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The Saudi interfaith dialogue 6, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Arabia has once again sought to assert its place as the de facto leader of the Muslim world. King Abdullah gave a speech at three day conference at Mecca on the future of Islam and other religions, following on from the much publicised Saudi call for an interfaith dialogue. The King called for unity among Muslims and for Islam to speak as one voice in its dialogue with other religions. An important corollary of this move would be that Saudi Arabia would command a prominent place at the heart of such a movement, controlling as it does the birth place of Islam and its two holiest sites at Mecca and Medinah.

This is not the first time that the Kingdom has sought such a role. Indeed, this is but a reprisal of policies that go back to the reign of Ibn Saud. However, it was his successors Saud and Faisal that had to cope with Nasser’s powerful call for nationalism, the vogue concept of the age. Egypt’s and Nasser’s popularity in the early sixties posed significant problems for the Kingdom and any aspirations that they might have had of being a leading country in the region. Both Saud and later Faisal realised that Saudi could not hope to compete with Egypt and Syria in the nationalist stakes. Saudi’s relative distance from the Levant-Egypt axis, its small population and relatively poor military put paid to any such notions.

The best policy that they had to combat this was to champion their own credentials as a pan-Islamic religious leader and to portray these as inclusive Islamic values versus the splitism which pan-Arabism promoted. Internally, the Saudi ulama wrote, decreed and proteolyzed on behalf of the state’s new adopted goal and against its ‘competition’. For example, Al Baz, one of Saudi’s preeminent theologians wrote many denunciations of pan-Arabism as being “introduced by Christian Westerners to fight Islam and destroy it through trickery…it is known in Islam that the call to Arab nationalism, or any other form of nationalism, is false and a grave mistake.”[1]

Externally, the Kingdom began to organize Islamic meetings and conferences. For example, in 1956 Pakistan and Saudi agreed to set up a loosely defined ‘Islamic Conference,’ in 1962 Saudi organised a rather unsuccessful Muslim World League Conference and the so called ‘Casablanca group’ of Saudi, Morocco, Mali, Ghana and Guinea established a joint military command and common market in 1963.

However, Saudi did not have to cope for long with Nasser’s challenge which was severely curtailed with the humiliation of the 1967 war and his subsequent need to come to the Al Sauds, cap in hand, to bail Egypt out of the mess that it was in.

Fast forward some forty years and Saudi are doing the same thing again; seeking to use their central place in Islam as a means of securing and augment their status. This time they are not reacting against any nationalistic causes but against Iran and their recent hogging of the international limelight. Not only are they rumoured to be seeking to acquire nuclear weapons – a huge sign of prestige – but their clearly positioned anti-Western stance is attractive to many Muslims. Their support of Hizballah, alleged support of insurgents in Iraq, vociferous anti-American and Jewish rhetoric, not to mention their historic anti-American antipathy are an unfortunately powerful elixir which garners them not a small amount of prestige. Saudi, with their intertwined history and obvious dependency on America, can play no such cards. Thus, they have employed the same tactic again; uniting behind the banner of Islam where they are guaranteed to have a central place.

Can Mubarak offer anything to this Saudi challenge? Whilst Egypt will always command respect throughout the region owing to its history, population and soft power (i.e. films, music etc), with the economy precariously placed, the population severely displeased and the government far from popular, there appears to be little choice. Egypt must join the Saudis in their plan if they are to compete at the present time. Showing ones Islamic colours is the vogue trend in the Middle East at the moment and for Mubarak not to join in with Saudi’s interfaith dialogue would be a mistake. Indeed, the one card that Egypt can play lies in their recognition of Israel. How can the Saudi’s claim an interfaith dialogue if they will not recognise the only Jewish state in the region? Whilst this is no easy role for Egypt – in some quarters they may well be castigated as dealing with the devil – handled correctly it is a golden opportunity to (re)gain international prestige.


[1] P.11-14 Al Baz, Sheikh Abd al Aziz Ibn  Naqd al Qawmiya al Arabiya Ala Daw’a Al Islam wa al Waqi  (Beirut, al Maktab al Islami, 1385 (translated by Al Yassini) quoted in P.12 al Yassini, Ayman  ‘Religion and Foreign Policy in Saudi Arabia’  Discussion Paper Series – Centre for Developing Area Studies (No.2, McGill University, 1983)

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