Political Islam in Saudi Arabia
The Concept of Political Islam
Political Islam is a concept that defines the way in which Islamic religion is influencing politics in Islamic states. In this study I aim to establish to what extent the Islamic-thinking affects politics and especially Saudi Arabia’s internal and foreign policy. In order to do that, we need to know how powerful the Islamic ideology is in this particular country.
The population of Saudi Arabia is 90% Muslim Arab of the Wahhabi sect (a branch of Sunni Islam), although there is a small percentage of Shiites, mainly in the Northeast. Islam is the only officially recognized religion, and other faiths are not publicly tolerated.
The states resulted after the First World War were cursed to have a very harsh life. The geographic delimitation was mainly the result of the arbitrary division according to foreign interests. Twentieth Century’s Middle East is, in reality, an Anglo-French creation and had little to do with the dynamics of that specific region.
The House of Saud
As the Ottoman Empire dissolved after World War I, Ibn Saud of the House of Saud worked quickly to consolidate his family's power over the Arabian Peninsula. Ibn was a despot of old type. He was aided materially by the British who were interested in destroying the Ottomans. Ibn Saud gave birth to a modern and powerful dynasty by having numerous children with his many wives. Today there are, depending on the source, some 3000-4000 or 7,000 princes in the House of Saud with eight or ten new ones born each week. Women and girls do not count so there are no princesses. Saudi women are among the most harassed on earth.
Ibn Saud belonged to Sunni part of the Wahhab sect representing an extreme interpretation of the Qu'ran and Hadith. Wahhabism soon became the state religion and became just as oppressive as the Taliban. Since WW II especially, Wahhab Mullahs began preaching against Western thought and influence, which was exported to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The House of Saud is now ruled by King Fahd, but, because of his poor health, Fahd is now only a titular leader. His brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, actually runs Saudi Arabia. Both are over 70.
The Saud dynasty is supported by oil revenues, which have increased although the wages of the working class decreased at almost 50%. It is said that Each Prince is awarded some $500,000 annually for expenses. The Saud family receives some two-three billion dollars annually, even as the state budget runs annual deficits. This is aside from diversions of state funds that they have been accused of. At the same time, aside from the military, the Saud Dynasty has done little to modernize Saudi Arabia. Saudi women remain terribly oppressed.
This data shows us that the House of Saud has had a very great political and economical power and that it is well established at the rule of the country. Practically, most of the people that live today in Saudi Arabia were born under Saud rule and they can hardly imagine another ruler. This tells a lot about the chances of the system being overtaken. Still, there were some revolts and we shall see their causes and their results.
On the other hand, these features have led some commentators to predict that the end of the dynasty is near. During the last decade the income per capita has severely decreased while the national debt got bigger and bigger. Despite much official requests about democracy and human rights, there can be seen the 'permissive' attitude of the West towards the House. As regional dictators like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qadhafi are punished for arbitrary imprisonment, mistreatment of minorities and elimination of any opposition, the House of Saud is seen as a pillar of regional stability. The reasons are clear enough: religion and oil.
Saudi Arabia also holds 25 per cent of the world's known oil reserves and plays a moderating role in OPEC by manipulating supply to keep prices down. This is why the House makes the object of only occasional warnings in the West. However, after the September 11 attacks and the anticipated rise of Russia as a strong world oil producer, this might change.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, editorialist at “Asia Times”, points out that the contradictions in the policies used by the House of Saud are weakening the regime. He reminds to the readers that in 1979 a group of religious fanatics occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca. They questioned the legitimacy of the Saudi government, claiming that it was not “Islamic enough”. The government reclaimed the mosque, and the group’s leader and most of his followers were executed. However, even though the protestors were killed, the government adopted the very ideology for which they gave their lives. After the Mecca incident, the Saudi authorities began to impose strict rules. Women were banned from appearing on television, music was not allowed in the media, stores and malls were closed during the five daily prayer sessions, and the religious police were granted greater powers to monitor people’s lives. Similarly, four years ago, in Buraydah, a city of about 150,000 people fundamentalists raised the flag of Islam on minarets in protest against the House of Saud for 48 hours before the Saudi National Guard was able to subdue them. Shahzad argues that these incidents proved that “the extremists were in fact dictating terms”. I wouldn’t go that far. Considering that there are only a few of this kind of events in a such big period of time, I’d say that this proves only that the fundamentalists were still active and that they didn’t agree to the policies of the regime.
A Moment of Choice: the Golf War of 1990-1991
The “both ends” strategy of the leaders from Riyadh has had some important consequences. Osama bin Laden’s exile is one of them. Bin Laden broke with the Saudi monarchy over the first war against Iraq, in 1990-1991 and now eagerly seeks its overthrow. In 1990, bin Laden proposed to the Saudi defense minister to let him mobilize veterans of the 1979-1989 Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, in order to defend Saudi Arabia against Iraq. Probably the rulers feared that by letting bin Laden to gather troops they would lose control over the country and so the Saudi government rejected the offer, preferring an US-led coalition. The US sent 500,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. This happened only after US secretary of defense Dick Cheney (now vice president) promised King Fahd that the troops would be removed after the war. Still, more than 5000 are still present in the country. Ever since, bin Laden has resented the presence of “infidel troops” on the Holy Land where the Prophet Muhammad founded Islam in the 7th century. The first of 1990-1991 put the rulers from Riyadh in a situation in which they had to choose out of two evils, and they thought US is the smaller one. This was the only option in which they could hope to continue to stay in power. Thus, it was proved once again that defending religious convictions was not a priority to them.
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