In January 2015, the former King of Saudi Arabia, 90-year-old Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, passed away. He had been king since 2005, and was replaced by his half-brother, Prince Salman, a youthful 79 year-old. Upon Abdullah’s passing, tributes for the dead king poured out from the capitals of London, Paris, Washington and other imperialist states. There is nothing particularly unusual about this – various heads of state cancelled their plans and rushed to Riyadh in a fawning display to ensure the continued cooperation of the Saudi hereditary monarchy. Smooth continuity in the political process is something strongly desired by the imperialist powers.
It is interesting to note that Salman, the new Saudi King, is reportedly afflicted with Alzheimer’s – visitors to Riyadh have noted that Salman demonstrates incoherence after a short period of conversation. Given the singular importance of the reigning monarch in theSaudi political structure, one wonders what happens when the king becomes incapacitated.
Hypocrisy of political leaders
What is the relevance of all this for Australia? When the former King Abdullah passed on, Australian government buildings and offices were instructed to lower their flags to half-mast, as a mark for respect for the recently departed Saudi King. The Sydney Morning Herald explained that:
A directive issued by the Commonwealth Flag Officer on Friday afternoon noted Abdullah’s death.
“As a mark of mourning and respect and in accordance with protocol, the Australian National Flag should be flown at half-mast all day on Saturday 24 January 2015 Australia-wide from all buildings and establishments occupied by Australian Government departments and affiliated agencies,” the statement said.
In Sydney, flags atop the Harbour Bridge were flying at half-mast. A spokesman for Premier Mike Baird said this was because the NSW Government follows Commonwealth protocol.
Both Federal and State governments in Australia payed their respects to the repressive hereditary monarchy of Saudi Arabia. And Australia was not alone in this sentiment. US President Barack Obama, US Vice President Joe Biden, French President François Hollande, Britain’s Prince Charles, Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, British Prime Minister David Cameron – the list of world leaders expressing effusive praise for the departed Saudi monarch is long and extensive. The list of dignitaries lining up to offer their condolences does not stop there – current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, surprised many by stating her opinion of the late Abdullah:
He was a great leader. He implemented lots of reforms, at home, and in a very discreet way, he was a great advocate for women. It was very gradual, appropriately so probably for the country, but I discussed that issue with him several times and he was a strong believer.
Lagarde’s comments fly in the face of reality. As the Workers World documented in an article about the Saudi issue, the Riyadh regime is an absolutist tyranny maintained by a brutal police state, where no political opposition is tolerated, where the enormous oil wealth of the country is monopolised by the ruling Saud royal family, and the majority of people live in poverty:
Executions by decapitation in public squares are held on average once every four days. Capital crimes include adultery, homosexuality and political opposition to the regime. Public stonings are also a common form of execution. Other punishments include eye gouging, limb amputation, tooth extraction, surgical paralysis and public lashings.
The Workers World article “Saudi oil and U.S. hypocrisy”, goes on to examine the plight of women in that country, and the deep, important connections that the Saudi regime maintains with US military and corporate interests. Military manufacturers like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Boeing obtain billions of dollars in contracts. In 2013, Saudi Arabia had the fourth largest military budget in the world, according to Al Jazeera. In fact, in 2014, the regime became the world’s top importer of weapons, increasing its defence trade to 64.4 billion dollars.
Saudi Aramco, the national petroleum and gas company responsible for the exploration, drilling and export of Saudi oil, structured all of the country’s oil assets into one nationalised conglomerate monopolised by the Saud royal family. US oil multinationals sustain a mutually profitable relation with Aramco, where the activities of Aramco are designed to maximise profits for American oil giants – an American dream in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s main export is the Wahhabi ideology
Saudi Arabia exports not only oil and armaments, lucrative as those industries are. Another export for which the Riyadh regime is less well known, but which is no less important, is its ideology, Wahhabism. A revivalist movement within Sunni Islam, Wahhabism is named after its founder, the eighteenth century preacher from Arabia Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The enormous wealth generated by the oil industry enabled the Saudi regime to promote its soft-power ideological export, spreading Wahhabism firstly throughout the other Muslim-majority countries, and secondly disseminating Wahhabi doctrines in the non-Muslim states. Wahhabism intends to influence the character of mainstream Islam, implanting itself educationally and culturally in the Muslim-majority states.
Understanding the role of Saudi Arabia as a military and ideological conduit is necessary to get to grips with another major issue of our times, the rise and influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The latter group has obtained media attention, at times achieving saturation coverage of its battles, ideology and activities. Reams of material, documentaries, news reports, and analyses have been produced examining the origins, rise and influence of ISIL.
However, there is one important aspect that is constantly omitted – as Alastair Crooke, writer and historian stated in the Huffington Post, “You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.” That is the title of his article which thoroughly examines the role of Wahhabist doctrine in the formation of the Saudi state and its continuing influence. Comprehending the Saudi state’s doctrinal and political foundations are crucial in understanding the emergence of fundamentalist groups like ISIL today.
Crooke’s Huffington Post article, standing on its own merits, should be read in conjunction with an excellent essay by Karen Armstrong for the New Statesman magazine called “Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism”. The ISIL group, while claiming to be Islamic, actually has its ideological roots in Wahhabism, the official doctrine of the Saudi state. While Armstrong’s essay has some serious flaws, her work, along with Crooke’s essay, form a necessary rudder to assist in navigating our way through the origins and permutations of the Saudi kingdom.
Alastair Crooke and Karen Armstrong both note that inside Saudi Arabia, the ruling elite is simultaneously applauding the actions of ISIL, but also express anxieties about its growing strength and resolve. ISIL, basing itself on the Sunni fundamentalist vision of Wahhabism, is celebrated for its fiery dedication to the Sunni cause, and pushing Shia influences onto the defensive. Saudi Arabia is the staunch enemy of Shia Iran, and countering its influence in the Arab world is one of the main objectives of the Saudi elite. Sections of the Saudi royal family have extended generous funding and military support to ISIL, particularly in the early stages of the latter’s emergence.
However, there are Saudi voices expressing deep anxieties about the spread of radical Salafi doctrine, and no less than the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia himself, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, strongly condemned ISIL and its violent activities as the number one enemy of Islam. Memories of the violent uprising by Wahhabi-inspired militants of the 1920s, convinced that the Saud royal family was too close to the West, still remain fresh in the minds of the Saudi monarchy. For its part, ISIL loudly denounces the rulers of Saudi Arabia as weaklings and apostates who deserve annihilation.
What is Wahhabism, and how has the Saudi state contributed to its spread around the Islamic world? Why is the Saudi elite divided over the issue of ISIL? How has the petro-dollar been used to finance the cultural export of Salafism?
These questions form the subject of the next article.