Saudi Arabia embraces Salafism: Countering the Arab uprising?

Sau­di Ara­bia has open­ly embraced Salafism as its offi­cial ide­ol­o­gy to shield itself and its fel­low con­ser­v­a­tive Gulf monar­chies from the wave of anti-gov­ern­ment revolts sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa. This counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy is a gam­ble with wider reper­cus­sions beyond the kingdom. 


SAUDI ARABIA has long been seen as the main backer of Salafis across the globe. It has always, how­ev­er, shied away from offi­cial­ly endors­ing the Mus­lim trend that until recent­ly preached a polit­i­cal­ly qui­etist return to the way of life at the time of Islam’s first 7th cen­tu­ry Caliphs. 

If Sau­di sup­port and fund­ing of Salafi com­mu­ni­ties in the past con­sti­tut­ed a key but dis­creet ele­ment of its soft pow­er strat­e­gy aimed at coun­ter­ing Iran’s per­ceived rev­o­lu­tion­ary Islam­ic appeal, today it serves to counter Islamist forces who trace their roots to the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood. It also seeks to cur­tail the rev­o­lu­tion­ary zeal of pro­test­ers that are clam­our­ing for true democ­ra­cy rather than cos­met­ic change. At the same time, it coun­ters idio­syn­crat­ic for­eign and domes­tic poli­cies of for­ward-look­ing and long-time Sau­di rival Qatar — the only oth­er Arab-Mus­lim nation whose the­o­log­i­cal ori­gins hark back to the Wah­habi founders of Sau­di Arabia. 

Qatar is home to Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, an influ­en­tial Egypt­ian Mus­lim broth­er, and one of the world’s most respect­ed yet con­tro­ver­sial Islam­ic thinkers crit­i­cal of Sau­di Arabia’s puri­tan­ic con­cepts. The Gulf state has fur­ther emerged as a cham­pi­on of revolts in sev­er­al Arab coun­tries with Bahrain as the notable excep­tion, a media pow­er­house thanks to Al Jazeera, and a key US inter­locu­tor in the region. 

Turn­ing on the Brotherhood

The change in Sau­di tac­tics high­lights the rup­ture in rela­tions between the king­dom and the Broth­er­hood more than a decade ago when Inte­ri­or Min­is­ter Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz denounced his erst­while allies in the wake of the Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 Al Qae­da attacks on New York and Washington. 

Sau­di Ara­bia wel­comed the Mus­lim Broth­ers in the 1950s and 1960s as they fled a crack­down in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Many became teach­ers in their new­ly found refuge where their polit­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam cross-fer­tilised with the ideas of the 18th cen­tu­ry cler­ic-war­rior Mohammed Abdul Wah­hab whose puri­tan­ic views shaped mod­ern Sau­di Ara­bia and inspired Salafism. 

It took Prince Nayef, wide­ly viewed as a hard line con­ser­v­a­tive, months to acknowl­edge in 2001 that 15 of the 19 per­pe­tra­tors of the 9/11 attacks had hailed from Sau­di Ara­bia. But once he did, he turned his wrath on the Broth­er­hood, which decades ago had aban­doned vio­lence except in the case of the Pales­tin­ian strug­gle against Israel, but has been the start­ing point of numer­ous first gen­er­a­tion jihadists. 

In an inter­view with a Kuwaiti news­pa­per, Prince Nayef charged at the time that the Broth­er­hood was respon­si­ble “for most of the prob­lems in the Arab world” and had “done great dam­age to Sau­di Ara­bia”. The prince acknowl­edged that when­ev­er they got into dif­fi­cul­ty or found their free­dom restrict­ed in their own coun­tries, Broth­er­hood activists found refuge in Sau­di Ara­bia, “which pro­tect­ed their lives” but said that they had “lat­er turned against the kingdom”. 

A full-fledged school of thought

Ten years lat­er, Crown Prince Nayef is lead­ing the kingdom’s embrace of Salafism when it has dis­card­ed its non-involve­ment in pol­i­tics and has emerged in Egypt’s first post-revolt elec­tions as the country’s sec­ond largest polit­i­cal force with a quar­ter of the votes. Egypt­ian state-con­trolled media, cit­ing unnamed Jus­tice Min­istry sources, report­ed that Sau­di Ara­bia had financed the Salafis to the tune of $63 mil­lion last year. 

Last month Prince Nayef and the kingdom’s mufti and advi­sor on reli­gious affairs, Sheikh Abdu­laz­iz Al al-Shaikh, a descen­dant of Mohammed Abdul Wah­hab, gave keynote speech­es at a con­fer­ence con­vened under the title, Salafism: Legal Path, Nation­al Demand. The con­fer­ence con­sti­tut­ed a rare occa­sion on which the king­dom acknowl­edged Salafism as a full-fledged school of thought with­in Sun­ni Islam, though Sau­di polit­i­cal and reli­gious dis­course had often referred to al-salaf-al-saleh, Prophet Mohammed’s imme­di­ate suc­ces­sors who are revered for their piety. 

“My broth­ers, you know that true Salafism is the path whose rules derive from the book of God and the path of the Prophet…This blessed state (Sau­di Ara­bia) has been estab­lished along cor­rect Salafi lines since its incep­tion by Imam Mohammed bin Saud and his pact with Imam Mohammed ibn Abdul Wah­hab. Sau­di Ara­bia will con­tin­ue on the upright Salafi path and not flinch from it or back down,” Prince Nayef told the con­fer­ence participants. 

In an appar­ent response to crit­i­cism of Wah­habi and Salafi dis­crim­i­na­tion of Shi­ite Mus­lims, intol­er­ance towards non-Mus­lims and harsh restric­tions of women’s rights, the prince described Salafism as “authen­tic and con­tem­po­rary” and an ide­ol­o­gy that pro­motes progress and “peace­ful coex­is­tence with oth­ers and respect for their rights”. 

In a sim­i­lar vein, Sheikh Abdu­laz­iz said Salafism was “a com­pre­hen­sive god­ly path based on mod­er­a­tion and the mid­dle way; it is based on uni­tar­i­an­ism and for­sakes inno­va­tion, super­sti­tions and erro­neous things”. 

A shot across the bow

The kingdom’s embrac­ing of Salafism fol­lows the sen­tenc­ing of Mokhtar al-Hashe­mi to 30 years in prison on charges of fund­ing ter­ror­ism and plot­ting a coup in coop­er­a­tion with Al Qae­da in seek­ing to cre­ate an Islamist polit­i­cal par­ty in the king­dom based on Broth­er­hood thinking. 

The ques­tion is not whether the Arab revolt will reach the king­dom but how it will progress in Sau­di Ara­bia, which last year wit­nessed sev­er­al protests in the pre­dom­i­nant­ly Shi­ite, oil-rich East­ern Province. In fact in Novem­ber 2010, a month before the erup­tion in Tunisia, it had been the scene of anti-cor­rup­tion demon­stra­tions. The vote for Salafists in Egypt was more a vote against estab­lished pol­i­tics than opt­ing for a Sau­di-style system. 

Demon­stra­tions last month by groups of activists not only in Shi­ite Qatif but also in the cap­i­tal, Riyadh and the Wah­habi strong­hold of Burai­da, con­sti­tute a shot across the bow of the House of Saud. Sau­di rulers, by embrac­ing Salafism and adopt­ing the ways and mores of the right­eous Caliphs, hope to shield them­selves from the region­al and glob­al upris­ing against repres­sive and failed regimes. It is a gam­ble whose out­come could have reper­cus­sions far beyond the kingdom. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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