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John Ford’s Primer on Saudi Arabia

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Second in a series on the states of the region.  The first, on Yemen, is here.  This is on the country currently sending the crucial aid to the new government in Egypt while President Obama golfs through the crisis:


By John Ford


This is the second in a series of guest posts by John Ford.  John is a graduate of Chapman University School of Law and is a reserve officer in the US Army.  He will be writing short profiles of 8 countries that are of great importance to US foreign policy but receive little attention in the media: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, The Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar, and Singapore.  The purpose is to give readers a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities these countries present and how they relate to American global strategy.  You can follow John on Twitter at @johndouglasford.

Islam was born in what is today Saudi Arabia and for the first few decades of Islamic history these lands were the seat of power in the Muslim world.  With the end of the Rashidun Caliphate in 661 power began to drift first to Damascus and then to Baghdad.  The Arabian Peninsula was still home to Islam’s holiest sites but its political importance became an afterthought.  That changed in 1932 when oil was discovered in the newly founded Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and power began to shift back to Islam’s heartland giving new prominence to the Saudi royal family and the clerics they sponsored: The Wahhabis.

In 1744, a radical cleric named Muhammad ibd Abd al-Wahhab joined forces with the head of the House of Saud, Muhammad bin Saud, in an alliance whose prupose was to unite the Arabian Peninsula and govern it in accord with the principles of Wahhab’s version of true Islam.  The alliance gave bin Saud religious legitimacy that would strengthen his rule.  It gave al-Wahhab an army that could spread his religious vision.  The alliance led to the creation of the Emirate of Diriyah, the first Saudi state.  The House of Saud came to dominate the entire Arabian Peninsula and its core was the alliance between the House of Saud and al-Wahhab’s radical clergy.

Through all of the House of Saud’s battles with rival dynasties in Arabia the alliance with the fundamentalist clergy.  The alliance even survived the destruction of the first Saudi state by the Ottoman Empire in 1818.

The alliance was revived by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia.  In the early 20th Century the Saud were just one of many dynastic houses in Arabia and they were certainly not the strongest.  The Saud ruled only the Nejd, a region of central Saudi Arabia that is home to the modern capital of Riyadh.  To become ruler of Arabia, Ibn Saud had to revive the old alliance between the House of Saud and Wahhabi fundamentalism.

A group of fundamentalist Bedouins founded a town called al-Artawiyah just north of Riyadh.  Here, they gave up their nomadic ways and chose to live a life of puritanical Islamic faith in a settled town built around a mosque.   Here, they banned music and children’s games and all modern inventions except one – the rifle.  They adopted a psychotically violent posture towards outsiders and sought to forcibly convert fellow Bedouins to give up their nomadic life and pagan superstitions.  These extremists were the perfect tool for Ibn Saud.  Ibn Saud needed an army and the men of al-Artawiyah could become one.  Ibn Saud molded these fanatics into the most feared fighting force in Arabia and called them the Ikhwan.  With the help of the Ikhwan, Ibn Saud was able to conquer the lands that today constitute Saudi Arabia.  The Ikhwan live on today as the Saudi National Guard, a sort of private military of the royal family whose purpose is to guard against any attempt at a coup d’etat by the regular Saudi military.

But the Saudi relationship with the fundamentalists has not always been smooth.  The Ikhwan themselves revolted against Ibn Saud in 1930 and had to be brought to heel when Ibn Saud defeated them in battle.  At times, the alliance has appeared to be a Faustian bargain.  It must certainly have felt that way for the royal family on November 20th, 1979, the day that everything changed.   This was the day terrorists laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

Juhayman al-Otaybi  was a former officer in the Saudi National Guard.  As he grew older, he became increasingly radicalized.  On November 20th, 1979 he led 500 well-armed fanatics into the Grand Mosque and took the shrine over by force.  He declared that his brother-in-law was the Mahdi who had returned to Earth as prophesied in the Quran and that he and his followers were going to cleanse the world of corruption.  It did not need to be said that those being accused of corruption were the royal family.

The royal family’s response to the news that the Grand Mosque had been seized was unmitigated panic.  This was a direct threat to the legitimacy of the royal family as protectors of Mecca and Medina.  They ordered the military to lay siege to the Grand Mosque.  For a week the military tried to retake the shrine.  They had to follow Juhayman’s men deep into the catacombs underneath the mosque and fight tunnel to tunnel against entrenched forces.  The total death toll from the siege was probably close to 2,000 dead.  The surviving terrorists, including Juhayman himself, were tried for their crimes and publicly beheaded.

The House of Saud had survived the incident but it changed their relationship with the conservative clergy on whom they depended for legitimacy.  The Saud has grown wealthy from oil but many of their subjects thought they had grown decadent, too.  This materialism was the core of Juhayman’s grievance against his government.  To mollify the fundamentalists the House of Saud began supporting violent Islamic extremists so long as the violence was directed at outside the Kingdom.  The most famous example of this was Saudi support for the most radical elements of the Afghan Mujahedeen and the Arab volunteers who went to Afghanistan to fight alongside them.

It was a Faustian bargain again.  The Saudi strategy was akin to Winston Churchill’s quip that appeasement was like feeding your friends to an alligator hoping it will eat you last.  In the 1990s, radicals the royals had once supported, like Osama bin Laden, began to focus their hatred on the Saudi royals themselves.  After 9/11, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) began a series of devastating terror attacks designed to destabilize the Kingdom.  The radicals the Saudis had financed for years had come home to haunt the royal family.

At last the House of Saud awoke to the danger they had helped create.  The Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, began a crackdown on AQAP.  Nayef had been considered an ally of the fundamentalists but in the face of the wave of attacks that were occurring in the Kingdom even he was unwilling to tolerate the fanatics.  The Saudi security services were extremely successful in their crackdown.  AQAP relocated almost all of its operations to neighboring Yemen because it simply could not survive the Saudi campaign against them.

The House of Saud has survived the threat of al Qaeda inside the Kingdom for now.  They also appear to have weathered the Arab Spring.  There were no protests inside the Kingdom on the scale seen in other countries in the region.  The House of Saud remained so stable during the chaos that engulfed other countries that they felt comfortable sending their military into Bahrain to protect that small Saudi ally from protests.  As a general rule, traditional monarchies were less susceptible to protests during the Arab Spring than dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s ben Ali.  They also stand as an example of the idea that strong Muslim states are the most effective way to deny al Qaeda safe havens to operate from.  Weak states like Yemen have fallen prey to al Qaeda but strong states like Saudi Arabia have withstood the tide much better.

The main challenge facing Saudi Arabia today are succession and Iran.

The King of Saudi Arabia is King Abdullah.  He has ruled the country since King Fahd’s stroke in 1995, first as Crown Prince and then as King in his own right.  He has been a formidable force and a genuine reformer (By Saudi standards the glacial progress under Abdullah is positively radical).  He has brought about the first free elections for municipal offices, expanded educational opportunities for women, and promoted economic development outside the oil business.  But Abdullah is now 89 years old and his health is frail.  All of Saudi Arabia’s kings since the death of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1954 have been sons of the first King.  When Abdullah dies a new generation of Princes will take the reins for the first time in six decades.  Abdullah has worked to position Princes in his own mold into senior positions to maximize the chances that the next King will share the views of the current King.

Saudi Arabia’s main foreign challenge is Iran.  From the Saudi perspective, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons along with its support for Shi’ite forces in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen against Saudi Arabia’s Sunni allies pose an existential threat.  The Saudis have traditionally looked to the US for protection from regional threats.  This was true in the conflict with Saddam Hussein and before that with the USSR.  But relations have been strained since the election of Barack Obama because the Saudis the US is not engaged in the conflicts that grip the region.  From the American perspective, the Saudi history of supporting fanatical Sunni extremists leaves American policymakers wary of throwing their support behind Saudi favorites in places like Yemen and Syria.

The key for the United States is to encourage the next generation of Saudi leaders to continue Abdullah’s reforms and to find ways to work with Saudi Arabia to contain Iran without aiding the kind of extremist groups the Saudis have a history of financing.  American leaders need to understand that these two objectives are intimately connected.  Saudi Arabia can only pursue a foreign policy that does not finance radicalism if their domestic political context allows for it.  A more favorable Saudi foreign policy will only arise out of domestic reforms that open the country and weaken the forces of extremism.

For further reading:

“The Kingdom” by Robert Lacey

“Inside the Kingdom” by Robert Lacey

“Jihad in Saudi Arabia” by Thomas Hegghammer

“Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats” by Steffen Hertog


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