The Kingdom of Corruption
The Saudi Connection
By Tariq Ali

(in Znet)

The hijackers responsible for the September 11 outrage were not illiterate, bearded fanatics from the mountain-villages of Afghanistan. They were all educated, highly-skilled, middle-class professionals. Thirteen of the nineteen men involved were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Their names are recognisable. The three Alghamdis are clearly from the Hijaz province of the Kingdom, the site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Mohamed Atta, born in Egypt, travelled on a Saudi passport. Regardless of whether he gave the order or not, what is indisputable is that the bulk of Osama Bin Laden's real cadres (as opposed to footsoldiers) are located in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, the two principal allies of the United States in the region barring Israel. Support for Bin Laden is strong in Saudi Arabia. He was a close friend of the Saudi boss of Intelligence, Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud, who was dismissed last month after his failure to curb attacks on US personnel in Riyadh. The real reason is probably his refusal to take sides in the fierce faction fight to determine the succession after the death of the paralysed King Fahd. Both sides are aware that too close an alignment with the United States could be explosive. That is why till now the Saudi regime despite its support for the US is not 'allowing its bases to be used'.
In normal times the Saudi Kingdom is barely covered by the Western media. The Ambassadors report to their respective chanceries that all is well and the continuity of the regime is not threatened. It requires the imprisonment of a American or British citizen or for a British nurse to be chucked out of a window for attention to focus on the regime in Riyadh. Even less is known about the state religion, which is not an everyday version of Sunni or Shia Islam, but a peculiarly virulent, ultra-puritanical strain known as Wahhabism. This is the religion of the Saudi royals, the state bureaucracy, the army and air-force and, of course, Ossama Bin Laden, the best-known Saudi citizen in the world, currently resident in Afghanistan.
A moderate equivalent of this in Britain would be if the Church of England was replaced by the United Reformed Church of Dr Ian Paisley, the Royal Family became ardent Paisleyites and the state bureaucracy and armed services were barred to non-Paisleyites.
Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the inspirer of this sect, was an 18th century peasant who became tired of tending date palms and grazing cattle and began to preach locally, calling for a return to the pure beliefs of the seventh century. He opposed the excessive veneration of the Prophet Mohammed, denounced the worship of holy places and shrines and stressed the 'unity of one God'. On its own this was harmless enough, but it was his social prescriptions that created problems even in the 1740s: he insisted on Islamic punishment beatings and more: adulterers should be stoned to death, thieves amputated, criminals executed in public. Religious leaders in the region objected when he began to practice what he preached and the local chief in Uyayna asked him to leave. Wahhab fled to Deraiya in 1744 and won over its ruler, Mohammed Ibn Saud, in 1744. Ibn Saud, the founder of the dynasty that rules Saudi Arabia today, utilised Wahhab's revivalist fervour to inculcate a sense of discipline in the tribes before hurling them into battle against the Ottoman Empire. Wahhab regarded the Sultan in Istanbul as a hypocrite who had no right to be the Caliph of Islam and preached the virtues of a permanent jihad(holy war) against Islamic modernisers, hypocrites as well as the infidel. The Ottomans hit back, occupied the Hijaz and took charge of Mecca and Medina, but Wahhabi influence remained and the heroic battles became part of local folk-lore.This proto-nationalism was utilised by Saud's successors to expand their influence throughout the peninsula.
Two centuries later they laid the foundations of what is now Saudi Arabia, but it was the discovery of liquid gold that changed the region forever. Fearful of the competition from Britain, the United States merged Esso, Texaco and Mobil to form the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). This link established in 1933 was strengthened during the Second World War, when the USAF base in Dhahran was deemed crucial to 'the defense of the United States.' The Saudi monarch was paid millions of dollars to aid development in the Kingdom. The regime was a despotism, but it was seen as an important bulwark against communism and nationalism in the region and, for that reason, the United States chose to ignore what took place within its borders.
The entry of the United States and the creation of the Kingdom has been brilliantly depicted in one of the most remarkable contributions to Arabic fiction: the 'Cities of Salt' pentalogy by the exiled Saudi novelist, Abdelrahman Munif, whose own birth in 1933 coincided with that of the new state. Munif's multi-layered fiction---savage, surreal and satirical---- angered the Royal Family. He was deprived of his nationality and banned from ever returning to the country. His books became delicious contraband circulating everywhere including the royal palaces. When I met him about ten years ago on a rare trip to London he was as lucid as ever: ' The 20th century is almost over, but when the West looks at us all they see is oil and petro-dollars. Saudi Arabia is still without a constitution, the people are deprived of all elementary rights, even the right to support the regime without asking for permission. Women, who own a large share of private wealth in the country are treated like third-class citizens. A woman is not allowed to leave the country without a written permit from a male relative. Such a situation produces a desperate citizenry, without a sense of dignity or belonging...'
Denied secular openings in a society where the royal family---a clan with multiple factions and micro-factions...... and its tame clerics dominates all aspects of everyday life, there were a number of rebellions in the 60s and 70s. One of Munif's novels, The Trench, has a striking finale. Two revolutions are being plotted, one of them by angry young men inspired by modern ideas. The other, invisibly, inside the palace. Everything ends in tears with curfews and tanks in the street. The young revolutionaries discover that the wrong revolt has succeeded. The reference was to the assassination of King Feisal in 1975 by his own nephew, Prince Faisal Ibn Musaid. Ten years earlier Ibn Musaid's brother Prince Khalid, a fervent Wahhabite, had demonstrated in public against the entry of television into the kingdom. Saudi police entered his house and shot him dead. To this day Prince Khalid is venerated by hardline believers and years later the Taliban government paid its own tribute by the public burning of audio cassettes and videos and a ban on television.
But Wahhabism remains the state religion of Saudi Arabia, imported with petro-dollars to fund extremism elsewhere in the world. During the war against the Soviet Union, Pakistani military intelligence requested the presence of a Saudi prince to lead the jihad in Afghanistan. No volunteers were forthcoming and the Saudi leaders recommended the scion of a rich family, close to the monarchy. Ossama Bin Laden was despatched to the Pakistan border and arrived in time to hear President Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezinski, turban on head, shout: "Allah is on your side."
The religious schools in Pakistan where the Taliban were created were funded by the Saudis and Wahhabi influence was very strong. Last year when the Taliban decided to blow up the old Buddhas there were appeals from the ancient seminaries of Qom and al-Azhar to desist on the grounds that Islam was tolerant. A Wahhabi delegation from the Kingdom advised the Taliban to execute the plan. They did. The Wahhabi insistence on a permanent jihad against all enemies, Muslim and non-Muslim, was to leave a deep mark on the young boys who later took Kabul. The attitude of the United States in those days was sympathetic. A Republican Party packed with Christian cults could hardly offer advice on this matter and both Clinton and Blair were keen on advertising their Christianity.
Just last year, a former liberal State Department expert on Pakistan, Stephen P. Cohen wrote in the Wall Street Journal (Asian Edition, 23 October 2000): "some madrassas, or religious schools are excellent." He admitted that "others are hotbeds for jihadi and radical Islamic movements," but these are only about twelve percent of the total. These, he said, "need to be upgraded to offer their students a modern education." This indulgence is an accurate reflection of the official mood before 11 September.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the internal opposition became totally dominated by religious groups. These core Wahhabis now saw the Kingdom as degenerate because of the American connection. Others were depressed by the failure of Riyadh to defend the Palestinians. The stationing of US soldiers in the country after the Gulf War was a signal for terrorist attacks on soldiers and bases. Those who ordered these were Saudis, but Pakistani and Philipinno immigrants were sometimes charged and executed in order to appease the United States.
The expeditionary force being despatched to Pakistan to cut off the tentacles of the Wahhabi octopus may or may not succeed, but its head is safe and sound in Saudi Arabia, guarding the oil-wells and growing new arms and protected by American soldiers and the USAF base in Dhahran. Washington's failure to disengage its vitat interests from the fate of the Saudi monarchy could well lead to further blow-back. They should the warning first sounded by the secular 10th century Arab poet, Abul Ala al-Maari, which still seems apposite:
And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek Of wind is flying through the court of state: 'Here', it proclaims, 'there dwelt a potentate Who could not hear the sobbing of the weak.'




Click here to go back to the Study of Islam Section, Response to Tragedy