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Are the Saudis at it again? 19, October 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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It is entirely possible to look at the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a long struggle with religious forces. The very existence of the country is premised on a Faustian bargain of sorts between Muhammad Ibn Abd Al Wahhab and Muhammad Ibn Saud where each one was (and their descendants still are) utterly reliant on the other. The Al Saud’s provide the base for the Wahhabis to practice and proselyte their religious doctrine and the Wahhabis in turn provide the Al Sauds with the necessary religious sanctification as well as a proven ability to whip the masses into a religious fervor when needed.

As the powers of the Al Sauds and Wahhabis waxed and waned relative to each other, so did their relative influence over each other. For example, the Wahhabis found themselves in a strong position just before Operation Desert Shield when the Saudi government desperately needed the religious blessing of the Wahhabi clergy to sanctify their decision to allow large numbers of US troops onto Saudi soil. The Wahhabis duly provided a declaration supporting the government but demanded a high price for their official approval: yet stricter controls over many aspects of Saudi society. Kepel, the noted French Arabist characterises this deal as completing the Kingdom’s fall into “bottomless Islamization.”

Perhaps the clearest example of the Al Saud’s dependency on Wahhabi legitimacy occurred in 1979 when the Grand Mosque at Mecca was overrun by fundamentalists seeking to usher in the next eschaton.  This was a stark and brazen attack at the very core of Al Saud’s legitimacy: that of their safe custodianship of the holiest place in Islam. After the debacle was finally ended (with the help of French Special Forces) the Al Sauds pumped massive amounts of money into the Wahhabi clergy to proselyte the faithful yet further and prove their religious credentials, rather than engage in any attempt to understand, ask questions or resolve why this group took the fantastic step of attacking the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

However, the Saudis were fortunate. At the time of the Mosque debacle, the Soviets were invading Afghanistan. This, therefore, gave the Saudis another way to repair their image, bolster their legitimacy and get rid of the most dedicated and hard-line fundamentalists who could have threatened their regime: along with America they supplied men, arms, equipment and money to the Afghan resistance.

Eventually, of course, the Mujahedeen returned home and the Saudis were in an even worse situation. Not only were the proselytized, fervent and passionate men returning home, but they were now combat veterans with a range of guerrilla warfare skills. To make things worse, not long after their return, Iraq invaded Kuwait and implicitly threatened Saudi’s biggest oil fields in the east of the country, next to Kuwait. The Al Sauds, however, did not turn to their veteran Mujahedeen, but to the Americans and their grand coalition. This was an epic slap in the face for Bin Laden and the rest of the Mujahedeen. It is these remnants of the Afghan War that were overwhelmingly responsible  for  the wave of terrorism that spread across the world in the nineties and early twenty-first century, from Dhahran to Bali and from to Madrid to New York.

Peculiarly enough, in the aftermath of the September the 11th attacks it was the Al Sauds who were in the ascendancy relative to the Wahhabis. They were under enormous pressure to act in some tangible way, shape or form to reign-in the extreme anti-American Wahhabi tendencies within their society. Numerous reforms were enacted none of which were that far reaching, but the Wahhabi position was nevertheless weakened to some degree. It took the Saudis two years to begin to make any meaningful changes and only then because of the devastating attacks in the Kingdom itself, which finally drove home the point to the Al Sauds. Yet this chastening experience – that of sponsoring religious fanatics only to receive severe blow-back some time later – does not appear to have altered Saudi strategic thinking, for there is growing evidence that they are doing precisely the same thing again, only in Lebanon and not Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia along with Jordan and other Sunni countries have been concerned for some time about a so-called Shia crescent descending on the Middle East. Stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, Saudi for one has been taking steps to seek to mitigate the strengthening of Shia power where possible. According to Seymour Hersh, Saudi has joined up with their erstwhile Afghan partner, the US,  in sponsoring Fatah Al Islam to act as a Sunni counterweight to Shia Syrian forces in Lebanon. Saudi is believed to have provided not only funds but around 15-20% of the fighters, for example, at the Nahr Al Bared refugee camp conflict in 2007. One further factor no doubt adding to Saudi’s anxiety in Lebanon was the rout of Hariri’s offices in West Beirut by Shia Hezbollah on the 7th May this year.

One corollary of all this is perceptibly worsening relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Following on from the banning of Saudi daily newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat back in summer 2006 over their coverage of the war in Lebanon, another pan-Arab Saudi paper has been banned. On the 29th September this year, Al Hayat was banned because of its coverage of the bombings in Damascus.  Yet it is these attacks which are, potentially, the true harbinger of worse things to come. The most recent of these attacks killed 17 Syrians and injured around 14 near a significant Shia shrine in Damascus. This act of terrorism was condemned around the world but significantly not in Riyadh where the government refused to comment. So was this an example of a Saudi trained and funded Jihadi from a Sunni camp in Lebanon coming across the border and seeking to attack Syria? That is certainly what Bashar Al Assad’s regime is telling the world; hence their deployment of Special Forces and troops along parts of the Lebanese border to ostensibly stop foreign Jihadis entering the country. There are, therefore, persuasive arguments suggesting that the Saudis have reverted to their failed policies of the past and whilst it may sound ridiculous to repeat old mistakes, if it is true, they are not the first and certainly will not be the last to do so.