2004 January 05 Monday
Michael Scott Doran: The Saudi Paradox

In an excellent (ParaPundit usage of "excellent" means: Go read it!) and lengthy essay in Foreign Affairs Princeton University Assistant Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies Michael Scott Doran lays out the competing camps and forces in Saudi Arabia.

The two camps divide over a single question: whether the state should reduce the power of the religious establishment. On the right side of the political spectrum, the clerics and Nayef take their stand on the principle of Tawhid, or "monotheism," as defined by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eponymous founder of Wahhabism. 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, Shi`ites, and even insufficiently devout Sunni Muslims. From the perspective of Tawhid, these groups constitute a grand conspiracy to destroy true Islam. The United States, the "Idol of the Age," leads the cabal. It attacked Sunni Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, both times making common cause with Shi`ites; it supports the Jews against the Sunni Muslim Palestinians; it promotes Shi`ite interests in Iraq; and it presses the Saudi government to de-Wahhabize its educational curriculum. Cable television and the Internet, meanwhile, have released a torrent of idolatry. With its permissive attitude toward sex, its pervasive Christian undertones, and its support for unfettered female freedom, U.S. culture corrodes Saudi society from within.

Tawhid is closely connected to jihad, the struggle -- sometimes by force of arms, sometimes by stern persuasion -- against idolatry. 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 ensures a unique political status for the clerics in Saudi Arabia. After all, they alone have the necessary training to detect and root out idolatry so as to safeguard the purity of the realm. Tawhid is thus not just an intolerant religious doctrine but also a political principle that legitimizes the repressiveness of the Saudi state. It is no wonder, therefore, that Nayef, head of the secret security apparatus, is a strong supporter of Tawhid. Not known personally as a pious man, Nayef zealously defends Wahhabi puritanism because he knows on which side his bread is buttered -- as do others with a stake in the repressive status quo.

Doran describes the Wahhabi world view and its considerable overlap with the Al Qaeda world view.

According to al-Ayyiri, the United States and Israel are the leaders of a global anti-Islamic movement -- "Zio-Crusaderism" -- that seeks the destruction of true Islam and dominion over the Middle East. Zio-Crusaderism's most effective weapon is democracy, because popular sovereignty separates religion from the state and thereby disembowels Islam, a holistic religion that has a strong political dimension. In its plot to denature Islam, al-Ayyiri claims, Zio-Crusaderism embraces three local allies: secularists, Shi`ites, and lax Sunnis (that is, those who sympathize with the idea of separating religion from state). Al Qaeda's "near enemy," in other words, is the cluster of forces supporting Taqarub.

The chief difference between the ways al Qaeda and the Saudi religious establishment define their primary foes is that the former includes the Saudi royal family as part of the problem whereas the latter does not. This divergence is not insignificant, but it does not preclude limited or tacit cooperation on some issues. Although some in the Saudi regime are indeed bin Laden's enemies, others are his de facto allies. Al Qaeda activists sense, moreover, that U.S. plans to separate mosque and state constitute the greatest immediate threat to their designs and know that the time is not yet ripe for a broad revolution. So al Qaeda's short-term goal is not to topple the regime but to shift Saudi Arabia's domestic balance of power to the right and punish supporters of Taqarub.

Doran's article is full of all sorts of insightful gems. The threats by Sunni clerics to commit genocide against the Shi'ite minority illustrate the depth of the hostility the Wahhabi clerics have for the Shi'ites. This hostility also lends credibility to the argument that the prospect of the Iranians developing nuclear weapons is causing the Saudis to use their considerable financial resources to ensure that the Saudis will gain some degree of control of nuclear weapons, perhaps through the stationing of Pakistani nukes on Saudi soil. On this topic also see my post Without US As Ally Saudi Arabia Could Go Nuclear.

It is worth noting in this context that the Shi'ites most likely form a majority in the Eastern oil-producing province in Saudi Arabia. One option batted about in some quarters is to support a Shi'ite secessionist uprising to break the Shi'ite province off from Saudi Arabia as a way to deny the Wahhabis the funds they need to wage jihad. The betting in this line of argument is that the Shi'ites will not be as great a threat to the West as Wahhabis are. Doran reports that many Wahhabi clerics are already claiming that there is a America-Jewish-Shi'ite conspiracy arrayed against them. By making such claims combined with the most severe threats the Wahhabis signal to the Shi'ites that they had better not offer the slightist bit of resistance to their Sunni Wahhabi dominators.

The United States is in a difficult position vis a vis Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi hard-liners are continuing to block the sorts of Internal reforms that would lead to a reduction of the teachings of an interpretation of Islam that causes so many Saudis to be supportive of Al Qaeda. We are now over two years past the 9/11 attacks and the internal conditions of Saudi society have changed little in ways that would reduce the willingness of Saudis to participate in future attacks. It is not clear what the United States could do in the short to medium term to encourage reform within Saudi Arabia. Any moves the US might make would be pointed to by the Wahhabis as proof of their belief of a US directed conspiracy against Islam.

In my view a crucial element for a longer term strategy to deal with the threat of radical Islam is to develop technologies that would reduce the entire world's demand for Middle Eastern energy. See my previous posts Energy Policy, Islamic Terrorism, And Grand Strategy, Intervention In Liberia Linked To Oil Dependency (and note especially the excerpt from Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley's call for a massive effort to make huge advances in energy technologies), and China Energy Consumption Growth Complicates Anti-Terrorist Efforts.

On Doran's website he notes that he has a book forthcoming that has a very intriguing sounding title: The Trump Card: Israel in the Arab Civil War. The portrayal of the Arabs as being engaged in a big civil war among themselves finds support in the thinking of some of the best historical thinkers. Civil war is another way of describing what might be called intra-civilizational war. Read my previous post William H. McNeill on Samuel P. Huntington.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 January 05 09:06 PM  Civilizations Clash Of

Mohd Ali said at January 9, 2004 3:04 PM:

I have read the excellent article of Dr. MICHAEL SCOTT DORAN and as a citizen of this region , I can add one more information which Americans might find surprising and that is how regimes in the region view the extremist wahabi elements . The regimes view wahabi elements as a sort of a WMD , a die hard supporter that can easily be manipulated and brain washed . For years the Saudi & Bahraini Regimes in particular have used these element to fight Nationlist , Communists , Shiites , Liberlas and other tribal leaders. It is no doubt that Wahabi extermist have been planted everywhere in the security and army apparatus of these countries . They were also been planted in Banks , Education institutes and mass media Instruments . The way they see is that , as same as Iraq now , those men will be the hardest and most loyal fighters and they will even be a kind of deterance for opposers and invaders alike. It is this fact that makes an ally of the US , Bahrain , import and grant citizenship to thousands of wahabi bedouins from the Desert of Syria & jordan for their armies and security forces eventhough these are the same elements that are involved in suicide bombings against the US in Iraq . The Wahabis are simply the WMDs of the regimes in the Gulf and I bet that the US will never succeed in convincing them to give up this weopon which to them is a guarntee of survival .

M.robinson said at July 25, 2005 6:26 AM:

Mohd Ali...?

If this is really your name, or most likely an assumed name for the sake of propaganda( hey use a muslim sounding name to attack muslims much more convincing).

In relation to the Saudi Pandora Box.
The Saudi's were helped initially by us the british, and upon finding the OIL, the USA stepped in. I forget which president it was, but anyway, King abdul Aziz met the US president off the coast of saudi arabia(red sea) on a US naval vessel, where it was agreed that the saudi's would supply oil and at reasonable prices(thats why every time oil prices go up the saudi's pump out more , to try and reduce the price), and the US would keep the family in power.

Again I got this information from the BBC who did a series on the Saudi -US relationship. There maybe certain US politicians who spout anti-saudi rhetoric, unfortunately this is for mass consumption, whereas in actual fact the relationship has stayed the course set in the late forties.

The saudi Government itself is disliked but it has the firm hand o the US behind it, and so any move towards democracy in the near future seems unlikely.

Randall Parker said at July 25, 2005 10:12 AM:


As for the US president: It was FDR. The US agreed to support Saudi Arabia against external threats. The Saudis haven't needed much if any US help to keep themselves in power domestically. The royal family has been pretty adept at coopting any potential opponents.

You are wrong to think that the US under Bush wants Saudi Arabia to remain an autocracy. Bush wants more democracy in the Middle East. I think he's foolish. But that is what he wants.

M.Robinson said at July 27, 2005 7:43 AM:

If there was democracy in saudi arabia, then the royals would be able to plunder the national exchequer as they are doing currently. the saudi royals have amassed vast fortunes outside the country, primarily in the USA and switzerland.
If you had a democratic(at least an accountable form of governance)government, then the money would be put back into saudi arabia for the benefit of the people. it suits very much the outside backers of the saudi family to have control of their money.

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