War on Terror II: The Janus-Faced Kingdom

7 mins. to read
War on Terror II: The Janus-Faced Kingdom

In 1744 in the Arabian city-state of Al-Diriyyah, a prominent Muslim cleric by the name of Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhabi came to Muhammad ibn Saud, the emir, asking for protection. This was granted and the two decided to ally themselves. Ibn Saud, from whom the current rulers of Saudi Arabia are descended, endorsed Ibn Abdel Wahhabi’s ideas about cleansing Islam from various heresies which had gained currency and to restore the religion of the Prophet to its purest, and most austere, form.

Their alliance was formalised by the wedding of Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhabi’s daughter to Abdul Aziz, son and successor of Ibn Saud. Since that time, the two families have remained intimately linked. Today, The Al ash-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s leading religious family, are the descendants of the al-Wahhabi, and have historically led state-sanctioned religious congresses and dominated Saudi Arabia’s clerical institutions.

Using the ideology of Ibn Abdul-Wahhabi, Ibn Saud helped to establish the House of Saud as the pre-eminent dynasty in the Arabian Peninsula. The use of religion as a keystone of political legitimacy was new: previously martial valour and wealth prevailed. Over time, the House of Saud attracted allegiance from most of the neighbouring clans.

By October 1916, when one Captain TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) landed in the Arabian Peninsula with instructions from the British high command to foment rebellion against the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire, Feisal ibn Saud emerged as the natural leader of the Arabs. Backed by British guns and money, Faisal became King of Iraq in 1921.

Assisted by Lawrence, the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, led a pan-Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Although the Arab Revolt of 1916 to 1918 failed in its objective, the Allied victory in World War I resulted in the end of Ottoman control in Arabia.

Ibn Saud, son of the last Emir of Najd, avoided involvement in the Arab Revolt, and instead continued his struggle with the Al Rashidi, a rival clan. Following their final defeat, he took the title Sultan of Najd in 1921. With the help of another clan, the Ikhwani, Hejaz province was conquered in 1924–25 and in January 1926, Ibn Saud declared himself King of Hejaz. A year later, he added the title of King of Nejd. For the next five years, he ruled the two parts of his dual kingdom as separate units.

After the conquest of the Hejaz, the Ikhwani wanted to extend the Wahhabi realm into the British protectorates of Transjordan, Iraq and Kuwait, and began raiding those territories. Ibn Saud opposed this, as he did not want a direct conflict with the British. At the same time, the Ikhwani became disenchanted with Ibn Saud’s domestic policies which appeared to favour modernisation. They turned against Ibn Saud and, after a two-year struggle, were defeated in 1930 at the Battle of Sabilla, where their leaders were massacred. In 1932 the two kingdoms of Hejaz and Nejd were united as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with Ibn Saud as its first King. (He ruled as King Abdul-Aziz). The British regarded Ibn Saud as the best of a bad bunch and supported him accordingly.

Wahhabism is seen by some adherents as a derogatory term coined by his opponents. They prefer to call it the Salafi movement – the salaf being the essential principles of the Islamic faith as understood by the first three generations of Muslims. Hence the term Salafist, which as we know, is now associated with what many Western commentators call Islamic Fundamentalism. Recall that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 09/11 were Saudi nationals.

Some scholars claim that Salafism is a term applicable to several forms of puritanical Islam in various parts of the world, while Wahhabism refers to the specific Saudi school, which is seen as a more strict form of Salafism. According to Ahmad Moussalli, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, “As a rule, all Wahhabis are Salafists, but not all Salafists are Wahhabis”. Others suggest that while Wahhabism and Salafism originally were two different things, they became practically indistinguishable in the 1970s. But this is all somewhat academic.

Why is this important? Well, very simply, Islam, which has about 1.6 billion adherents across the globe – 22% of the worlds’ population – has changed over the last fifty years or so very largely on account of the growing influence of Wahhabi religious ideology which has been widely propagated with Saudi state funds.

Many Muslim countries – Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, even Egypt – were considered “moderate” (even “liberal”) by Western visitors because you could easily get a drink, women went about unveiled and music and other entertainments abounded. Until recently, that is. The Malaysian state of Terengganu is completely dry now, and the burka is ubiquitous. Turkey is inching down this path, much against the secular principles of its founder, Atatürk. Egypt (briefly) had a Muslim Brotherhood President with an explicit agenda to impose Sharia law.

One of al-Wahhabi’s first acts in the Emirate of Al-Diriyyah was to outlaw the shrines of Muslim holy men (sidi as they were known in large parts of North Africa). In India, the shrines of holy men are still the loci of pilgrimage, such as the shine of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri. Islam in India was always inclusive. For the three hundred years that the Muslim Mughal emperors ruled India, they married Hindu wives, endowed Hindu temples and attended lavish concerts with stringed instruments. Some even drank wine. They are, of course, regarded with disdain by modern Salafists.

Listening to a recent conversation between UK-born Muslim journalists and writers, the anecdotal evidence is that some young Muslims take their first steps towards “radicalisation” when they leave the local mosque attended with family and gravitate towards “Arab” mosques run by Salafists. Such is the reputation of, for example, the Finsbury Park Mosque. In East London, which I know well, the “moderate” tradition of Bengali imams is being challenged by more radical Arabic ones.

Is Saudi Arabia the real problem? If it is, we would have to confront the fact that we are closely allied with the source of Wahhabi religious ideology. Saudi Arabia is a major customer of the US and UK arms industry and is regarded as a major bulwark against the (hitherto) more dangerous and unstable Iran. The Saudis are big investors in the UK (and big owners of UK real estate). The US regards anything that might bring about the downfall of the House of Saud as anathema – because something much worse might replace it. The idea of IS (or something similar) getting control of the world’s largest oil field is too awful to contemplate.

I am not anti-Saudi. I have been to the Kingdom several times and find that, while I am concerned about its awful human rights record, there is much to admire there. Under the House of Saud, Riyadh has transitioned from a few tents in the desert to a vibrant American-style metropolis. Saudi bankers that I have met are well-educated (invariably with degrees from top US and UK universities), sophisticated and have a mastery of English.

Yesterday there was a very interesting discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme, chaired by Andrew Marr. Madawi Al-Rasheed, a London-based Saudi academic (she teaches at the LSE) has written a book called Muted Modernists. Madawi thinks there may be some grounds for optimism. She has identified the rise of a group of influential intellectual modernists within the Kingdom who share an agenda of political reform (they want a democratic constitutional monarchy) as well as fundamental re-interpretation of the religious texts. Unfortunately, most of these people, some of whom are clerics, are in prison, but a fundamental idea is on the rise: that the Wahhabi view of Islam is just one interpretation – and there are others which are just as valid. This is in fact a long-established idea in the Muslim world, though one which has been supressed by Wahhabis who argue that their literal interpretation is the only righteous one.

Sir William Patey, a former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, believes that the greatest threat to the Kingdom is the prospect of a rupture within the House of Saud itsself. Since King Salmon assumed the throne in January this year, there have been signs of factions emerging. For their part the Saudi princes were appalled by the alacrity with which the US abandoned its support for Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring in Egypt and have no illusions that the West will come to their aid if the monarchy crumbles.

This is now being reinforced by the perception that America, flush with shale oil and gas, is less dependent than hitherto on Saudi oil. China, unburdened by the West’s scruples about human rights, is becoming a more important customer for Saudi oil. Hence the talk of the New Silk Road. Yet the Chinese, who have their own problems with Islamic fundamentalism, may yet emerge as a major player in War on Terror II.

If Saudi Arabia is the source of the pernicious religious ideology that is blighting our time, it could yet be its greatest victim. In Roman mythology Janus was a God with two faces, gazing at the future and the past. Saudi Arabia has still not decided which of these to favour.

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