By Ondrej Beranek
Ondrej Beranek is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, and a Ph.D. candidate at the Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic. In 2003, he received a scholarship from the University of King Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he underwent intensive training in the history and culture of Arab countries and in Arabic language. He recently finished his doctoral dissertation, entitled “Saudi Arabia Between Traditions and Modernity—Domestic Policy, Salafi Ideology and Foreign Relations.” The author thanks Hannah-Louise Clark for her invaluable comments on an earlier draft of this article.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an unusual country. Saudi identity is closely bound to its position as the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Regardless of the fundamental disagreements among Islam’s variant forms—Sunni and Shi’ite, Sufi and Salafi—hundreds of millions of Muslims all around the world look toward Mecca, the birthplace of their religion, five times a day. As an inevitable consequence of its control of Mecca and Medina and its vast oil reserves, the Kingdom is positioned to exert considerable influence on Muslim culture and thought. Finally, Saudi Arabia bears some responsibility for the international spread of a puritanical and radicalized form of Islam. Ironically, the very same radical Islam presents the greatest threat to the stability of the Saudi regime.
The Kingdom’s oil wealth and close alliance with the United States have given radical movements and miscreant Middle Eastern states cause to doubt both the religious and political legitimacy of the regime. The Saudi royals have overcome threats before—Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, Iranian revolutionary Islam in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. But it is unclear whether Saudi Arabia’s rulers can survive the current onslaught of Islamism, which, reinvigorated by the First Gulf War in 1990-1991, threatens their religious legitimacy.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 on the basis of an agreement between the House of Shaykh, descendants of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703/1704-1792), and the House of Saud. Because of the immeasurable religious significance of Islam’s two holiest sites, whoever rules the area has to legitimize their power in Islamic terms. The House of Shaykh, the clerical establishment (ulama), was charged with upholding Salafi fundamentalist teaching set by ‘Abd al-Wahhab, while the House of Saud was permitted to hold political power as long as it maintains these norms. The House of Saud created, and provided financial support for, an institutional hierarchy for the religious establishment and allowed the conservative religious and social values of central Arabian society to dominate the entire Saudi state. In return, the ‘ulama’ provided the House of Saud with the necessary religious legitimacy. Islamic legitimacy is so key to maintaining the political status quo in Saudi Arabia that the ulama will go to any length to confront anyone who tries to undermine it. For example, when Turki al-Hamad, an eloquent Saudi critic of the ideological milieu in the Kingdom, stated that the problems of Saudi Arabian society can be traced to its radical interpretation of Islam, several Saudi clerics immediately issued a fatwa for his death.
The delicate power balance was embedded in the state’s creation. The roots of some religious oppositional tendencies, which have traditionally constituted the main source of dissidence in Saudi Arabia, may be traced to the Ikhwan movement in 1910s and 1920s, and to the storming of the Mecca mosque by Juhayman al-‘Utaybi and his followers in November 1979. However, the Gulf War was the tipping point in Saudi politics. In allowing foreign troops to enter the holy land of Islam, Saudi Arabia was exposed to the scrutiny of the non-Muslim world and, in the eyes of many oppositional movements, the religious credentials of the ruling house were de-legitimized. The circumstances surrounding the war created enormous pressure on the Saudi society, its traditional values and style of life. The psychological impact and huge financial expense of the war were no less significant. The war also revealed the weakness of Saudi royal family and the extent of its overdependence on Western powers, which further undermined its legitimacy.
The last decade of the 20th century was one of the most turbulent periods for the Saudi ruling family. The outbreak of the Gulf War exposed Saudi dependence on the West. By fighting against a fellow Arab country, the Kingdom underwent an unprecedented ideological polarization, splitting the core opposition into a liberal and a fundamentalist camp. The liberals sought changes in the juridical and political spheres, the creation of Western-style human rights, and greater political representation. They also challenged the sacrosanct alliance between the ruling family and the ‘ulama’. Islamist groups, in contrast, demanded the complete transformation of Saudi socioeconomic and political life along Islamic lines. Comprised mainly of young, educated, and well-organized middle class men, the new Islamist movement also has modern technological means at their disposal. In the name of religious reformism, the Islamists have adopted an implacable stance towards the government and even challenged its Islamic legitimacy.
The existence of an Islamic opposition may seem surprising for a country that governs, according to Islamic shari’a law. Four separate opposition groups have emerged, with strong interests in opposing the present Saudi regime: Sunni political activists (which include both nonviolent protestors and groups that use violence to achieve their goals), transnational militant jihadi organizations, members of the Shi’ite minority, and tribal and regional groupings. Saudi Arabia also has one of the largest groups of reform-minded liberals—intellectuals, businessmen, and moderate religious leaders—in the Middle East. Unfortunately, these individuals lack influence, international support, and freedom of expression and many of them are subjected to persecution.
The end of the Gulf War initiated a series of popular petitions sent to the King. In a country where organized political activity is limited and open criticism of the government is curtailed, the circulation of petitions represented a substantial departure from the past. Specifically, the beginning of the current Sunni Islamist challenge may be traced to two petitions addressed to King Fahd by religious scholars and intellectuals in the aftermath of Gulf War in May 1991 and in September 1992. Though King Fahd responded by reforming the Basic Law of Government, the Law of the Consultative Council, and the Law of the Provinces, he simultaneously persecuted members of the opposition. Among them were two charismatic preachers from a group of young, radical Sunni ulama, known as the “Awakening Shaykhs” (shuyukh al-sahwa), Salman al-‘Awda and Safar al-Hawali, whose popularity reached its peak in the first half of the 1990s.
Another by-product of the Gulf War, in addition to reinvigorating the al-sahwa movement, was the creation of the Lajnat al-dufu’ ‘an al-huquq al-shar’iyya (Committee for the Defense of Legitimate [Islamic] Rights) in 1993. Due to state repression, the Committee moved to London in 1994. The leaders of the Committee, couching their true goals in the language of human rights and democracy, supported a strict interpretation of shari’a law, opposed rights for women, were vehemently anti-Shi’ite, and opposed the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Committee’s key spokesman, Muhammad al-Mas’ari, was educated in the West (unlike the Awakening Shaykhs) and was able to adjust the radical fundamentalist message to make it palatable to a Western audience. In 2005, al-Mas’ari launched another organization called al-Tajdid al-Islami (Islamic Renewal) and a website with the same name, where he published the statements of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and instructions for conducting irregular warfare in cities. Despite enjoying some influence in Saudi Arabia, both organizations achieved little progress beyond advocating against the status quo.
In addition to indigenous threats, Saudi Arabia has also been challenged by a global Islamist opposition: the group associated with Osama bin Laden and other mujahidin—Saudi veterans dispatched by the Saudi government to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet armies there. The mujahidin challenge the nature of the state hierarchy and present their own interpretation of Islam. Whereas the Awakening Shaykhs and other groups do not openly advocate violence, bin Laden always has, especially following the Gulf War when the royal family refused to use his mujahidin for the defense of the country. It is no secret that bin Ladin’s popularity in Saudi Arabia has significantly increased since 9/11 and his activities strike a chord with parts of the population, who appreciate his opposition to both the ruling family and the West. Moreover, Saudi charities and wealthy businessmen continue to fund Islamist organizations, some of which have been shown to have links with terrorist networks. It is hard to foresee whether this kind of Islamist opposition will turn into a mass movement in the future. It is nevertheless clear that it is possible for such opposition to organize, and that it can claim supporters from among high-ranking religious scholars as well as military professionals. It is also clear that the establishment of an opposition in exile has the financial support of people in Saudi Arabia, although it is difficult to discover its exact sources.
Another important group with dissident potential is formed by the Saudi Shi’ites who represent between 10 and 15 percent of the entire population. Shi’ite opposition was considerably energized after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, but part of the opposition was later co-opted by the Saudi government in the wake of the Gulf War. Recently the community has been become increasingly vocal, expressing its demands for greater political participation, minority rights, and religious celebrations. In the early 1990s, after decades of repression, during which hundreds of Shi’ites were jailed, exiled, and executed, Saudi Arabia ended its brutal campaign against the Shi’ite community. The Saudi government released many Shi’ite prisoners and also removed travel bans that had prevented some dissidents from leaving the country. In an about-face, the Saudi regime updated a schoolbook text that had referred to Shi’ism as a heterodox sect. The new edition delineated five Islamic madhahib (schools of jurisprudence) in Saudi Arabia. Such a liberal move is perhaps part of a new Saudi campaign to improve its image in the West.
Tribal groups, central to Saudi identity for centuries, could pose problems for the regime. Individuals were loyal only to their tribes, and never identified with the Arabian peninsula. Instead, they were proud to be Mutayr, cUtayba, cAjman, Harb, cAnaza, Shammar, or any of several dozen other clans. In fact, the earliest opposition to the Saudi state came from the conquered tribes. The reaction of the Saudi state to the two 2003 al-Qaeda bombings in Riyadh stressed the importance still attached to tribal structure. The royal family became eager to demonstrate that it had the “full support” of the kingdom’s all-important tribal shaykhs from the Hijaz and ‘Asir provinces. During meetings with Crown Prince ‘Abdullah and Prince Nayif, the shaykhs pledged, in identical speeches, their loyalty to the ruling family.
Traditional tribal leaders and Islamists have one thing in common: they have no formal organization to protect their interests. Beyond this similarity, the tribes do not doubt the legitimacy of the royal family. They also have been generously rewarded for their loyalty by a system of state benefits, and confirmation of their status and marriage policy. This situation is unlikely to change, unless the financial reserves of the state dry up and the system of incentives collapses.
The post-Gulf War era has accompanied a series of new threats to the Saudi political order. Its relationship with the U.S., which sheltered it in the past, is now insufficient to provide the royal family with a sense of security. Violence in Saudi Arabia has escalated since the Gulf War, culminating in the 2003-2005 terror campaign. The royal family has responded aggressively, stifling forms of dissent that could challenge it. There has always been a lot of talk about Saudi Arabia’s political instability. However, many political scientists and writers have exaggerated this issue in the past six decades, and have made serious errors in predicting the political development of the Kingdom. It is only fair to say that similar prediction of the imminent fall of the Saudi ruling order are usually based on wishful thinking more than deep analysis. The modern Saudi state has always proved able to handle domestic political challenges: the Al Saud family has links to all the most important tribes and elites, and its security services are able to manage most problems. Nonetheless, the significance of the radicalized fundamentalist movement in Saudi Arabia should not be underestimated, and attention must also be paid to religious trends within and outside the religious establishment which helps to create such radicalized movements. A hidden struggle continues regarding who will determine the legacy of ‘Abd al-Wahhab. The Islamist trend in the Kingdom will remain an important force in political life for the foreseeable future.
The Saudi ruling family is caught in a dilemma and seems unsure how to best to resolve it—on one hand, it keeps supporting the spread of radical Islam, on the other, it maintains a strategic partnership with the U.S. and Europe. The danger also exists that the U.S. will ignore the broader causes of terrorism and extremism in Saudi Arabia and instead will push the Kingdom to focus on counterterrorism without regard to needs for broader reforms. The gravest obstacle to necessary reform steps lies in the monopoly which extreme Salafi ideology has over the interpretation of religion and its infiltration into the state structure. If unchecked, this is a time bomb waiting to explode. Another is the increasing rootlessness of Saudi youth exposed to the opportunities and freedoms of the West while devoid of structures or values that are constructive in dealing with the modern world. For generations, the Saudis have been taught at schools by Salafi-inspired teachers that the West is the source of all evil. At the same time, they have been forced to recognize that the very survival of the kingdom’s ruling elite is entirely dependent on its close cooperation with the West.
Saudi Arabia must deal with a wide range of foreign policy issues, and in the sphere of domestic politics with a small, violent Islamist extremist minority that attacks both foreign and domestic targets. The Kingdom can only be successful in meeting all of these challenges if it begins serious educational and economic reforms, and then proceeds to implement them steadily over a period of decades. However, over-accelerating the pace of reforms could easily lead to a radical reaction on the part of conservative elements in the society. But Saudi Arabia cannot survive while allowing Islamic hardliners, who misuse a perverted form of Islam, to define its future.
The Kingdom should also reappraise its long-standing institutionalization of religious radicalism, both at home and abroad. Saudi Arabia could ideally play the main role in spreading a more positive interpretation of Islam. In the current clash of ideologies, the voices of religious clerics from the birthplace of Islam would be highly beneficial. Some are already speaking out, but unfortunately their voices are drowned by importunate and vociferous outcry of radical religious propagandists.
 Joshua Teitelbaum. “Holier Than Thou: Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Opposition.” Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy: Policy Papers 52 (2000)10.
 For al-Hamad’s opinions see, for example: MacFarquhar, Neil. “Saudi Reformers: Seeking Rights, Paying a Price,” New York Times 9 Jun. 2005.
For an outstanding analysis of Juhayman’s movement see: Hegghammer, Thomas and Stéphane Lacroix. “Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia: The Story of Juhayman al-‘Utaybi Revisited.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 39 (2007). 103-22.
For more details about changing social differentiation of the Islamists see: Dekmejian, Hrair R., “The Rise of Political Islamism in Saudi Arabia.” Middle East Journal 48.4 (1994). 629, 635-36.
For a detailed overview of some of these trends, see: Fandy, Mamoun. Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent. New York: Palgrave, 1999; International Crisis Group, Amman/Brussels/Riyadh. Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who Are the Islamists? Middle East Report 31 (21 Sep. 2004); or Al-Rasheed, Madawi. Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.
For more details about Saudi Shi’ites see a monograph of one of the direct participants of the Shi’ite oppositional movement: Ibrahim, Fouad. The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia. London: Saqi Books, 2006. For further information see Fandy, 195-228; International Crisis Group, Amman/Brussels/Riyadh. “The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia.” Middle East Report 45 (19 Sep. 2005); Al-Hasan, Haza. Al-shi’a fi al-mamlaka al-‘arabiyya al-su’udiyya. Beirut: Mu’assasat al-baqi li ahya al-turath, 1993); and al-Rasheed, Madawi. “The Shi’a of Saudi Arabia: a Minority in Search of Cultural Authenticity.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 25.1 (1998). 121-38.
John R. Bradley, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 65.
For an analysis of the Saudi schoolbooks see, for example: Groiss, Arnon ed. The West, Christians, and Jews in Saudi Arabian Schoolbooks. New York: Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace and The American Jewish Committee, 2003.