Thursday, November 25, 2010

Saudi Arabia Under The Spotlight

August 03, 2005
By Milan Rai

With the death of King Fahd, Saudi Arabia is the main topic of discussion in today's newspapers. Below we fill in some of the gaps in the British coverage.


The central fact of Saudi Arabia is the merger between the ruling al-Sa'ud family and the harsh Wahhabi version of Islam. This is referred in the Guardian's editorial thus: 'Unhappily, the kingdom is also the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, wayward scion of a wealthy and privileged family whose violent fundamentalism is still close to Wahhabi doctrine.'

This says that bin Laden's family is close to Wahhabism.

Nowhere in the editorial is there acknowledgement that the al-Sa'ud family is not merely close to Wahhabism, but its guarantor and promoter, not only in Saudi Arabia, but around the world.

The Guardian obituary is even worse: 'The ruling house had its Wahhabite zealots, but, on the whole, it was always relatively forward-looking, far more so, certainly, than the hidebound religious establishment, the other pillar of this unique theocracy - and usually more so than the people at large.'

No acknowledgement here that the 'other pillar of this unique theocracy is only there because the House of Sa'ud determined in the past that it should be the state religion, and continues to enforce its dominance by force and largesse.

Robert Fisk offers some corrective in the Independent, with a front page story on the House of Sa'ud, acknowledging the importance of Wahhabism to the royal family in his second sentence, going on to write:

'Journalists like to claim that Wahhabism is "obscurantist" but it is not true. Abdul-Wahab was not a great thinker or philosopher but, for his followers, he was a near-saint. Waging war on felllow Muslims who had erred was an obligatory part of his philosophy, whether they be the "deviant" Shia Muslims of Basra - whom he vainly tried to convert to Sunni Islam (they chucked him out) - or Arabians who did not follow his own exclusive interpretation of Muslim unity.'

'But he also prescribed rebellion against rulers. His orthodoxy threatened the modern-day House of Saud because of its corruption, yet secured its future by forbidding revolution. The Saudi royal family thus embraced the one faith which could protect and destroy it.'

'Which is why all the talk in modern Saudi Arabia of "cracking down on terror", protecting women's rights, lessening the power of the religious police, is so much hokum.' (page 2)

Roula Khalaf, another outstanding Middle East correspondent, writes in the FT that after 9/11, 'A royal family that has always relied for its legitimacy on the support of clerics from the puritan and often intolerant Wahabi sect was compelled to face the dangerous consequences of their religious teaching, whether in mosques or schools.'

In the Telegraph, Tim Butcher and Rasheed Abou-Alsamh (the latter writing from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia) quote 'Adel Al-Toraifi, a writer and political analyst in the capital, Riyadh, [who] said he did not believe that women would be allowed to drive or vote in the next five years. Such a change of policy would risk antagonising the ultra-conservatives, whose support of the royal family has been crucial to the longevity of their rule. Mr Al-Toraifi said: "If they allow women to drive and vote, it will spell the end of their control over the population and it would be too dangerous for them.' '


For a percept account of the Sa'udi-Wahhabi merger, we may turn to Madawi al-Rasheed's A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
It is well-known that Ibn Sa'ud, the founder of the modern state that bears his name, conquered the peninsula in the 1920s with the aid of a tribal military formations known as ikhwan. Mudawi al-Rasheed points out that equally important in securing the establishment of Sa'udi rule over the diverse tribes of the Arabian peninsula was the system of part-time clerical authorities peculiar to central Arabia:

'A mutawwa' 'was a member of the hadar [sedentary population] who had acquired a religious education after a period of study with a distinguished member of 'ulama [religious scholars] based in the main towns of southern Najd (mainly Riyadh) and Qasim ('Unayzah) after which he became a specialist in jurisprudence and matters relations to 'ibada (Islamic rituals)... a volunteer who enforced obedience to Islam and performance of its rituals... [This was] a Najdi phenomenon... differed from religious scholars in other parts of the Islamic world, commonly referred to as 'ulama. Historically Najdi men of religion often studied, taught and applied Hanbali fiqh [school of law] only, and considered other branches of the religious and linguistic sciences as intellectual luxuries that were not needed in their own society...' The mutawwa'a were '
"religious ritual specialists", or simply "ritual specialists"... [with] limited expertise in theology. They practised their expertise in conjunction with agriculture and trade.' (page 49)

''''Although they taught submission to God, 'in practice they implied that without submission to the political authority of Ibn Sa'ud, the faith and deeds of Muslims would be threatened.' 'they often had to use violence against those who refused to submit to their authority', including 'publicly lashing those who violated their code of behaviour... These ritual specialists became the nucleus of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice.' (page 52)

'The problem for Ibn Sa'ud as he set out to build a kingdom, was that his base was a small, isolated settled community in the central Najd region of Arabia. It lacked the strong kinship ties to powerful non-settled bedouin tribes needed to create the kind of powerful alliance needed to conquer the peninsula. Solution? Religious authority.

'The enforcement of ritualistic Islam by the Najdi mutawwa'a was significant in the process of state formation. Between 1902 and 1932 the regime of "discipline and punishment" enforced by the mutawwa'a who were constantly preoccupied with ritualistic Islam was essential for domesticating the Arabian population into accepting the political authority of Ibn Sa'ud after he captured Riyadh in 1902.' They declared him imam. 'The symbolic title of imam granted him a most needed legitimacy. In return, the mutawwa'a were assured of sympathetic political and military leadership.' (page 50)

'It seems that before Ibn Saud captured Riyadh, the mutawwa'a were lacking in prestige and authority', sometimes expelled from tribal confederations, just as their founder Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab had been expelled from 'Uyahnah in the eighteenth century. (page 54) 'Having lost their material wealth, prestige and status in the nineteenth century, the mutawwa'a were predisposed to accept a political figure who promised not only their salvation but also a reversal of their misfortune.' (page 56) 'Ibn Sa'ud enlisted them in the service of his domain as he employed them and paid their salaries in cash and kind. He thus transformed them into full-time religious ritual specialists, loyal to him and dependent on his resources.
In return, Ibn Sa'ud was guaranteed the political submission of the Arabian population under the guise of submission to God.' The mutawwa'a also collected zakat (tribute or taxes) for the central government. (page

/'Often the mutawwa'a arrived among the tribal confederations before Ibn Sa'ud's raiding troops... They were probably 'confined to teaching the Qur'an and 'ibada [Islamic rituals]... In addition, they preached the importance of obedience to wali al-amr, leader of the Muslim community.
Obedience should be manifested in readiness to pay him zakat and respond to his call for jihad. Both zakat and jihad were at the heart of the Wahhabi idea of the state, and were considered crucial mechanisms for its consolidation.' (pages 51, 52)

'The mutawwa'a also played a crucial role in the creation of the ikhwan fighting force' with which Ibn Sa'ud conquered his kingdom. (page 58) Tribal confederations were persuaded to settle in villages known as hujjar, a word that 'evokes the early migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Madina where he established the first Muslim community in the seventh century... Those who agreed to settle and endorse the mutawwa'a's teaching became known as ikhwan.' (page 60) They became the fierce fighting core of Sa'udi power.

'With the ikhwan, the tension between central power and the tribal periphery, which had plagued previous Sa'udi emirates and had often led to their demise, was partially overcome. Ibn Sa'ud incorporated the tribal confederations in a semi-permanent force, which was not meant to disperse after raids against settlements or confederations.' (page 60)

'While the mutawwa'a exerted mental coercion among those whom they were meant to educate in Islamic rituals, the ikhwan practised physical coercion among people in Arabia... The ikhwan carried out public prosecutions and looted and plundered the towns and their inhabitants.
They became known in Arabia as jund al-tawhid, the soldiers who enforced the doctrine of the oneness of God.' (page 61) 'Their uncompromising attitude and ability to inflict severe punishment created an atmosphere of fear and apprehension among people. Their reputation travelled fast in Arabia even before they arrived at the gates of oases and towns.' (page 62)


The loyalty of the ikhwan depended on the continuation of military campaigns. When Ibn Sa'ud ran into the boundaries of the British empire in the 1920s, he quickly recognised power realities and ruled British-controlled terroritories off-limits to the ikhwan. This was a major factor in precipitating the ikhwan revolt in 1927, which was forcefully put down with the assistance of the British (a fore-runner to today's joint "counter-terrorist" operations of the US-UK and the House of Sa'ud).

Madawi al-Rasheed comments that, 'the ikhwan rebellion demonstrated that the emerging state was from the very beginning a non-tribal entity whose expansion and consolidation could only progress at the expense of the tribal element.' (page 70) The new state was 'definitely a non-tribal entity that gradually undermined and broke the cohesion of the various tribal groups.' (page 71)

The al-Sa'ud family had no tribal strength. It could only conquer and rule through invoking a loyalty across tribal lines. By using a particularly harsh and authoritarian form of Islam: Wahhabism. That remains the case today. This strength is also its weakness.

The ikhwan challenge in 1927 was seen off by a combination of clerical loyalty and imperialist intervention. Without the loyalty of the clerics, the neo-ikhwans (such as those who besieged the Mecca mosque in 1979) cannot be resisted.

Without Wahhabism, there is no logic to Sa'udi rule. It is difficult to attack the Wahhabi zealots (such as Osama bin Laden) or to alter the fundamentalist structure of the state without immediately endangering the non-tribal foundations of the state. If Wahhabism is not holding the structure together, Sa'udi society will return to its traditional tribal patterns of authority, in which the House of Sa'ud has no pre-eminent place.

Robert Fisk: 'Saudi Arabia is not - and cannot be - a "modern" society in our sense of the word as long as Wahhabism holds its power. But it must be allowed to do so - to protect the king. And since it increasingly becomes a poor country, the Wahhabi authorities and the religious police grow stronger.'


What else is missing from the enormous coverage of Saudi Arabia? One element that is hardly mentioned is the long strategic compact between the House of Sa'ud and Saddam Hussein (united by their fear of their Shia populations, and of Shia Iran).

The Telegraph obituary is honest enough to record that, 'During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, terrified of the threat from Islamic fundamentalists in Iran, Fahd provided generous financial backing to Saddam Hussein, and in 1989 signed a pact of non-aggression with him.'

Not honest enough to note, however, that Fahd himself was running an Islamic fundamentalist regime, and that it was therefore impossible for his backing of Saddam's semi-genocidal regime to be based on a 'fear of fundamentalism'.

David Hirst in the Guardian's obituary makes the same 'error', with a re-writing of history as to Saudi motives: 'Fahd lavished petro-dollars on keeping, first, communism, then Islamic fundamentalism at bay. He cultivated his "brother Saddam Hussein" with the object of curbing the Iraqi dictator's designs on neighbouring Kuwait, and subversive activities in general. He called Saddam "the sword of Islam" when he went to war against Khomeini's Iran, and backed that accolade with huge subventions.'


One aspect of the Fahd-Saddam alliance that has not been mentioned at all is the evidence that emerged in 1994 of Sa'udi funding of Iraq's nuclear weapons programme. A former Saudi diplomat, Mohammed Khilewi, who sought asylum in the United States, alleged that Saudi Arabia provided $5 billion in funding for Iraq's nuclear programme during the 1980s in exchange for a nuclear weapon (and that Saudi Arabia had two undeclared nuclear research reactors).

The Monterey Institute of International Studies Center for Nonproliferation Studies plays down the claims: 'After obtaining asylum in the US, with the consent of Saudi Arabia, Khilewi's allegations never came to fruition. The allegation have not to date been confirmed by any other source, and US officials said they had no evidence of Saudi assistance to Iraqi nuclear development.'

On the other hand (setting aside the official US denials as of no significance), confirmation from another source is claimed by the respected

'Khilewi produced documents for the London Sunday Times that supported his charge that the Saudi government had paid up to five billion dollars from the Saudi treasury for Saddam Hussein to build a nuclear weapon. Between 1985 and 1990, up to the time Saddam invaded Kuwait, the payments were made on condition that some of the bombs, should the project succeed, be transferred to the Saudi arsenal.'

The Khilewi cache 'included transcripts of a secret desert meeting between Saudi and Iraqi military teams a year before the invasion of Kuwait. The transcrips depicts the Saudis funding the nuclear program and handing over specialised equipment that Iraq could not have obtained elsewhere.'

'What Khilewi did not know was that the Fahd-Saddam nuclear project was also a closely held secret in Washington. According to a former high-ranking American diplomat, the CIA was fully apprised. The funding stopped only at the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991.'

'The defector's documents also showed that Riyadh had paid for Pakistan's bomb project and signed a pact that if Saudi Arabia were attacked with nuclear weapons, Pakistan would respond against the aggressor with its own nuclear arsenal.'

The source for the highlighted paragraph is the New Yorker. Andrew and Leslie Cockburn found two sources:

'... the Fahd-Saddam nuclear project was also a closely held secret in Washington. According to a former high-ranking American diplomat, the C.I.A. was fully apprised. "I knew about it," the diplomat says matter-of-factly, "and so did they." A senior White House official, asked about the Saudi government's involvement and American complicity, told us, "They did spend billions on the Iraqis. It was a different world. We were ready to overlook a lot of things the Saudis were doing for the Iraqis.
It's consistent with all the other terrible things we did at the time "to shore up Saddam."

The original Khilewi story appeared in Marie Colvin, 'How an Insider Lifted the Veil on Saudi Plot for an "Islamic Bomb",' Sunday Times, 24 July 1994. It was also reported in Steve Coll and John Mintz, 'Saudi Aid to Iraqi A-Bomb Effort Alleged,' Washington Post, 25 July 1994.


The Guardian reported in September 2003 that Saudi Arabia, in response to the current upheaval in the Middle East, had embarked on a 'strategic review' that included the option of acquiring nuclear weapons:

A strategy paper being considered at the highest levels in Riyadh sets out three options:

  • To acquire a nuclear capability as a deterrent;
  • To maintain or enter into an alliance with an existing nuclear power that would offer protection;
  • To try to reach a regional agreement on having a nuclear-free Middle East.

Until now, the assumption in Washington was that Saudi Arabia was content to remain under the US nuclear umbrella. But the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US has steadily worsened since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington: 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi.

It is not known whether Saudi Arabia has taken a decision on any of the three options. But the fact that it is prepared to contemplate the nuclear option is a worrying development.

United Nations officials and nuclear arms analysts said the Saudi review reflected profound insecurities generated by the volatility in the Middle East, Riyadh's estrangement with Washington and the weakening of its reliance on the US nuclear umbrella.

They pointed to the Saudi worries about an Iranian programme and to the absence of any international pressure on Israel, which has an estimated 200 nuclear devices.

Saudi Arabia does not regard Iran, a past adversary with which Riyadh has restored relations, as a direct threat. But it is unnerved by the possibility of Iran and Israel having nuclear weapons.

Riyadh is also worried about a string of apparent leaks in American papers
from the US administration critical of Saudi Arabia.

David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington thinktank, said he doubted whether the Saudis would try to build a nuclear bomb, preferring instead to try to buy a nuclear warhead. They would be the first of the world's eight or nine nuclear powers to have bought rather than built the bomb.

"There has always been worries that the Saudis would go down this path if provoked," said Mr Albright. "There is growing US hostility which could lead to the removal of the US umbrella and will the Saudis be intimidated by Iran? They've got to be nervous."

UN officials said there have been rumours going back 20 years that the Saudis wanted to pay Pakistan to do the research and development on nuclear weapons.

In 1988, Saudi bought from China intermediate-range missiles capable of reaching any part of the Middle East with a nuclear warhead.


The China link is particularly interesting today, as Patrick Bishop reports in the Telegraph:

'Western governments should not get too relaxed about the smooth transition.'

'The signs are that the conviction is growing [in Saudi Arabia] that close ties with the West may be more trouble than they are worth.'

'The kingdom has watched over a US military intervention that has spawned an army of international jihadists, followers of the anti-Saud bin Laden.'

'The situation when finally resolved will probably result in an Iraq dominated by Shias, creating a solid Shia front with Iran and shifting the religious balance of power in the Persian Gulf. All this fills Saudis with alarm.'

'It has started hedging its diplomatic bets, looking east to China as a market for Saudi oil, and as a source of finished goods, military hardware and ultimately, it has been speculated, nuclear technology. American troops, by mutual agreement, are no longer in the kingdom (or at least not
overtly) and have set up in Qatar instead.'

There is a logic to the alliance, as both Saudi Arabia and China are highly authoritarian capitalist economies whose ageing leaders cynically exploit anti-capitalist ideologies to maintain their power. They are both somewhat hostile to Russia (Saudi Arabia because of Russia's capacity to challenge Riyadh for dominance of the world energy market, China for geopolitical reasons).

As world oil begins to shrink, Saudi Arabia's enormous reserves will become more and more of a prize, just as China's economic (and political) strength is set to become more and more of a global force.

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