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Saudi Arabia: background on Wahhabism and the House of Saud

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 24th, 2001

This post was prompted by an e-mail from Jim Henley, who is working out his own views on these subjects in his ever-interesting “Unqualified Offerings” blog, most recently today with Saudi dearies, and Almost but not quite. I agree with him on many points, including the basic one that I don’t think the House of Saud had a direct connection to the 9/11 attacks. Rather than being accomplices to those attacks, I think they may have been and may continue to be criminally negligent: they are “merely” not inclined to work very hard to stop terrorists operating from their soil, as opposed to being terrorist lackeys like the Taliban were.

Saudi Arabia possesses two strategic assets: the cheapest-to-extract large oil reserves on the planet — and Mecca. The one makes it too important to the West to lose, the other makes it likely too dangerous for the West to take. I think the House of Saud is a family that has entered into two symbioses to preserve its status as the controllers of these two assets.

The Mecca symbiosis came first. (The following is cribbed liberally from Milton Viorst’s book In The Shadow of the Prophet, which I’ve mentioned before; see the chapter “The Saudi Dilemma”). In 1744 one Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (b. 1703) got together with an ambitious chief named Muhammad ibn Saud, living in the village of Diriyah — now on the outskirts of the similarly named Riyadh — to make a deal: Saud would provide the military muscle, Wahhab the “unitarian” ideology. That essentially totalitarian ideology proclaimed that any rethinking of Islam was heresy (bid’a: innovation), and that only Wahhab’s way — a return to (his version of) the era of the rashidun, i.e., Mohammed and his immediate successors — would do. Viorst writes:

In theory, the Saudi Monarchy is the executive, the Wahhabi “ulama”[clergy] the moral guide. In practice, the relationship is more complex. The two institutions, while allies, are often rivals, each tugging constantly at the other … The clerics prefer to call the head of the House of Saud “Imam”, to convey the holy source of his power; the Saudi monarch, having adopted the title Cusotodian of the Two Holy Mosques to assert his piety, lieks being called “King,” though in Arabic the title has a foreign ring that clerics scorn. Yet, while each hierarchy tries for a leg up on the other, the acknowledge their mutual dependence. Whatever the Saudi dissidents’ current demands for reform, history suggests that the regime has survived this long precisely because it has never, in its basic structure, given serious thought to reform at all.

The second symbiosis, with the United States, was caused by Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s attack on Kuwait resulted in the House of Saud’s epiphany that they needed permanent protection from their more populous, industrial neighbor. In the long run, this second symbiosis is incompatible with the first one: infidel U.S. bases on Saudi soil are hard for Wahhabites to square with their old-time religion view of Islam’s holy land. Many Saudis both inside and outside the House of Saud feel they made a Faustian bargain with the United States to protect themselves from Iraq; these critics more or less share Bin Laden’s distaste and even revulsion for Westerners in their holy land, but most probably believe it was the only realistic way to be sure of protection from Iraq. Viorst writes:

To many Saudis, basing infidels on the holy soil was not just a religious but a political lapse, defaulting on the compact by which the Saud family rules. [Said one university professor,] “…we all knew that soldiers from other countries were defending us because we were unable to defend ourselves… The West seems to think that the impact of the war was cultural, that we were upset by women in T-shirts driving jeeps. There’s some truth to that… but the more fundamental truth is that we felt the royal family had let us down.”[...]

“The King, deep down, is less rigid than the clergy,” an editor of an Islamic paper said to me. “By Saudi standards, he is probably very enlightened. But the people are Wahhabi, and I’m not sure how much social change the people want.”

I introduce all of this background mainly to point out that there is a built-in opposition to the House of Saud — the Wahhabite clergy — which may have more credibility with Saudis and more freedom of action than many of us were aware. I think it’s conceivable and plausible that the Saudi religious police who smuggled Al Harbi into Afghanistan did so on their own, in opposition to the House of Saud, U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

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A note to readers: I posted an even longer version of this last night, then had second thoughts a minute later. So I deleted it — but forgot to hit “publish”, meaning it stayed on the web for some 24 hours. While I could restore it to this blog, I like the revised piece better: it has more information, less speculation on my part, and meanders a bit less. I think the point (see last sentence) is pretty much the same; much of the first half or so is exactly the same. I’ll save the old version to this web page, in case anyone has cited anything from it or cares for some other reason. PS: I see now that Jim Henley did, making me wish I hadn’t gone down this path at all. Sorry for the inconvenience, everyone.

One Response to “Saudi Arabia: background on Wahhabism and the House of Saud”

  1. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » The Saudi Wahhabite role, contd. Says:

    [...] up on earlier posts about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia: In the New York Times, the 12/27 article “Holy War Lured Saudis as Rulers [...]

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