Wahhabism and the Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia


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Why does the doctrine of Wahhabism take such an important place in the Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia, and how does its government cope with globalization and the social adjustments it demands?

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Wahhabism and the Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia

  1. 1. Gallorini Marguerite Πανεπιστήμιο Μακεδονίας Erasmus 2012/2013 Politics of the Modern Middle-East Wahhabism and the Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia Problematic Why does the doctrine of Wahhabism take such an important place in the Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia, and how does its government cope with globalization and the social adjustments it demands? Hypothesis The Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia is considered as one of the most autocratic regimes of the world, as it exercises a firm segregative law on its citizens, by applying the rules of the religious Islamic branch called Wahhabism. The rising of this religious movement which went hand in hand with the creation of the Kingdom explains the way in which modern Sa'udi Arabia is ruled nowadays. Knowing this, we can suppose that a cultural conflict occurs between traditionally-ruled Sa'udi Arabia and the big Western powers with which the Kingdom does business, especially the United- States. What's more, it is well known that the American cultural hegemony is the dominant one in the world since several decades, so Sa'udi Arabia has not been spared. They inevitably have to open up to the world more and more because of globalization, and this leads to a certain clash of cultures within the country, swinging between century-old traditions and ultra-modern technologies. The Kingdom as we know it today has been created by Abdul Aziz, or Ibn Sa'ud for the Westerners. The official date of its creation is 1932, but Abdul Aziz's first and decisive reconquest of Riyad, which is still the capital today, had taken place in 1902. Before that time, Sa'udi Arabia was mainly an aggregate of Bedouin clans and rival sheikhdoms, and Riyad was only a mud-walled settlement far from what it has become today. But since that day, the Al Sa'ud conquered and homogenized their lands and developed their foreign policy, so much that today the Kingdom is one of the most influential powers of the world: indeed, Sa'udi Arabia contains the two holiest places of Islam, Mecca and Medina, and on the other hand the country owns the largest oil reserves on Earth, a forefront material for the Western world. The aim of this paper will not be the praise or the condemnation of the Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia, but rather the understanding of its paradoxical situation today, both internally and in relation to the world. What the West often forgets when studying the East is to put things in perspective, and it often simply puts in parallel two civilizations on several complex aspects that are not comparable. It is all the more dangerous to quickly judge such a country, given the little information coming from it to which we have access.
  2. 2. Gallorini Marguerite Πανεπιστήμιο Μακεδονίας Erasmus 2012/2013 Towards the building of the Kingdom: the origins of Sa'udi Wahhabism For the West, the history of the Sa'udi Arabia begins in the 1970s when the price of oil increased fivefold, enriching her considerably; or at least in the 1930s, when the first oil reserves were discovered and the Kingdom officially declared. But for its people, its history is much more than the mere discovering of oilfields: “In the West you see us as just an oil state, the country that exists to keep your gas tanks filled. But that is a very modern way of looking at Arabia. It is not how we see ourselves, and it is not how our country is seen by the millions of people who share our religion. “If you want to understand the Kingdom you must understand that 1400 years ago God revealed his word to the Prophet Muhammad in the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. They are on the other side of Arabia from the oilfields, but they are part of the same country and in our eyes they matter more than anything else.”1 (Sheikh Yamani, Oil Minister of the Kingdom) Indeed the history of the Al Sa'ud has been marked by a desire to unify the Arabian Peninsula and to spread what it promotes as a more purified and simple, though often criticized as less tolerant, view of Islam embodied by Wahhabism. Its followers2 can be seen as the equivalent of the Amish in the Western world: they ban all pleasant things like wine or tobacco, soft clothes, even minarets and prayer mats. The main difference with the rest of Islam is that Wahhabism rejects all forms of worshipping, aiming at a more direct relationship to religion: therefore paintings and icons are banned, and so are the cult of saints and the visiting of tombs and shrines3 . Besides, this Sa'udi engagement towards religion made them apart from the other Arab countries, with which they never really identified. For most of the Arab countries the identity that matters is the Arab one, whereas Sa'udi Arabia gives more importance to the religious identity. The father of Wahhabism was Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, born in 1703, and who dedicated his life to God and interpreting his word. He started his purging movements of idolatries in Nejd, a plateau situated a hundred kilometres at the East of Riyad. When the people of Nejd ended rejecting him, he was welcomed by Muhammad bin Sa'ud, who made him qadi (a judge following the Islamic religious law) of Dar'iyah, the original home city of the Sa'udi royal family in the 17th and early 18th century, also the capital of the First Sa'udi State. Thus started the link between Sa'udis and Wahhabism. At the Sa'udi conquests of Mecca and Medina, the Ottoman Empire declared war and sent Egyptian forces. The Al Sa'ud were defeated in 1818, and Dar'iyah was destroyed. When the Sa'udis revived in 1824 to found a Second State, they made their capital a little South of there, in present- day Riyad. But, weakened and distracted by inner family conflicts, the Al Rasheed took the chance to chase them out and won full control in 1891, leading from the city of Hail in the North. It is in 1902 that Riyad will be reconquered once and for all by Abdul Aziz bin Sa'ud, in spite of the British support given to the Rasheed and the Ottomans. In 1912, Abdul Aziz allied with the Ikhwan movement, a revival of Wahhabism in the 20th century4 – but contrary to the latter which aimed at 1 Robert Lacey, “Welcome to the Kingdom”, The Kingdom, (London: Fontana/Collins, 1982) 8. 2 Who prefer to be called Unitarians (Muwahiddun) rather than Wahhabis, however this last name has stayed, as Unitarian had a Christian connotation to outsiders. 3 They are so much against idolatry that today, even though century-old relics in Mecca are being destroyed by Sa'udi authorities for needs of expansion, thus alarming many archaeologists, the senior Wahhabis support these destructions, since these holy sites encourage the sin of idol worshipping. (Jerome Taylor, “The photos Saudi Arabia doesn't want seen”, The Independent, 15 March 2013 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-photos-saudi-arabia-doesnt-want-seen--and-proof-islams-most- holy-relics-are-being-demolished-in-mecca-8536968.html? fb_action_ids=474160445987458%2C474158635987639&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_source=other_multiline&action_objec t_map>) 4 The Ikhwan also rejected all forms of modernism, such as the telephone and cars, which they believed could only be
  3. 3. Gallorini Marguerite Πανεπιστήμιο Μακεδονίας Erasmus 2012/2013 townsmen, the Ikhwan aimed at the unreachable, superstitious and undisciplined bedouins. This was very useful for Abdul Aziz, who seeked to acquire a more homogeneous state, possible only through generating a stable loyalty from the bedouins. Conveniently enough, the Ikhwans proved to be, as all fearless soldiers of God in general, a dreadful army which suited the large conquest plan of Abdul Aziz. But in the first years of the 20th century, with the Arab states' rising against the Ottoman Empire and the First World War, the young Abdul Aziz did not weigh much compared to the great powers of the time. What's more his grand idea of a unified Arabian Peninsula was contrary to that of England: “'What we want', Lord Crewe had written several years earlier, 'is not a United Arabia, but a weak and disunited Arabia, split into little principalities as far as possible under our suzerainty – but incapable of co-ordinated action against us.”5 The Sykes-Picot secret agreement made that clear, to the dismay of the newly freed Arab populations who had been promised independence by England. Therefore at that time, Abdul Aziz, who understood well that he couldn't do anything without the financial help of England, failed to attract her attention. But he was a fine politician, besides being a charismatic figure, and knew how to be patient and wait for the ripe time to conquer a city or land. The capture of Mecca and Medina: the assertion of an authority Husain bin Ali, of the Hashemite family, was the Sharif of Mecca. His first-born Faisal was given by Britain the position of King of Iraq, and his second son Abdullah became king of Transjordan. Like the other Arab states, Husain took part in the revolt against the Turks in 1616, and then proclaimed himself King of the Hijaz. Until 1919, England had supported him, since he was considered as the main force in Arabia worthy of backing. Meanwhile, Abdul Aziz had fortified his kingdom little by little: all his overwhelming victories (thanks to the Ikhwans) were casting a new light on the balance of power in the area. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and Ataturk threw away the title of Caliph in his secularist goal in 1923, Husain took the occasion to proclaim himself Caliph, Successor of the Prophet, Guardian of Islam, and leader of Muslims. It angered much of the Muslim world, especially the Al Sa'ud; and even England failed to recognized his title. So in the 1920s, England began to doubt the Hashimite leader, so much that when Abdul Aziz's Ikhwan troops marched on Jeddah, where Husain was based, England did not back him: she had abandoned her ally, leaving the Sa'udi to achieve the capture of Mecca and Medina, in October 1924 and December 1925 respectively. With the capture of the two Holy Cities, he had appropriated the original core of the Islamic world, thereby enriching his country tremendously. In 1926, Abdul Aziz became both King of Nejd and of the Hijaz. From then on England supported Sa'udi Arabia, since she did not sought a divided area anymore, bringing too much trouble: for this unification purpose, Abdul Aziz was indeed the man for the job, and he had proven it. However, expansionism stopped there for the King: after the Holy Cities and almost all his enemies defeated, he knew he could extend no further North because of the neighbouring regions controlled firmly by the European powers (Iraq and Transjordan as we saw)6 . Meanwhile, the Ikhwan had gone back from the Hijaz after their work was done, and started to make raids out of control, attacking fellow citizens without any holy war motive. It had to stop, for the product of the devil, since it was not mentioned in the Koran. 5 Robert Lacey, “Britons and Arabs”, The Kingdom, (London: Fontana/Collins, 1982) 137 6 As for the Southern countries, the only one not under Western rule and which Abdul Aziz tried to acquire in 1934 was Yemen; but his sons' armies did not manage to pass the rocky mountains leading to the country, and they ended making a peace agreement with Yemen's imam. (Robert Lacey, “Well No.7”, The Kingdom, (London: Fontana/Collins, 1982) 248)
  4. 4. Gallorini Marguerite Πανεπιστήμιο Μακεδονίας Erasmus 2012/2013 they knew nothing about modern geopolitics and how to adapt and open up to the world. This outburst of the Ikhwan, in truth, was an expression of their desperation to see the world changing and leaving no place for nomad bedouins anymore. Abdul Aziz was reluctant to the idea of opposing them, he who understood the bedouin way of thinking and how frustrating an imposed sedentary and secure way of life could be for them. But for the sake of his new Kingdom and of his people, he marched himself on them with an army on March 1929 and defeated them; and then his allies defeated a second rebellion a short while later. In January 1930, the Ikhwan terror was finally over. In September 1932, King Abdul Aziz reunited the Hijaz and Nejd, and proclaimed the Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia, the Third and present Sa'udi State. We see therefore that already at the beginning of the Kingdom's existence, the paradox of Sa'udi Arabia relied between two forces: emerging globalization on the one hand, and inner traditions on the other. Abdul Aziz had sought to be able to maintain a twentieth-century power with seventh- century means, but this could no longer work. He wanted a glorious Kingdom, and this could not be done without altering some rigid principles. Tribal traditions perpetuating Religion and tribal traditions are both inherent to the Sa'udi Kingdom, and everything is made to make one remember those two origins, which have not disappeared from the present everyday-life: 'In the name of God.' The phrase is printed across the top of every sheet of official notepaper in the Kingdom. They are the opening words of the Five-Year Plan. It is the motto scrawled across television test patterns. Pilots welcome you on board their airliners with it. Computers are programmed to throw it up at the beginning of every print-out.7 The Sa'udi banner was green, the traditional colour of the cloak the Prophet wore, and it bore a fine tracery of Arabic inscription: 'There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.' That is the Islamic creed. It is all you need to say to become a Muslim; and today that war banner is the flag of modern Sa'udi Arabia, with the addition of just a sword below the motto as a reminder of the pennant's battlefield origins.8 There is no written constitution, which is declared to be the Koran, and national law is based on the sharia, the moral code and religious law of Islam. The Kingdom is composed of 13 provinces, with 12 princes at their head. The Sa'udi family is an autocratic monarchy, based on a tribal system: the al Sa'ud represent most of the political actors of the country, and locally those with the most important influence are sheikhs and the ulema, the Muslim law scholars who arbitrate the sharia. Concerning law, the more known Sa'udi sanction is the cut of hands for a thief. What is usually less none however, is that it takes for the victim to commit a theft 3 times, and to be caught red- handed: in other words, this is a seldom realized sentence. Nevertheless, Sa'udi methods of trials and sanctions have always been criticized by Human Rights' international organizations, as public executions and unfair trials are still very common in the country. In the Kingdom, women and men cannot meet in public9 – a rule resented by many Sa'udis, women or men: the mutawwa'ah, religious police mainly composed of ex-convicts, is criticized both 7 Robert Lacey, “Welcome to the Kingdom”, The Kingdom, (London: Fontana/Collins, 1982) 7. 8 Robert Lacey, “The Great Adventure”, The Kingdom, (London: Fontana/Collins, 1982) 40. 9 Ahmed al Omran, “Party in the KSA”, Foreign Policy, 25 May 2013. <http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/01/14/saudi_arabia_like_youve_never_seen_it_before?page=0,0>
  5. 5. Gallorini Marguerite Πανεπιστήμιο Μακεδονίας Erasmus 2012/2013 abroad and within the country. Likewise, women are not allowed to drive. This last interdiction comes from a bedouin tradition: at the time where raids between bedouin tribes were still the main means of living in the desert (and which was not so long ago in Sa'udi Arabia), women and children were the ones to protect in the caravans, which were therefore driven by men. This rule, as many other aspects of the Sa'udi society, comes from bedouin origins which in reality did not have the time to adapt as rapidly as the material modernization of the country. It is a fundamental point to understand: Sa'udi Arabia, thanks to the revenue received from their large oil resources and pilgrimage, undertook a rapid urbanization of the country, as well as the development of public education and the creation of media. But all these are interfaces; of course, mentalities and habits in a society change much more slowly than changing buildings. After all, the Kingdom has only a hundred years of existence, before which the history of the area was mainly one of conflicts between tribes. Another (timeless) factor to keep in mind is that within Sa'udi Arabia, slight variations exist between the port cities and the centre of the country. Indeed port cities are the most in contact with the outside world, and therefore the way these areas are ruled is somehow more “open”, than the cities in the middle of the desert. What's more, Wahhabism was born in the middle of the country, in the desert where there is no other population around, which explains why today Riyad, the capital, and Hail, North of the capital and also inland, are the cities where social practices are the most harsh. Besides this difference between port and inland cities can be found roughly everywhere else: for instance New York and San Francisco are some of the most cosmopolitan megalopolises in the world, whereas the inland states of Northern America are the most conservative ones10 . Some conflicts and evolutions of Sa'udi Arabia at the age of globalization The riches sought by non-Muslims were not the Holy Cities, but oil. In the early 1920s, England had failed at the attempt of discovering anything big, leaving enough room for the Americans to undertake field researches in the 1930s. The first contract was with American Standard Oil of California, and then the American-dominated Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO)11 . The first searches of the early 1930s were all the more useful for the poor young Kingdom, in desperate need of any kind of riches: indeed the 1929 Depression affected greatly the number of pilgrims travelling to the Holy Cities, the main source of national income of the country. Later on, ARAMCO will be owned by Sa'udi Arabia by 20% in 1972, before being fully owned in 1980. Since that time where Americans were the first to discover and exploit Sa'udi oil, the two countries kept a strong relationship. But in such a traditional country, the Sa'udi growing relationship with the West has been an issue of concern for a long time for the most religious entities, such as the ulema. These conflicts between religious communities and what was perceived as “decay” of the government led in part to the rising of Islamic terrorism12 in both the country and abroad. Notably, the occupation of the Grand Mosque in 1979 by Salafists sent a heavy blow to the Al 10 Richard Florida, “The Conservative States of America”, The Atlantic, 29 March 2011 <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/03/the-conservative-states-of-america/71827/> 11 As'ad Abukhalil, “Founding and Evolution of State”, The Battle for Saudi Arabia, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004) 90. 12 However, the origins of the Islamic movement were a “brainchild of Faisal and his American benefactors”. Indeed, the relationship of Sa'udi Arabia with the West was severely denounced by Egypt, causing an Arab Cold War (which ended with the weakening of Egypt after the defeat of the 1967 war): so to counter-attack Arab nationalism, Sa'udi Arabia, with the instruction of the United-States, had created the international Islamic fundamentalist movement, a security alliance against communism and nationalism. (As'ad Abukhalil, “Founding and Evolution of State”, The Battle for Saudi Arabia, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004) 100)
  6. 6. Gallorini Marguerite Πανεπιστήμιο Μακεδονίας Erasmus 2012/2013 Sa'ud, who were not seen as pure Muslims anymore. Therefore they did not dare to contradict further the ulema dictating the laws, for fear to end up like the Shah of Iran; but, much like with the Ikhwan outburst, some people went out of control during the 9/11 attacks on New York. Discontent with the government continued, and violence in the country grew (notably with the series of bombings in several cities of the realm in 2003 and 200413 ). As a consequence, since the 2000s, reforms have been undertaken by present King Abdullah (the sixth King of Sa'udi Arabia, one of the numerous sons of Abdul Aziz bin Sa'ud): in 2005, the first ever municipal elections were organized in all the country (though women could not vote); in 2009 senior appointees to the mutawwa'ah14 were replaced with persons believed to be more moderate, and the first ever female deputy minister was appointed; and it was announced that in 2015 women will have the right to vote and be elected in municipal elections, as well as to be appointed to the Shura, the formal advisory body of the King15 . So even though the country is far from an example of equality of the sexes, it is nevertheless in progress regarding women – slowly, but surely. Women themselves see that it improved compared to before: now they can have professional careers and work alongside men, they have identity cards (before they had to bring with them a male member of their family to prove their identity), they have access to schools and universities... Of course, the way towards full parity will be long. Prince Sa'ud himself, governor of the province of Hail since 1999, said to the BBC16 that the woman issue was a problem of misinterpretation of the Koran, not of the Koran itself as many would think: “If [Muhammad] has untrusted half of the Islamic religion to a female, there is nothing wrong with this religion. The problem is that of interpretation.” Now, the difficult part will be, as always, to make the interpretation -and so the mentality- of the ulema evolve. If the Kingdom has managed to open up a little to the media, it is because the government (under King Faisal, the third King of Sa'udi Arabia) persuaded the more skeptical clerics that it was a good way to convey the Islamic ideology; and indeed, 30 percent of all radio programs are religious17 for instance. But movie theatres are banned. Even though there are more media than before, there is still little freedom of speech: many are the cases of internment of bloggers and their censorship. However the suppression of free speech is something becoming harder in a globalized world where communication tools are in constant evolution. Prince Sa'ud nevertheless confided that “people are more able to speak out since 2 years ago”. There is more transparency in the government according to him, and there are several ways for locals to voice their problems under the form of gatherings (the majlis, a banquet where Sa'udis can present their grievances to the King personally so that he may take care of it himself, or reunions in the desert...)18 . However those gatherings remain far from a “desert democracy”, as the standards of wealth, power and prestige affect the representation of the guests; even little business men have to struggle to be able to attend these banquets, so let alone the more modest people. Therefore the Al Sa'ud, on the one hand, try to implement some improvements on social issues; but at the same time, they seek to safeguard a certain control of their country through hard policies and repressive methods, that are more than often condemned by the international community. 13 In Riyadh, Jeddah, Yanbu and Khobar. (Anthony H. Cordesman, Saudi Arabia: national security in a troubled region,, (Praeger Security International, 2009) 50-52) 14 The mutawwa'ah today are the descendants of the Ikhwan: they are the religious and morale police of the Kingdom, officially named “the Committee for the Commanding of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice”. 15 “Saudi Arabia gives women the right to vote... but not until 2015”, The Daily Mail, 26 Sept. 2011 <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2041686/Saudi-Arabias-King-Abdullah-gives-women-right-vote-2015.html> 16 Inside the Saudi Kingdom, dir. Lionel Mill, BBC2, 8 Nov. 2008. 17 As'ad Abukhalil, “Founding and Evolution of State”, The Battle for Saudi Arabia, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004) 96 18 Inside the Saudi Kingdom, dir. Lionel Mill, BBC2, 8 Nov. 2008.
  7. 7. Gallorini Marguerite Πανεπιστήμιο Μακεδονίας Erasmus 2012/2013 Sa'udi Arabia is indeed the theatre of many paradoxes: first of all, being a traditional and autocratic monarchy, it is nevertheless a close partner of the United-States. The latter preaching loudly in favour of human rights in the world, they nevertheless keep the royal Al Sa'ud family as close friends, even though the Kingdom has regularly been accused of violation of human rights. Of course, the oil they have to offer is a significant factor of this relationship. But Sa'udi Arabia has also inner paradoxes: even though she is an Arab nation, she has nevertheless a different identity from her fellow Arabian neighbours, with which she did not always have cordial relations. Wahhabism, the core element of the Sa'udi society, has flourished efficiently only in this country, and has developed at the same time as the tribal kingdom itself: Sa'udi Arabia could not have existed without Wahhabism, and Wahhabism could not have expanded without Sa'udi Arabia. This is why wanting a radical change of the country so it can align with the wills of the West is utopian: Sa'udi Arabia and Wahhabism are so intensely linked to each other that nobody can expect them to part and become a Western-like democracy in a day. Infrastructural modernizations may be easy to realize, but habits are far more slower to change, and it usually does not go without social trouble. What's more every country is different from one another, and so the Western system cannot apply in every part of the world. And by pushing too hard a nation in the direction one want it to go and not letting it make its own decisions, the effect could be the opposite, and the result be a hardening of the nation's traditions, as a means to keep a stable element on which it is possible to rely on. In the end, what Sa'udi Arabia is seeking is to be a main actor of the 21st century, and for that she is keeping up in the field of technology; but she wants to be a partner of other countries only, without having to pay the price of losing her own identity.
  8. 8. Gallorini Marguerite Πανεπιστήμιο Μακεδονίας Erasmus 2012/2013 Works Cited List Books: Lacey, Robert. The Kingdom, London: Fontana/Collins, 1982. Abukhalil, As'ad. The Battle for Saudi Arabia, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004. Cordesman, Anthony H. Saudi Arabia: national security in a troubled region, Praeger Security International, 2009. Documentaries: Inside the Saudi Kingdom, dir. Lionel Mill, BBC2, 8 Nov. 2008. On-line articles: Florida, Richard. “The Conservative States of America”, The Atlantic, 29 March 2011 <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/03/the-conservative-states-of- america/71827/> “Saudi Arabia gives women the right to vote... but not until 2015”, The Daily Mail, 26 Sept. 2011 <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2041686/Saudi-Arabias-King-Abdullah-gives-women- right-vote-2015.html> Taylor, Jerome. “The photos Saudi Arabia doesn't want seen”, The Independent, 15 March 2013 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-photos-saudi-arabia-doesnt-want- seen--and-proof-islams-most-holy-relics-are-being-demolished-in-mecca-8536968.html? fb_action_ids=474160445987458%2C474158635987639&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_source =other_multiline&action_object_map>) Al Omran, Ahmed. “Party in the KSA”, Foreign Policy, 25 May 2013. <http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/01/14/saudi_arabia_like_youve_never_seen_it_bef ore?page=0,0>