Arabian Knights and Nightmare

Anchal Vohra writes on the Middle East and Europe
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The purge in Riyadh and the deepening Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran

ON THE 4TH of November, Mohammad bin Salman; the six feet six inches-tall crown prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, had a dozen influential members of the country’s business and political elite rounded up, ostensibly to counter corruption. In a uniquely Saudi way, they were imprisoned at the Ritz Carlton, a luxury hotel in Riyadh. Most of them were of royal lineage too, including the billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, a globally famous investor. Hours before that, the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri read out his resignation from a written note, while still in Riyadh. Later in the day, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile at Riyadh airport. It was not the first, but it led Saudi Arabia to accuse its regional archrival Tehran of an act of war.

The relief over the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria had barely begun to filter in and the news emanating out of Saudi Arabia alluded to the possibility of another conflict. This time, in Lebanon. The mood in Beirut, the party town of the Middle East, changed from Saturday night fever to ‘Oh, not again!’

“We won’t have war because that happens every Friday, not Saturday,” analysed Josie, sipping a gin and tonic in a British pub in Ashrafiyeh, an upscale neighbourhood of Beirut. It was difficult to tell if she was serious or mocking the fragile security of Lebanon. The country has witnessed a 16-year-long bloody civil war, several violent encounters with Israel, and has long been an outpost of Shia-Sunni rivalry between regional adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia. “Maybe Israel will attack Hizbullah in the south of Lebanon,” said a gentleman downing Scotch. Israel and Lebanon are in a constant state of alert, but for once, both Tel Aviv and Hizbullah were sounding relatively reasonable. Rayanne, a student, shared the apprehensions of her family: “My parents started to stock up food and visited the bank, just in case.” Stability is not the norm in Lebanon, and having lived on the edge for so long, Lebanese by and large prefer to speak of their preparedness rather than fear of violence.

Twelve days have passed. While uncertainty remains in Lebanon, the fear of all-out war has subsided. People here are wondering if the Hariri bombshell and other events of that day were anything more than a Saudi display of might. The kingdom was perhaps only asserting itself as the Islamic power to reckon with, and a display of its leverage over Hariri, a man backed by Riyadh, could be used as part of a broad plan to contain Iran. Over the last decade of violence in the region, Iran has acquired immense influence through its proxy in Lebanon, the Hizbullah, and several other Shia militias it has propped up. In this view, Saudi Arabia was sending a signal to Iran that its expansion would not go unchallenged.

Meanwhile, the story unfolding within Saudi Arabia will have a global impact. The 32-year-old Al Saud scion and heir to the throne, Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS, as colloquially referred to), is apparently keen to consolidate power and shake up the kingdom currently headed by his father, King Salman, who is 81. In a bloodless coup earlier in June, MBS had replaced his 52-year-old cousin Muhammad bin Nayef as the official successor, and his purported plans of diversifying the Saudi economy and effecting social reforms are assumed to have his father’s approval.

The crown prince’s foreign affairs moves have also been grabbing global headlines. He had added force to Saudi Arabia’s armed intervention in Yemen, and later got its Gulf allies to boycott Qatar. Hariri’s exit is also attributed to MBS’s strategic acumen, or the lack of it—which of the two it will turn out to be is a big question. So far, he has won little applause for any of these manoeuvres.

The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri while in Riyadh is seen in Beirut as a Saudi assertion of power that could be used as part of a broader plan to contain Iran

Measuring his words, Dr HA Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council, tells Open,“MBS is shaking things up—and his moves, while brash and quite possibly exceedingly reckless, may actually pass.”

In foreign policy matters, the crown prince has often been labelled reckless and worse, a man always biting off more than he can chew, but internally, the 32-year-old speaks of a new desert kingdom more in tune with modernity. “Seventy per cent of the population is under 30,” he said at an investor forum in October, and added, “We won’t allow the 30 per cent to hold them back.” The crown prince also took on Saudi Arabia’s powerful clergy, promising the adoption of moderate Islam, which is expected to result in an effort to quell a puritanical form of the faith that terrorist ideologies are seen to draw inspiration from. “We will end extremism,” he told the gathering, speaking of a religion open to the world and other religions. These could be mere words for the ears of a global audience that the kingdom needs for its economy, which slumped along with crude oil prices three years ago. But might the intent be earnest?

A few years ago, Alaa Wardi, a Saudi citizen and a cappella artist, sang No woman, no drive, a song that gave voice to Saudi women and played a significant role in mobilising support for females being allowed behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia. In September, Riyadh issued a royal decree that will let half its population get a licence that was denied all these decades. Over the past year, the powers of the controversial Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, its ‘faith police’, have also been curbed. Its officers can no longer arrest or hit those they see as violating Sharia- enforced morality. Even though some of this liberalisation began with the previous late King Abdullah, who advocated limited reforms after his ascent in 2005 and even opened a co-educational university, KAUST, in 2009, the current crown prince is believed to have played an instrumental role in a larger liberalisation agenda. Yet, the social concessions he is credited with do not justify the hyperbolic media coverage he has been granted.

A few reforms here and there will not be enough. Consider this: the testimony of a man equals that of two women in a court hearing; daughters receive half of what their brothers do in inheritance; women can’t conducts certain businesses, or even apply for a passport, without the permission of a male guardian. And then, limb amputations, stoning and flogging remain a part of the legal apparatus guided by the strict Wahhabi school of thought.

The kingdom itself is the outcome of an alliance struck between Emir Muhammad bin Saud and the 18th century preacher Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, a deal of mutual support that made the monarchy’s power inseparable from the clergy’s and involved ties of blood. The cleric’s daughter married the emir’s son, which means the entire House of Saud is directly descended from Wahhab. Achieving the goal of moderate Islam would mean getting rid of the Wahhabi school, and MBS is neither willing nor up to it.

The complete overthrow of Wahhabi influence is unachievable under the Sauds, but switching to a more normative religious outlook over time is possible. Despite being a highly conservative society, winds of modernity have also blown across Saudi cities. If social media is to go by, a section of the youth feels ashamed of its medieval processes and yearns for change. If social dynamics change, it will have an impact on the foreign workers who hold two-thirds of all jobs, according to official figures released in 2012.

The complete overthrow of Wahhabi influence over Saudi Arabia is unachievable under the Saud dynasty, but switching to a more normative religious outlook over time is possible

Of the 8.5 million foreign nationals in the kingdom, 900,000 are Pakistanis, 2 million are Bangladeshis and 3 million are from India. They hail from different parts of the Subcontinent and travel to the oil-rich Arab country for work. Upon return, they bring money but sometimes also Wahhabi values which influence their religious practice and culture back home. The overseas expansion of Wahhabi influence is also aided directly by Saudi funds for mosques and Islamic institutions. The Islamist ideology of the most violent terrorist groups today is drawn from Wahhabist doctrines. In South Asia, many madrassas associated with it are centres of radicalisation.

A June 2013 European Parliament report collates evidence and reports linking Arab charities with extremism spanning a vast land mass from Asia to Africa. A US State Department report in 2006 noted, ‘Saudi donors and unregulated charities have been a major source of financing to extremist and terrorist groups over the past 25 years.’ One of the WikiLeaks documents, a cable from the US Consulate in Lahore also states that the ‘financial support estimated at nearly 100 million USD annually was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith [a variation of Wahhabi sect] clerics in the region from ‘missionary’ and ‘Islamic charitable’ organisations in Saudi Arabia and the UAE ostensibly with the direct support of those governments’.

The links of Saudi charities with terrorist groups were strengthened in late 70s in Pakistan. Billions of dollars were channelled through Pakistani networks to build a force to fight the ‘infidel’ Soviets in Afghanistan. The funds were used to establish Wahhabist madrassas that indoctrinated hundreds of thousands of boys, including Taliban chief Mullah Omar and Jallaluddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network. The terror outfits formed by them continue to destabilise the region and kill Afghan, American, Indian and Pakistani citizens.

In 2003, Riyadh suffered a terror attack and it sprung into action, containing the charities domestically, but it didn’t do anything to stop their menace overseas. The flow of funds went on. WikiLeaks released a cable according to which in 2005 Saudi charities were funding madrassas in Pakistani Punjab and recruiting jihadists. Terror groups Jaish-e-Mohammad and Jamaat-ud- Dawa (parent of the Lashkar-e-Taiba) have inflicted many wounds on India. The 2008 Mumbai attacks were the work of the LeT, but both groups got their Saudi money. The JuD and JeM have mediated the use of that charity cash to recruit young boys to be brainwashed with obscurantist messages of ‘true Islam’. Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League and its offshoots like the International Islamic Relief Organisation have been funnelling money since the 60s, well before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution that MBS now blames for global extremism within the faith.

In June this year, The Times of London, ran a report of an interview with the new head of the Muslim World League Mohammed al- Issa. ‘He outlined what he intended to do to drive aggressive language out of evangelical material,’ says the article, ‘He blamed local embassies for failing to monitor the output that the league funded round the world; it seemed rather lame, though he appeared sincere.’Al-Issa’s explanation is far from convincing, and the reformist prince hasn’t yet provided any details of how he intends to rein in the kingdom’s sponsors of extremism.

Shrinivasrao S Sohoni, a retired IAS officer who was also an advisor to former Afghan President Karzai, is doubtful of the collapse of Wahhabi infrastructure. “Will the vast range of mosques, seminaries and other institutions, and individual proselitisers the Kingdom funds around the world, start grinding to a halt, short of cash? There are scant signs visible of that as yet,” he tells Open. Sceptical but not pessimistic, Sohoni thinks if MBS means what he says about ending extremism, India could benefit immensely. “We have immeasurably to gain if MBS is sincere in this jihad of his choosing, and more so if he succeeds,” he says, “[It] would mean nothing less than a miracle for India.”

Saudi Arabia has in the recent past extradited a few terror suspects to India, but that’s insufficient to conclude that Riyadh may be reconsidering its South Asia policies. The crown prince could prove his sincerity by employing the Kingdom’s long established links with Rawalpindi and the Taliban to resolve the crises in Afghanistan and pressure Pakistan’s ISI to stop supporting anti-India terrorist groups.

Raza Rumi, editor of the Lahore-based Daily Times, raises questions over MBS’s long-term policy with some circumspection. Rumi says the Kingdom would go to any lengths to guard its interests in Pakistan, but hopes for change under the crown prince. “His moves to introduce religious reforms in Saudi Arabia means that [Riyadh] will also review its external policy of gaining influence through funding religious activities across the world,” says Rumi.

The words of Dr Hellyer of the Atlantic Council should offer South Asians some comfort. Responding to a question on MBS’s policy on religious promotion, he responds that the crown prince is uninterested in promoting purist Salafism or Wahhabism abroad and those who wish to do so will be in a precarious position under his authority. “The religious establishment and those that support purist Salafis or Wahhabis abroad,” says Dr Hellyer, “are going to be very cautious about moving in ways that they think will make them vulnerable to MBS.”

Shah Waliullah Dehlawi, an 18th century Islamic scholar of Delhi, had among his pupils one by the name of Muhammad Hayya Al-Sindhi. Later, this man had among his students the cleric Wahhab. Ideas were borne by camels’ back in those days, and they spread slowly. Today, in a world better interlinked than ever before, the direction that Saudi Arabia takes could help define the future of the Islamic world. A lot would depend on how far the crown prince is allowed to go by clerics in reshaping the Kingdom. For now, even a few steps towards moderation are a welcome sign.