On the Saudi Security Situation

Posted By July 17, 2004 No Comments

People predicting the demise of princely rule in Saudi Arabia or complaining about the kingdom’s ‘softness’ on terrorism should remember the land comes by its name honestly. Saudi Arabia describes the portion of the Arabian peninsula that is the personal property of the House of Saud. It is not a nation like any other.

The Najad, the harsh central plateau of Arabia, is the Saudi homeland. Today’s capital, Riyadh, lies near Dariyah, where a pact was struck in 1744 between the village’s 70-household ruler, Muhammad ibn Saud, and a refugee cleric named Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab.

Of the tribe or House of Sheik, al-Wahhab was the puritanical leader of a reform ‘Unitarian’ vision of Islam that stressed a return to simplicity and compulsion in the worship of God and God Alone, rejecting both earthly pleasures like music and fine wear as well as any interpretation of Islam involving mysticism (Sufis) or saints (Shia).

The deal between the two men was that the Saudi family would exercise political power while the Wahhabis ensured the spiritual purity of Saudi rule through forcible adherence to the Unitarian or Wahhabi way. The pact, renewed and reinforced by inter-marriage, and sharpened by more than 200 years of war and conquest — which included notable massacres of ‘unbelievers’ at Karbala and Taif — remains the lynchpin by which the Saudi family continues to hold sway over its portion of Arabia.

Saudi history has reflected this duality. For example, even as the Saudi royal family was receiving subsidies from the British and making deals with American oil companies in the 1920s, warring Saudi tribesmen (the Ikhwan) were carrying the Unitarian doctrine into Transjordan and Iraq with sword and gun. Only Royal Air Force bombing finally stopped them.

In the 1980s, the Saudis, while politically snuggling up to the U.S. for support against local rivals Iran and Iraq, were also rolling out petrodollars to fanatic Unitarian clerics and their jihadi followers around the world, at first in Afghanistan but eventually in numerous places where Muslims were waging war in name of their religion.

The goal of the Unitarian jihadis is to establish the rule of God on earth (al-Hakimiyya). The infidels must be ejected from Muslim lands — which is any land ever ruled by Muslims, and the umma or Muslim community itself purged of heretics and polythesists and brought under strict Sharia law.

The Saudi leadership paid more than lip service to this doctrine, with vast funds flowing to various jihadi terrorist and terrorist-apologist organizations by means of Islamic charities, mosques and other front groups, such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the Haramain foundations. It is no surprise to find the heads of these organizations until recently to be members of the Sheikh family, nor that the Ministry of Religious Affairs was (and is) dominated by hard-line Unitarians.

A story exists that the Saudis made a ‘Faustian bargain’ with al-Qaeda in the 1990s that gave the kingdom freedom from attack in exchange for annual financial payoffs. Certainly the refusal of Interior Minister Prince Nayef to permit a serious hunt for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombers has lent some credence to this theory. Nor has the FBI been permitted to question the families of the 15 Saudis who formed the major part of the 9/11 accused.

Still, a more reasonable explanation for seeming Saudi schizophrenia in the ‘war on terror’ can be found in the very nature of Saudi Arabian princely rule. Everything is family connections, particularly through the mother’s origin, which help determine rank and status, and help cement what one observer calls an “interlocking and descending chain of patronage that is the Saudi equivalent of political representation.”

Crown Prince Abdullah, the country’s de facto ruler, is, in fact, relatively isolated because of all the princes he alone hails through his mother from the large (and one-time competitors to the Saud family) Shammar tribe.

The Sudayri bloc of brothers, which includes Prince Nayef, is usually seen as the most powerful faction. But there are others, including the al-Sheikh faction related to former King Faisal, still intimately involved in religious affairs. Western-oriented technocrats cluster around Prince Walal, while the upstart Abdul Aziz al-Ibrahim group has at times made tactical alliances with the religious hardliners.

One side-affect of the dominance of clan/familial politics is that the Saudi decision-making process remains opaque and obscure. There is a sense that a common result of a conflict between factions is paralysis, with one segment of the family not necessarily approving what the other segment is doing, but powerless to prevent it. That the sitting king, Fahd, is incapacitated, has only weakened the will to act. With family consensus among the 50,000 princelings the goal, compromise is almost a necessity.

And since it is an article of faith on the Arab street that America (and Israel) is the root of all evil in Arab lands, it is always tactically best to distance oneself from Americans whenever possible… until May 12, 2003.

The bombing of an Arab residential area in Riyadh on that date galvanized the Saudis. What was threatened here weren’t just American lives, as at Khobar Towers, but the princely hierarchy’s own power base. This time, the jihadis made clear their target was the monarchy. The result was that the paralysis afflicting the Saudi leadership’s actions was lifted. Tolerating attacks on Americans is one thing. Attacks on the ruling family was quite another.

American attempts to get the Saudis to interfere with the flow of charity funds going to terrorist organizations suddenly bore fruit after months of endless negotiations. Almost immediately, in June, an accord was reached. Reports a year later suggest sharp reductions in terrorist funding.

Saudi security forces that couldn’t find anybody or anything to do with Khobar Towers or 9/11 have killed dozens of jihadis, arrested 600 more, and named others. Thousands of weapons and explosives material have been discovered and confiscated, a number of jihadi operations aborted, and fundraising curbed in jihadi mosques. Three prominent clerics dubbed the ‘Taliban sheikhs’ in the Arabic press for sanctioning armed resistance against polytheist or heretic governments, recanted their views on television one after another. The diplomatic status of several radical clerics who travelled from Saudi-built mosque to mosque around the world spreading the Unitarian doctrine has been revoked. And purges have taken place in the Minister of Religious Affairs.

In short, for the past year the Saudi ruling family, because its own rule is now threatened, has taken terrorism seriously. There remain problems, of course. The jihadis clearly still have support inside the princely hierarchy from sympathizers; the international pro-terrorist clerical network still exists; the tone and nature of Unitarian religious rhetoric, while improving, still needs to be dampened down both at home and abroad; and Saudi Arabia’s growing social problems stemming mainly from rapid population growth remain a huge challenge.

At base, the Saudis will never repudiate the Unitarian doctrine that lends itself so easily to jihadi thinking. They want a cleansed, Islamic world. But clearly the bulk of the House of Saud now believes its own existence is threatened by jihadi actions–aimed at restoring the seventh century caliphate among other fantasies–and has responded accordingly. Ideology is trumped by power.

Note that, so far, the jihadis have failed to interdict the flow of Saudi oil to the world by, for example, crippling the Abqaig processing facility. Nor have their strikes back at the security apparatus been particularly damaging. Killing a few foreigners (out of five million in the kingdom) probably makes the jihadis feel good, but doesn’t do much damage to the world economy, nor has it deterred people from taking the extremely well-paying jobs available.

It should be remembered that the House of Saud hangs in for the long term. Even when the Turks literally laid waste the Saudi ancestral home village Dariyah in 1818, or Ibn Rashid (of the Shammar tribe) took Ridayh from them in 1891, the Saudis did not despair. They fought back from their desert strongholds among the Unitarian fanatics with whom they had been so long allied, and won. Eventually, they even added Mecca and Medina to their empire in the 1920s when they took both cities from their traditional rulers, the Hashemites, who today rule only Jordan. It would be premature to assume, as some commentators do, their automatic defeat in the current campaign.


For further reading:

  • The Jihad: An Islamic Alternative in Egypt, by Nemat Guenena (1988)
  • Armies in the Sand, by John Sabini (1981)
  • “Fall of the House of Saud” by Robert Baer in May/03 Atlantic Monthly
  • “The Sentry’s Solitude” by Fouad Ajami in Nov/Dec/01 Foreign Affairs
  • “Which Way to Mecca?” by Clifford Geertz in Jun/03 The New York Review
  • “Can Saudi Arabia Save Itself?” by Subhi Hadidi in Feb/04 World Press Review
  • “Renovating the House of Saud” by Peter Valenti in Jan/04 World Press Review
  • Saudi Arabia-terrorism at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs web site
  • Saudi-US Relations Information Service web site