thus: “There are other forces, in the government and in society, which have to be taken account of, and the process is going to be a long one.”
The kingdom’s Shi’i minority, also sensing that their time may have come, handed their own petition to the sympathetic Abdullah. Shi’i have long complained of discrimination in Saudi Arabia, saying that the Wahhabi establishment insults their faith in school books, prevents them from building mosques, and denies them senior government jobs.
But it is among young Saudis that the greatest hopes-and fears-for reform lie. The young are more worldly, sophisticated and urbanised than in previous generations, and much more prepared to express dissatisfaction with the double standards of authority figures. Saudi teenagers spend their time surfing the internet, tuning into the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite station, and ridiculing government statements published in the state-controlled media. The language they use when talking about the need for change draws heavily on Islamic tradition; and because they have no other outlet for their criticisms, they are often drawn to the one forum which gives a platform to their concerns: Islamist websites.
If the Saudi state is incapable of political and economic reform, of a broadly liberal kind, it will certainly not be pushed into it from below-there are too few liberals in the kingdom to muster an impressive mass demonstration (if they were permitted), let alone lead a revolution. But without reform a steady build up of tribal and generational dissatisfaction could sweep aside the House of Saud in the name of some new form of fundamentalism. The fear of such an outcome lies behind continuing US support for the guardians of one quarter of the world’s oil reserves, despite the torrent of al-Saud criticism in the US media. It is better to deal with the devil they know-at least for the time being.
There are signs, as we have seen, that Abdullah and some other senior officials do understand what is at stake. Twenty of the main industrial sectors have now been earmarked for privatisation, and a new comprehensive insurance law has been introduced, despite fierce protests from Islamists that compensating for whatever Allah wills is forbidden. Women have been given their own ID cards, and issues related to women’s rights now get extended coverage in the local press. Censorship, too, has been relaxed, although by western standards it remains highly restrictive. An independent human rights body has been announced, and in June a national forum for dialogue brought together various Saudi representatives, including Shi’i, Sunnis and reformers. The sessions, however, were held behind closed doors, and the participants were effectively banned from talking to the press.
For months before this year’s 12th May bombings of western residential compounds, which killed more than 30, the government had denied there were significant numbers of al Qaeda sympathisers in the kingdom, let alone cells plotting attacks. Bin Laden had issued a fatwa in 1995 stating that his followers should refrain from attacks in Saudi Arabia because the oil industry would be needed after a revolution, but he rescinded that fatwa shortly before the Riyadh bombings in a speech attacking the royal family for aiding the US-led war on Iraq. (The US campaign was co-ordinated from the Prince Sultan air base south of Riyadh.) Since the attacks, the kingdom’s main cities have been turned into virtual garrison towns. There have been shoot-outs between security forces and Islamist insurgents in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city; and suspected terrorists arrested in the second holy city, Medina. Another shoot-out left six Islamists and two policemen dead in al-Qassim, a region known as the “Koran belt” in the north of al-Najd and the main stronghold of Wahhabism.
In the wake of the bombings, Saudi journalists talked about a brief “Riyadh spring,” during which they finally unleashed their criticism of the religious establishment for creating the extremist environment which produced the attackers. The reformist newspaper Al-Watan had already started a campaign against the religious police. An op-ed piece in the same newspaper went further. “The Individual and the Homeland are More Important than Ibn Taymiya” by Khaled al-Ghanami attacked the teachings of the medieval Muslim jurist Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), which form some of the primary inspiration for Wahhabi Islam. An attack on him was an attack on the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance. The “tacit understanding” reformers had reached with Abdullah, not to raise a “loud debate” for fear of an Islamist backlash, had been broken. Religious figures feared that pressure was mounting to crowd them out of public life, and a statement issued by prominent clerics claimed “extremist writers” were using the Riyadh blasts to attack them. Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Asheikh, the kingdom’s top religious authority, rejected calls to dismantle the morality police. Al-Watan’s editor, Jamal Khashoggi, was fired by Prince Naif after religious leaders issued a fatwa calling for a boycott of the Asir-based daily. The reformers had been silenced, at least temporarily.
Significant change is inevitable. The question is whether it will come quickly enough, and whether the economic changes it brings will be sufficient to address the needs of the kingdom’s youth, who may otherwise side with the radical Islamists. Since the 1940s, the House of Saud’s trump card has been its oil. But the return of Iraqi oil to the market will further undermine Opec, and that, coupled with the gas reserves in the Caspian sea, will reduce Saudi Arabia’s influence as a major energy provider. At the same time, the US no longer needs Saudi Arabia militarily. It announced the withdrawal of most of its troops after the Iraq war; they will now be stationed in the tiny neighbouring state of Qatar. While this removes a rallying point for al Qaeda, it also raises fears that, if the Saudis do not reform by the end of the decade, the US might decide to do the job itself. Almost all Saudi oilfields are in the Eastern Province, where the majority are Shi’i. The idea of a US occupation of the region has already been raised in a paper for the Pentagon’s defence policy board.
Ultimately, Saudi Arabia’s fate will be determined by the issue of succession. If Crown Prince Abdullah becomes king, he can choose his own crown prince, and rumour has it he will choose someone from the next generation of princes who, while a son of one of King Fahd’s full brothers, will also be more in touch with younger people. The idea of Abdullah dying before King Fahd is so awful a scenario that reformers do not like to contemplate it. However, even if he succeeds as they would prefer, it remains a real possibility that the alliance between the royal family and the Wahhabi establishment is so entrenched that trying to separate them would be fatal to both. Only one thing is certain: no other country is going to change more dramatically, and with greater consequences for the world community, than Saudi Arabia.