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October 7th, 2004
The Saudi Question
Essay: Saudi Arabia, America's Ally and Enemy

By Michael S. Doran

Crown Prince Abdullah listens to petitioners during a majlis, a council session.

Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a crisis. Its population is growing faster than its economy, its welfare state is rapidly deteriorating, regional and sectarian resentments are rising, and the disaffected are increasingly turning to radical Islamic activism. Many understand that the Saudi political system must evolve in order to survive, but a profound cultural schizophrenia prevents the elite from agreeing on the specifics of reform.

On the one hand, some Westernizers in the ruling class look to Europe and the United States as models of political development; on the other, a Wahhabi religious establishment holds up its interpretation of Islam’s golden age as a guide and considers giving any voice to non-Wahhabis as idolatry.

Saudi Arabia’s two most powerful figures have taken opposing sides in this debate: Crown Prince Abdullah tilts toward the liberal reformers, whereas his half-brother Prince Nayef, the interior minister, sides with the clerics. Abdullah cuts a higher profile abroad, but Nayef, who controls the secret police, casts a longer and darker shadow at home.

The two camps divide over a single question: whether the state should reduce the power of the religious establishment. The clerics and Nayef take their stand on the principle of tawhid, or “monotheism,” as defined by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Wahhabism’s founder. In their view, many people who claim to be monotheists are actually polytheists and idolaters. For the most radical Saudi clerics, these enemies include Christians, Jews, Shiites, and even insufficiently devout Sunni Muslims. From the perspective of tawhid, these groups constitute a grand conspiracy to destroy true Islam.

In the minds of the clerics, stomping out pagan cultural and political practices at home and supporting war against Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq are two sides of the same coin. Jihad against idolatry, the clerics never tire of repeating, is eternal, “lasting until Judgment Day,” when true monotheism will destroy polytheism once and for all. The doctrine of tawhid also ensures the clerics a unique domestic political status, since it implies they alone have the necessary training to safeguard the purity of the realm.

If tawhid marks the right pole of the Saudi political spectrum, then the doctrine of taqarub — rapprochement between Muslims and non-Muslims — marks the left. Taqarub promotes the notion of peaceful coexistence with nonbelievers. It also seeks to expand the political community by legitimizing political participation by groups that the Wahhabis consider non-Muslim — Shiites, secularists, feminists and so on. In foreign policy, taqarub muzzles jihad, allowing Saudis to live in peace with Christian Americans, Jewish Israelis, and even Shiite Iranians.

Abdullah clearly associates himself with “taqarub.” He has advocated relaxing restrictions on public debate, promoted democratic reform, supported a reduction in the power of the clerics, and even shown willingness to allow greater freedoms for Saudi Arabia’s oppressed Shiite minority. By floating the “Saudi plan” for Arab-Israeli peace, moreover, and traveling to Crawford, Texas to discuss the issue with President George W. Bush, he harmonized his domestic and foreign agendas. To a Western eye, there is no inherent connection between Abdullah’s political reform agenda and his rapprochement policies toward non-Muslim states and Shiite “heretics.” In a political culture policed by Wahhabis, however, they are seen to be cut from the same cloth.

While Abdullah has signaled friendship with the West, Nayef has encouraged jihad – to the point of offering tacit support for al-Qaeda and overseeing a crackdown on Saudi liberals. Nayef does not take overt responsibility for the persecution of domestic reformers, but the hand of the secret police is barely hidden from view. The sequence of events is now familiar. Either without warning or in response to a complaint by a prominent cleric, a critic of the religious establishment loses his job. His employers subsequently refuse to comment. Islamic extremists then issue a death threat to the unemployed man over the phone or on the Internet. Almost invariably, the campaign achieves its desired result.

Everyone knows that Osama bin Laden rejects the legitimacy of the Saudi family, but few recognize the substantial overlap between the beliefs of al-Qaeda and the Saudi religious establishment. The chief ideological difference between them is that the former includes the Saudi royal family among its enemies while the latter does not.

This hardly rules out limited or tacit cooperation on a variety of issues. Al-Qaeda activists sense, moreover, that the American desire to separate mosque and state across the Middle East constitutes the greatest immediate threat to their broader political goals. So al-Qaeda’s short-term objective is less to topple the Saudi regime than to shift the country’s domestic balance of power to the right and punish supporters of taqarub.

Projecting their domestic struggle onto the external world, Saudi hard-liners are now arguing that the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia is conspiring with the United States in its war to destroy Islam. Al-Qaeda’s nightmare scenario is that the Americans and the Iraqi Shiites will force Riyadh to enact broad reforms and bring the Saudi Shiites into the political community. There is no question that many hard-line Saudi clerics share precisely the same fears.

These notions of an American-Shiite conspiracy are not simply an internal Saudi matter. They legitimize the daily attacks on American soldiers in Iraq’s “Sunni Triangle,” as well as attacks such as the anti-Shiite suicide bombing in Najaf last August. Nonetheless, changing the situation will be difficult, because the United States has limited means of muting the anti-Shiism and anti-Americanism that the Saudi clerics espouse.

Wahhabism is the foundation of an entire political system, and everyone with a stake in the status quo can be expected to rally around it when push comes to shove. The United States has no choice but to press hard for democratic reforms in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But the very attempt to create more liberal political orders will set off new disputes, which will inevitably generate anti-American feelings. As Washington struggles to promote democracy in the Middle East, therefore, it will find once again that its closest Arab ally is also one of its most bitter enemies.

This article originally appeared in the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE on December 23, 2003.

Michael S. Doran is assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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