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Whose Saudi Arabia? By: Stephen Schwartz
Jerusalem Post | Monday, June 14, 2004


The population of Saudi Arabia is now under more-or-less continuous attack by terrorists, and its representatives, including its ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz, have publicized their belief that all terrorists must be killed.

How has this situation come to pass?

The Saudi kingdom is treated paradoxically by Western, and even by Israeli opinion. On the one hand, many in Washington and Jerusalem continue to believe that the oil princes of the desert can serve as moderates in a Middle East peace process. At the same time, the internal reality of the country is viewed as ineffably mysterious, conservative and traditional, and its people as so indoctrinated by the bizarre cult of Wahhabism, the ultra-extremist state form of Islam, that they have become haters of freedom.

Which is the real Saudi Arabia? I believe Saudi Arabia, operating in the interests of its rulers' alliance with the West, may serve as a moderate Arab state. But the Saudi Arabia erected on the basis of Wahhabism can never be a moderate Islamic state.

After publishing my book The Two Faces of Islam, and meeting and conversing with many Saudi dissidents, I have been confirmed in my belief that Saudi subjects do not despise freedom or modernity. They are no different from those who lived under other tyrannies, in other times and places, such as Russia under the czars or the Spanish under Franco. That is, sooner or later, every tyranny loses its ability to intimidate the populace, and every belief system or ideology associated with such a regime loses its capacity to convince people.

Saudi subjects have now lived under 75 years of Wahhabism. The origins of the regime may be traced to a marriage arrangement between the founder of the cult, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and the head of a clan, Muhammad Ibn Sa'ud, some 250 years ago. The contract was a simple one: the descendants of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab would handle religious affairs, and those of Ibn Sa'ud would govern in a new state based in the underpopulated and backward Arabian region of Nejd. That system found its most stable expression in the creation of Saudi Arabia as we know it, by King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Sa'ud in 1932, and remains in place.

BUT A crisis is underway in Saudi Arabia. What are its roots? Aside from the crude, determinist arguments that blame the breakdown of the Saudi consensus on falling average income, the growth of the foreign guestworker population, and similar demographic issues, there is a much deeper problem.

That is that the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia has produced a growing middle class, which seeks entrepreneurial opportunities but finds its way forward blocked by the corruption and absurdity of the ruling elite, symbolized by the Sudairi princes - defense minister Prince Sultan and interior minister Prince Nayef chiefly - and their alliance with the Wahhabi hardliners. Sultan, Nayef and five of their brothers are known as the "Sudairi seven." Their mother, Hussah bint Ahmad Sudair, was a favorite among the many wives of Abd ul-Aziz Ibn Sa'ud.

The negative products of this alliance are obvious in such details as the Saudi ban on women driving, which is unique in the world and causes immense difficulties for people trying to live a middle-class existence. Even worse is the support of the regime for the world campaign to Wahhabize Islam, which produced al-Qaida, and has thus disrupted the Saudi arrangement with the United States and other Western powers.

The discontent of the Saudi middle class is aggravated by its access to the Internet and satellite TV, which reinforces its awareness that there is a way to live as Muslims without the dead weight of Wahhabism. As a material fact, Saudi Arabia is now surrounded by a crescent of Arab states that, if they cannot be compared in modernity or prosperity with a European country, are at least more normal than Saudi Arabia in their relations with their subjects: In Kuwait, Qatar, the Emirates, Oman and Yemen, people are not whipped in the streets for failing to pray, women are not beaten if an inch of their ankle shows below the body-covering abaya, and, of course, women can drive.

In addition, there are large Muslim minorities in Saudi Arabia that have suffered unspeakable repression under the Wahhabis, chiefly the Shi'as of the Eastern Province and the southern border zone, who are subjected to extraordinary discrimination. The oil deposits are mainly in the eastern province, and Shi'as are over-represented in the oil industry technical and management class. Shi'as may account for up to a quarter of the Saudi population.

THE WAHHABI monopoly on religious life, Wahhabi control of Mecca and Medina and Wahhabi supervision of the hajj pilgrimage also represent constant affronts to the non-Wahhabi Sunni population, who follow the earlier, more traditional and pluralistic traditions of Islamic jurisprudence - Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali. Residents of Hejaz, where Mecca and Medina are located, have a significant collective recollection of life under the Ottomans and directly afterward, when they were subjects of a separate kingdom on the road to full, constitutional monarchy. They yearn for that time, when Islamic pluralism existed in place of Wahhabi domination.

The Wahhabis have also rigorously suppressed Islamic spirituality or Sufism, which flourished under the Ottomans and has survived underground. Inside the kingdom, Sufism has begun to make a reappearance, as a form of youth protest.

Where, then, is Saudi Arabia going? The Saudi rulers have a choice. They can follow the road of transition to normality represented by countries like Morocco or Indonesia, which are Muslim but closer to a Western model, or they can continue to defy pressure for change and eventually collapse.

Will the current rulers be replaced by something worse? That is, al-Qaida and bin Laden? I believe not, because bin Laden is a creation of the Saudi state, in exactly the way the terrorist Black Hundreds in czarist Russia were a creation of the regime. Terrorism exists inside Saudi Arabia to dissuade the local population from pressuring the rulers for reform. That is why the terrorists never attack members of the royal family or state institutions, nearly always appear to be police or military personnel, and have a strange ability to repeatedly escape after committing their crimes.

IF THE Saudi monarchy collapses, violence is possible, but I do not believe, based on my conversations with Saudi subjects, that enough of the people support the bin Laden alternative to fuel such a conflict for very long. Western-conducted polling on these issues is misleading - Saudis say they admire bin Laden in the same way Soviet citizens once claimed they loved socialism, i.e. because they don't have confidence they can speak freely. And maybe the Soviets did love socialism, but they didn't go into the streets to shed their own blood to defend it. The same may well be true of many Saudi subjects and Wahhabism.

Will change affect access to the oil by the West? No, because even the most radical Arab regimes have kept their oil on the world market.

The best solution for Saudi Arabia would be for a reforming element from within the royal family (comparable to King Juan Carlos in Spain) to begin a transition to normality. Members of the House of Sa'ud could even retain their role as heads of state, and their wealth, along the model of the Windsors in Britain. But it seems doubtful that can happen, especially given the turn of Crown Prince Abdullah - once seen as a paragon of reform - toward Wahhabi paranoia, viz. his recent accusation that "Zionists" are behind the latest wave of terror attacks.

Would a post-Wahhabi Arabia facilitate peace with Israel? As always, such predictions may be made, but are undependable. At least a post-Wahhabi Arabia would likely cut off funding to Wahhabi infiltration, from Morocco to Malaysia and from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Botswana, as post-Soviet Russia stopped financing world Communism. That in itself would give the Middle East, and the world, space to relax.


Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. A vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.


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