A kingdom in blinkers

Last September Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote a column disputing the claim by a retired American general that Iranians are the world's leading "purveyors of radical Islam". That title, he said, belongs to America's friend, Saudi Arabia.

Friedman was right. There are plenty of reasons to worry about Iran but on the ideological front its influence is always likely to be limited because the Shia version of Islam (of which Iran is the leading representative) is followed by only 10%-13% of the world's Muslims. 

The official Saudi version of Islam also represents a minority but it falls within the majority Sunni branch and the kingdom has been much more successful than Iran at promoting it. One reason is that Saudis have spent vast amounts of money doing so. Another is that since the kingdom is the original birthplace of Islam it's a lot easier to persuade Sunnis Muslims in other countries that the Saudi version is the most authentic. 

"Saudi Arabia's export of Wahhabi puritanical Islam," Friedman wrote, "has been one of the worst things to happen to Muslim and Arab pluralism – pluralism of religious thought, gender and education – in the last century."

He explained:

"If you think Iran is the only source of trouble in the Middle East, you must have slept through 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernisation of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam – the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions – and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.

"It is not an accident that several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations. It is because all these Sunni jihadist groups – ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front – are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.

"And we, America, have never called them on that – because we're addicted to their oil and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers."

At one time the Saudis' response to this would surely have been to declare Friedman persona non grata, but they are a bit more canny these days. Instead, a couple of months later, we find Friedman in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he is invited to give a lecture on "how big technological forces are affecting the workplace" and spends an evening being charmed by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defence minister and deputy crown prince who, at the age of 30, is viewed as a fast-rising star in the kingdom.

In his latest column, Friedman doesn't back-track on what he said earlier about the damage Saudi Arabia has caused (and is still causing) but focuses on another part of the picture: that conservative elements are increasingly being challenged from inside the kingdom. Friedman cites familiar reasons – the kingdom's youth bulge, large numbers of Saudis studying abroad and the growth of social media – and presents Prince Mohammed as a man "ready to channel this energy into reform" and "transform how Saudi Arabia is governed".

Prince Mohammed bin Salman


Prince Mohammed tells Friedman of his plan for "an online government dashboard" that he hopes will get the whole country involved in monitoring the performance of ministers and holding them accountable. (This sounds reminiscent of a conversation I had in 2004 with Colonel Gadafy's favoured son, Saif al-Islam, about his ambition to transform Libya into the world's first "e-democracy" – though events turned out very differently.)

Prince Mohammed also talks cheerfully about making up for lost oil revenues through taxation. His plan, Friedman says, "is to reduce subsidies to wealthy Saudis, who won't get cheap gas, electricity or water any more, possibly establish a value-added tax and sin taxes on cigarettes and sugary drinks, and both privatise and tax mines and undeveloped lands in ways that can unlock billions".

Saudis are not much accustomed to taxation – they currently pay no income tax – and Prince Mohammed concedes, in the chat with Friedman, that his plans "could have political ramifications".

This is the nub of the problem where reform is concerned. "The king cannot just wake up and decide to do something," Prince Mohammed tells Friedman. "It is a tribal form of monarchy, with many tribes and sub-tribes and regions connecting to the top" – so their views have to be taken into account. 

Meanwhile the kingdom is increasingly divided between those who want more reform and those who think it has gone much too far already. The battle ahead is not primarily about people versus the regime (as it was, for instance, during the 2011 Arab uprisings) but about the system as a whole: it's about tradition versus modernity, about the character of Saudi society and the role of religion. These questions divide the kingdom's royals as much as the rest of society and, alarmingly, there seems to be no way of resolving them decisively in the forseeable future.

Collectively, the royals are stuck in the middle, blowing hot and cold but scared of leaning too far in either direction in case it triggers their downfall. So, one day we have Prince Mohammed spouting about reform; another day we have someone like Ashraf Fayadh, a harmless poet, threatened with execution for expressing "misguided" thoughts.

This is not to suggest the kingdom isn't changing at all; in lots of small ways it is. There have been some genuine (if modest) reforms, such as the holding of local elections and the appointment of women to the Shura Council. Some of the reforms have also solved one problem only to exacerbate another: "reform" of the labour laws resulted in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers being expelled, and a substantial increase in female employment was achieved at the price of further institutionalising gender segregation.

At best, this is just tinkering around the edges. Consider what still needs to be reformed and probably can't be reformed while the House of Saud remains in power. Exhibit A is the kingdom's Basic Law (the equivalent of a constitution) which lays bare the religious foundations of the Saudi system – a system based on religious compulsion:

  • Article 1: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet (God’s prayers and peace be upon him) are its constitution …

  • Article 6: Citizens are to pay allegiance to the King in accordance with the Holy Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet, in submission and obedience …

  • Article 7: Government in Saudi Arabia derives power from the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s tradition.

  • Article 8: Government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on the premise of justice, consultation, and equality in accordance with the Islamic Shari’ah.

  • Article 9: The family is the kernel of Saudi society, and its members shall be brought up on the basis of the Islamic faith …

  • Article 11: Saudi society will be based on the principle of adherence to God’s command …

  • Article 13: Education will aim at instilling the Islamic faith in the younger generation …

  • Article 23: The state protects Islam; it implements its Shari’ah; it orders people to do right and shun evil; it fulfils the duty regarding God’s call.

For all his talk of reform, there's no sign that Prince Mohammed wants to change this. Indeed, any Saudi who does suggest changing it is liable to be arrested for treason.

During his chat with Friedman, the prince even denies that Saudi religious thinking has anything to do with the emergence of ISIS and instead offers a sectarian explanation: ISIS is a "counter-reaction" to Iran.

In his capacity as defence minister Prince Mohammed is also, of course, chief the architect of the kingdom's disastrous military campaign in Yemen which the Saudis – again, have been eager to characterise in sectarian terms as a proxy war with Iran.

Significantly, as a report in the Washington Post noted yesterday, Saudi Arabia has been scaling-back its military effort against ISIS in order to focus more on Yemen and the Iranian enemy that it loves to hate.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 26 November 2015