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The House of Saud's Eternal Dilemma By: John R. Bradley
Asia Times | Friday, March 04, 2005


Descendants of former US president Franklin D Roosevelt and Saudi Arabia's first king, Ibn Saud, celebrated this month in Miami the 60th anniversary of the first Saudi-US summit at the Suez Canal's Great Bitter Lake, where the foundations were laid for a "special relationship" between the two countries based on an oil-for-security alliance.

What no one realized on February 14, 1945, of course, was that the foundations of that "special relationship" were being laid on  active fault lines, and that a seismic shift would one day shake it all down to the ground again.

Pulling in one direction was the internal demands of the Wahhabis, already given control by Ibn Saud of the kingdom's schools, mosques, religious police, media and, ultimately, the government itself. Pulling in the other direction was the crucial alliance with the United States that Ibn Saud formalized in his meeting with Roosevelt. The seeds of future instability were thus sown, with the al-Saud torn on the one hand between the jihad-inspired Wahhabi religious establishment needed to impose order at home and, on the other, a Western colonial power the Wahhabis saw as their eternal enemy, but which Ibn Saud recognized as the guarantors of his own security, and therefore survival.

There were many warnings of that seismic shift in the six decades after the Bitter Lake summit. They included the assassination of the liberal King Faisal in 1974 by an Islamic extremist and the Mecca uprising by anti-Western radicals in 1979. Then it finally came on September 11, 2001, an attack carried out by mostly Saudi hijackers who had been recruited by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

One of the aims of that attack was to drive a wedge between the al-Saud and the United States. Since September 11, the eternal al-Saud dilemma - of having to prove its Islamic credentials at home while demonstrating, to the West, its modernizing instincts and eagerness to reform - has grown so difficult as to appear for the first time near impossible.

That difficulties were evident became clear earlier this month when partial elections were held in Riyadh. Only men were allowed to vote, and they were electing officials for only half the seats on town councils that have absolutely no power. Still, the fact that elections were taking place at all was seen by Islamists as too much of a concession to US interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom. They were explicitly condemned in such terms, in an audio tape issued in December by none other than bin Laden.

The al-Saud regime, which now understands how the Western media works well enough to be able to manipulate it, quietly appointed just one day before the Riyadh elections took place - meaning when everyone was looking the other way - an ultra-conservative religious leader, Abdullah bin Saleh al-Obaid, as the new education minister.

Amazingly, only The Wall Street Journal picked up on al-Obaid's appointment, and even in that article he was mentioned only briefly.

Al-Obaid's appointment was, one would wager, among the most significant political developments inside Saudi Arabia since the September 11 attacks. It showed, first of all, that the local elections, rather than being proof of the spread of democracy in the wake of the war on Iraq, had merely provided a cover for the al-Saud to pacify the Wahhabis by appointing one of their own as the head of what it considers the most important ministry. But it also put the final nail in the coffin of a now truly dead and buried domestic reform agenda.

Unlike the town councilors, the education minister wields a great deal of influence, not least over the minds of the next generation of Saudis already steeped in a school curriculum that oozes anti-Semitism and the celebration of jihad.

Although he went to university in the United States, those two subjects - anti-Semitism and jihad - surely remain close to al-Obaid's heart. From 1995 to 2002, he headed the Muslim World League, the parent body of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). Both are seeped in Wahhabi ideology. The US Treasury Department has proposed the IIRO for designation as a terrorist entity. In an essay on terrorism that is part of a 2002 book on Islam, al-Obaid blamed "some mass media centers that are managed and run by Jews in the West" for reports linking terrorism and Islam.

The minister al-Obaid replaced, Mohammed al-Rasheed, was a committed reformer who managed to achieve some successes, despite the fact that all the odds were heavily stacked against him. He was regularly damned on Islamist websites as a "secularist" who "took women to Beirut", a city religious hardliners see - and not without some justification - as a cesspit of Western liberal ways. There was, almost needless to say, no substance to either allegation.

In reality, al-Rasheed was hated and smeared because he tried to expunge from religious textbooks material offensive to Christians and Jews, in addition to chapters celebrating jihad; and he had English as a foreign language introduced, despite fierce protests by the Wahhabis.

Presumably, al-Obaid, despite his own knowledge of English, is not inclined to further any of those tasks. Indeed, it should not be ruled out that he may even set about reversing al-Rasheed's legacy, such as it is. After all, al-Obaid is unlikely to feel moved to order the deletion of his own words in his 2002 book. And lest we have forgotten, we should remind ourselves that we are talking here about a curriculum in which - to take but one example - a passage in one text book, which al-Rasheed had removed, taught 8th-grade students "why Jews and Christians were cursed by Allah and turned into apes and pigs".

As it turned out, the al-Saud need not have worried about the backlash over the Riyadh elections from the Wahhabi religious establishment. All seven seats in the capital were won, to everyone's surprise, by candidates who were not only avowed Islamists, but were even blessed with the semi-official backing of the religious establishment.

Behind the scenes, though, there was a much more subtle power struggle taking place inside the splintered ruling family.

In March 2002, 15 schoolgirls died in a fire at their school in Mecca, after they were prevented from fleeing the building by the religious police because they were not wearing their veils. Two weeks later, a royal decree was issued that relieved the head of the General Presidency for Girls' Education of his duties. It also merged that 40-year-old agency, which was under the direct control of the religious establishment, into the Ministry of Education, which answered only to the education minister.

At that time, the word reform was in the air, and the reformists appeared to be in the ascendancy. And it was the pro-reform Crown Prince Abdullah, who then enjoyed a reputation for being a liberal, who had insisted on the decree being issued.

An outsider forever struggling to assert himself in the face of stiff opposition from the conservative princes known as the Sudairy Seven, who as full brothers do their best to keep Abdullah on the sidelines, Abdullah had seized the initiative in the wake of the popular outrage over the school fire. For the first time since taking over the day-to-day running of the kingdom after King Fahd was incapacitated by a stroke in 1995, he had outmaneuvered them.

These days, with the US-led invasion of Iraq, the anti-Saudi media campaign in the West, and the ongoing "war on terror" perceived by most Saudis - rightly or wrongly - as a war on Islam, Abdullah is back on the sidelines, and his reform initiative has effectively been abandoned. How painful it must now seem to him that all his 2002 royal decree managed to achieve, by abolishing the Presidency for Girls' Education, was to pave the way for a Wahhabi zealot to control not only girls' education, but that of boys as well.

It would be tempting to conclude, given all this, that the Saudi elections were a complete waste of time. But as that paragon of American politics Tip O'Neill once said, all politics is local, and so ostensible involvement of the Saudi people in decision-making on the local level is a meaningful first stage: crawl before walk; walk before run.

And by introducing any kind of reform, even if in the short term it only serves as a cover for empowering the Wahhabi establishment, the al-Saud is playing a dangerous game. The genie of democracy is now out, and the long-term implications of that fact are far from clear. By holding democracy up as a value, the al-Saud has created a new criteria of judgment and evaluation, one that is open-ended.

The regime is thus caught, once again, on the horns of a dilemma. On the one horn, to allow democracy to flourish is to allow debate, the questioning of policies and the completion of ideologies antithetical to monarchy, whether liberal or fundamentalist. On the other, to draw back, after making promises about democracy, by having the form but not the substance, or even eliminating the form, will lead to charges of hypocrisy and fear for the people's will.

As always, how the regime will react is impossible to predict. However it does, though, it is certain to make either the liberals or the fundamentalists the beneficiaries, albeit for different reasons. Only one thing can be said for certain: 60 years after that historic meeting at Bitter Lake, the al-Saud will continue to try and square the circle of appeasing the anti-Western Wahhabis at home while pacifying those infidel allies abroad.

John R. Bradley is the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. He has reported extensively from Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East for many publications, including The Economist, The New Republic, Salon, The Independent, The London Telegraph, The Washington Times, and Prospect. His website is www.johnRbradley.com.


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