by James Spencer
It seems that there has been a rapidly building expression of international disquiet about the relationship between the ideology of Salafi Jihadism and Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia (and—less well-known—of Qatar.) As Gideon Rachman recently put it in an archetypal Financial Times op-ed “The sudden increase in concern about Saudi Arabia is driven, in large part, by the rise of Isis.”
In fact, the concern over the apparent linkage began shortly after the shocking expansion of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Alastair Crooke—a former MI-6 officer—wrote “You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia” in August 2014, and in the same month Patrick Cockburn revealed “Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country.” Possibly as a result of this negative publicity, “Saudi Arabia Continues Hiring Spree of American Lobbyists, Public Relations Experts” to paper over the cracks.
There was also much concern expressed at the time over the nationalities of 15 of 19 hijackers in the eastern US on September 11, 2001, and over the nationality and ideology of the architect of the attacks on the US embassies in East Africa. Yet, “the Saudis have paid about $100 million to lobbyists, consultants and public relations specialists over the past ten years” since 2001, papering over the cracks, again.
It’s not as if various national intelligence agencies haven’t become aware of the capability of Salafi jihadism only in the last year or so: in its current version, it’s been around for the last 30 years and more. Indeed, the West rode the Salafi jihadi tiger to defeat the Soviet drive to seize Afghanistan. Once oil brought enormous revenues, Saudi Arabia exported Wahhabism through formal and informal means, spreading first across the Middle East, the subcontinent, and into Central Asia, at the same time, pushing across the Maghreb, the Sahel, and into West Africa; and from Somalia down the Swahili coast of East Africa toward South Africa. This intolerant Salafi Jihadism is steadily extending into Europe and the US. Al-Qaeda has attacked all the P5 (except China) in the past 15 years. IS has attacked US, France, and Russia in the last six weeks, has the UK firmly in its sights, and has just issued its first propaganda piece in Mandarin.
In the face of such a violent puritanical ideology, one might have hoped that politicians would do something. Thus far, the main thing that they have done is to continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the UK is alleged to have targeted Saudi Arabia specifically for an export drive. Bizarrely, the UK also withdrew from bidding on a small contract to provide training for prison guards in Saudi Arabia on human rights grounds—yet the training would have improved professionalisation and human rights compliance.
Politicians at home and abroad have talked a lot, rather than doing anything. Their explanations, excuses, and hand wringing are amplified by sympathetic journalists. The line generally follows two strands: fear of worse to come and non-interference in internal affairs.
Gideon Rachman illustrates the former: “The past five years have demonstrated that when bad governments fall in the Middle East, they are often replaced by something far worse.” Yet in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood showed themselves to be just another bunch of power-hungry politicians who broke their promises and showed themselves to be administratively incompetent. (If the counter-revolution hadn’t occurred, the Muslim Brotherhood would probably have discredited themselves in the eyes of the Egyptians forever.) The military junta that seized power is backed by the Sunni Arab monarchies and can hardly be called a beacon of democracy, nor has it brought peace and security to the land. In Yemen, the GCC Initiative/counter-revolution tried to perpetuate the cronyism that the “Arab Street” had demonstrated against. The Sunni Arab monarchies had to intervene physically to prop up their client. In Syria, the alternative to the Ba’ath seems to be IS: secular violence or sectarian violence.
Then there is the “we’re-all-in-it-together” excuse: “But it is also true that the Saudi royal family itself has been targeted by both Isis and al-Qaeda.” IS and al-Qaeda reject the Al Sa’ud dominion in the symbiotic founding pact between the Al Sa’ud and the Al al-Shaykh (that Al Sa’ud will support Al al-Shaykh temporally, so Al al-Shaykh will legitimate Al Sa’ud religiously.) Otherwise, IS and al-Qaeda are Wahhabis (albeit at the extreme, violent end of the movement.) Nor is this the first time an IS schism has occurred among Wahhabis: in 1928, Ibn Sa’ud had to destroy the Ikhwan at the Battle of Sabilla to stop the Islamists from extending the state into…Iraq and al-Sham (literally, the “north”).
Yet “the most powerful internal critics of the Saudi monarchy are not liberals but hardline Islamists,” Rachman continues. “The fear that Saudi Arabia could become yet another failed state haunts the west.” Thus there seems to be an impasse, with suggestions limited and cosmetic:
The Europeans and Americans have accepted a blatant double standard, in which the Saudis are allowed to fund their own brand of religious intolerance while banning the organised practice of other religions inside Saudi Arabia. Perhaps it is time to give the Saudis a choice: agree to allow churches, Hindu temples and synagogues to open in Saudi Arabia, or face the end of Saudi funding for mosques in the west.
Were such an agreement to occur, the Saudis would merely be allowing soft targets for terrorists to open in Saudi Arabia, while the Saudis will continue to be “allowed to fund their own brand of religious intolerance”!
There is a way out of this seeming impasse, rather than papering over the cracks yet again. As part of the current reform programme, the Al Sa’ud could establish a constitutional monarchy, which could thus be divorced from the need for religious affirmation. The excesses of modern Saudi Wahhabism could then be curbed; such an arrangement would need a version of Queen Anne’s Bounty to provide for the Al al-Shaykh in Saudi Arabia. (Interestingly, Qatar has not tended to export the same puritanical violence, possibly because it’s always been a more cosmopolitan environment, or because it came into its money later, or because of the descent from Al al-Shaykh obviates the need for the pact.) The Economist ran a recent article “In Shia Muslims’ holiest site, a new openness to other faiths,” which seemed to describe a similar transformation, from a starting point when “a century ago, the country’s Shia clergy considered it sacrilege to shake hands or sit at table with non-Muslims, on grounds that the presence of non-believers would render their food impure” (behaviour remarkably reminiscent of Acts 10: 28!)
Neither evolution is revolutionary, even within the region: Qatar and Jordan are already each working on the religious issue from their different starting points. There is also some evidence that modern Saudi Wahhabism is—ironically—more intolerant than that advocated by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Politically, Qatar is formally already a constitutional monarchy, as is the Kingdom of Morocco (ruled by a descendant of the Prophet), while the King of Jordan (descendant of the Sharifs of Hijaz) has expressed his openness to consideration.
To some extent, this form of Salafism now has a life of its own and has survived formal crackdowns, but official sponsorship of a more tolerant, worldly form of Wahhabism would in time replace the current insular version. Such a process would be accelerated if those who were found to be propagating terrorist ideology were dealt with severely—something easier to do once the constitutional position of the monarchy is established.
Riding the tiger is exciting; it’s when you can see the tiger smile that life usually becomes bloody. It’s past time to draw in the tiger’s fangs before anyone else gets hurt.
Photo: Graduate ceremony at IS boot camp.
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.