The Saudi’s incoregible behaviour

Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings are a double edged sword for the Saud regime in the 20th century, which no longer controls the fundamentalists who believe in them

Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

If one had to sum up the relationship between the Saudi Arabian state and the Wahhabite doctrine in two words, the two words would be "symbiosis" and "ambiguity". A symbiosis that dates back to the Twenties, when the Al-Saud family decided to embark on a campaign to reconquer the Arab Peninsula after the debacle suffered by its clan at the beginning of the 19th century. Like his ancestors a century earlier, the leader and future sovereign Abdulaziz al-Saud had managed to unite his followers by placing the Wahhabite doctrine as a cornerstone of his right to power. An ideology based on the concept of the Tawhid – "the unity" – of believers around a single leader in the service of the only true faith. Abdulaziz was surrounded by an elite unit of Bedouin warriors, the "Ikhwan" (the 'brothers', though they bear no relation to the Muslim Brotherhood), a group of fanatical veterans who would turn out to be fundamental to the conquest of Arabia. The relationship between the ambitious leader and his praetorians however came unstuck once the invasion had been completed. During their conquests the Al-Saud clan had banished the Hashemites from the Mecca (a clan whose descendants now rule over Jordan), who were allied at the with the British Empire. London reacted cautiously, sending representatives out to sound Abdulaziz's intentions.

And at this point the ambiguity in the relationship between the Wahhabi doctrine and the Al-Saud family came to the fore. An ambiguity that will surface again in the years to come, with different parties involved. The ambitious Abdelaziz realised that if he wished to stay in power he had to curb his expansionist tendencies and project an image that might make him acceptable as a partner to European states. Not doing so would mean making an enemy of the British Empire, too large and strong to be defeated, as had been the case with the Ottoman Empire for his ancestors. Yet restricting himself to the Arab Peninsula contradicted the pan-Islamic aspirations of the more fanatical among his followers and transformed the Ikhwan into a cumbersome burden that had to be neutralised. Abdulaziz proceeded to eliminate the problem by curbing the revolt and sending them all in front of a firing squad. This act of 'betrayal' made it clear to everyone that ideological concerns came second when they didn't fit in with the royal family's aspirations. This ambiguity would surface once again more than half a century later, in different circumstances.

In the Eighties, Abdulaziz' heirs, now rich with petrodollars and worried by the creation of the Iranian Islamic Republic, once again turned to the Wahhabi doctrine to expand its influence over the Muslim world. They did so "nicely", by building mosques and libraries everywhere; and 'forcefully', by funding groups of Mujahideen sent off to fight the Soviet invader in Afghanistan. In this instance, as it turns out, the interests of the royal family (and its American ally) coincided with those of the more radical militants.

Billions of dollars were poured in to support these groups which, under Bin Laden's leadership, would provide the backbone of what was to became al-Qaeda. The harmonious relationship between Wahhabi pan-Islamism and the Saudi monarchy had been re-established during the previous decades, when Riyadh had become a haven for a number of scholars linked to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which had expanded out of Egypt to reach large parts of the Middle East. The Brotherhood preached the rediscovery of Islamic values "from its roots" – not unlike what Wahhabism set out to do – and allowed an 'Armed Jihad' to be waged against leaders who, despite being Muslim 'on paper', did not defend and apply these values. The merging of the theoretical principles upheld by the Brotherhood with those of Wahhabism, as performed by scholars such as Sayyid Qutb, who came up with the concept of "Tafkir", meaning the right, which in the past had also applied to the Wahhabi movement, to accuse other Muslims of being 'infidels', and later by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, Bin Laden's teacher in Afghanistan, would give the Saudi leadership the illusion of being able to exercise its dominance over the entire Islamic Umma. As was the case when the realm was first founded however, this illusion was short lived.

Soon the leadership of the jihadist movement, having won out in Afghanistan against the Soviets, began to turn its critical gaze on the choices made by its Saudi sponsors, especially following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent reaction by NATO. The Al-Saud clan, afraid of Saddam Hussein's troops lined along its borders, allowed the US to station troops in the country, on the Arab Peninsula that is considered the "Holy Land" of Islam. An decision deemed unacceptable by the al-Qaeda leadership which viewed it as an unquestionable sign of the "kafir", infidel, nature of the monarchy. A fracture that was reiterated once more a few years later. September 11 represented a very tough moment for the Realm's diplomacy. The embarrassment at being publically accused of having contributed to generating those events was compounded by the Saudi monarchy's awareness that they had no way of putting a stop to the monster they'd spawned. The jihadist ideology was particularly appealing especially to its younger subjects, for whom, after all, it appeared to be nothing more than the application of the Realm's official religious doctrine. In the 2000s many of these were to join the AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula), the armed group whose main purpose was to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.

After the initial panic, the reaction in the years to follow was strong, varied and merciless. The Realm reacted against the terrorist attacks that hit the Realm's cities with great efficiency and ruthlessness: a complex surveillance system was put in place to capture and eliminate the most dangerous subjects, while sympathisers were closed away in 're-education' camps which they were to leave many years later. But the most drastic changes came in its foreign policy. Support for armed Islamic groups was withdrawn (despite exceptions, such as in Syria). From the start od the 2000s Saudi petrodollars only provided support for the supposedly "quiet" groups, which were clearly uninterested in any kind of political activity. An obvious example is the Al-Dawa movement in Egypt, that on the one hand was engaged in preaching the Salafi way of life so dear to Wahhabism, while on the other was completely loyal to the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Riyadh cut off relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, which at this point was viewed as a dangerous promoter of an exceedingly 'political' and independent approach, with a tendency to sow doubt on the loyalty owed to regimes in power. Riyadh decided to focus its support on more 'presentable' governments even to Western eyes, while also capable of guaranteeing a stable authority and preventing the growth of any kind of democratic movements.

Up until the Arab Springs, this will result in support being given to leaders such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia. And from 2011 onwards, the same policy will see Saudi Arabia fronting the "reactionary movement" opposed to the changes called for by the Arab Spring uprisings. Riyadh poured billions of dollars into the regimes threatened by the protests and in 2013 sponsored the coup in Egypt in favour of the "new Mubarak" Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Syria, a long-standing ally of its Iranian rival, stands out as the only exception. For a long time the Saudis supported a few Salafi inspired rebel groups, such as the infamous Jaish al-Islam, which operated around Damascus. This support led nowhere and following the rise of IS, ended up seeing Riyadh accused of maintaining ties with international Jihadism. With the help of Russia, Riyadh is now trying to patch up its relationship with Assadwhich could mean diplomatic relations being restored in the next few months, as has already been the case with the UAE and Bahrain.

So Saudi Arabia appears to have severed its ties once and for all with all armed Islamic groups. But the ambiguity remains. In 2018, a report by the Financial Action Task Force revealed how Riyadh has successfully curbed funding for jihadi groups operating on its own territories but is still fairly lax when it comes to supervising dubious cash flowing in support of terrorist groups in other countries. The Saudi authorities seem to be turning a blind eye, once again, on their wealthy citizens who wish to support the armed jihad around the world. After all, it seems that many Saudi's still have trouble seeing any real difference between the absolutist version of Islam preached by the Jihadists and what they were taught as kids in the Wahhabi schools of the realm.


This article is also published in the July/August issue of eastwest.

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