Saudi Arabia’s best known export is oil, but the export of its ideology is just as important

Saudi Arabia’s aerial offensive against Yemen has continued for the fourth week at the time of writing. Yemen is undergoing a humanitarian crisis, with millions of Yemenis lacking basic access to food, clean drinking water, and health care. The Saudi bombardment has only worsened the plight of the Yemenis, with schools destroyed, hospitals and health care facilities targeted, and electricity supplies cut off. Basic infrastructure is being shattered, thus precipitating a catastrophic health situation for Yemeni residents.

The Saudi war on Yemen is intended to prop up the tottering regime of Yemeni President Abed Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This war has the full backing of the United States, and the latter has materially assisted Saudi Arabia with intelligence sharing, military supplies and logistical support. Indeed, the armaments used by the Saudi military are imports from the United States, Britain, Germany, France and other imperialist countries. The Saudi regime has become the world’s leading arms importer, spending an estimated $6.4 billion dollars on weapons in 2014.

Patrick Cockburn, the intrepid foreign correspondent and expert commentator on Middle East issues for The Independent, rightly notes that this war on Yemen, and the unstinting support the United States has provided for the Saudi attack on Yemen, will only inflame sectarian tensions across the Arab and Islamic-majority countries. All of the reactionary petro-sheikhdoms – Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and so on, united in the peak body of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – have lined up shoulder to shoulder with Saudi Arabia. Egypt, under the US-backed military dictator General al-Sisi, was quick to provide military and political support to Riyadh. There are reports that Saudi and Egyptian troops will launch a ground invasion.

In the wake of this Yemen war, the GCC has taken steps to create a pan-Arab military alliance, an Arab NATO, to serve as a cohesive rapid-response force to be deployed anywhere in the Middle East in response to political unrest or military upheaval. Such a goal has been a long-term desire of the GCC, but the latest Saudi assault on Yemen has prompted not just the Gulf States, but Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the pro-western Arab states to make concrete proposals for such a multinational military force. The United States welcomes such an alliance, because it would provide a strong counter to Iran – but is also cautious about the potential for the strongest members of that formation to develop an agenda of their own.

Saudi-American cooperation – a longstanding alliance

For more information on the Yemen conflict, you may read the article published by Counterfire here. The purpose of providing a brief overview of the latest developments in the Saudi war against Yemen is to highlight the deep, strong and abiding connections between the highest levels of the Saudi military and political elite with the imperialist powers, in particular with the United States. These military and economic connections did not materialise overnight, but have been cultivated between the United States and Saudi Arabia over decades. The political and military support to the House of Saud – the ruling royal family of the Saudi nation – is a principal basis for United States policy in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is an important bulwark of power for the United States, acting as a junior partner and mercenary for the latter. The intimate US-Saudi partnership is in no danger of breaking anytime soon – US President Obama, who was in Riyadh in January 2015 for the funeral of the former Saudi King, described the relationship as a ‘force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.’

It is important to closely examine the origins, nature and impact of the Saudi state. It is playing a major role not only in exporting its natural resources of oil, but also in exporting its particular ideology of Wahhabism. Understanding this background helps us to understand the current role of the Saudi polity and the counter-revolutionary bulwark that it has constituted in the Middle East.

Wahhabism and the rise of the Saudi state

The official ideology of the Saudi Arabian state is Wahhabism, and derives from the teachings of the eighteenth century preacher and itinerant cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91) who advocated a strict, literalist interpretation of the Koran. A learned scholar from the central Arabian region of Najd, he witnessed what he saw as the corrupting, weakening influences of modernisation, innovation and laxity in religion in the Ottoman Turkish empire. Lamenting the demise of the former greatness of Islamic civilisation, he wished to remove all accretions, what he termed bidah (innovations) that he regarded as heretical to the original meaning of Islam. Basing himself on the Sunnah (customary practices of the Prophet Muhammad) and the hadith (accounts, collections of reports, sayings and deeds of the Prophet), he wished to purge the Islamic world of what he viewed as the degenerative practices introduced into the Islamic world by the Ottoman Turks and their associates. He urged the Islamic scholars (the ulema) to reject all introduced ideas and return to the Oneness of God, the Muwahiddun, central to the monotheistic religions.

Wahhab would have remained an obscure theologian, and was attacked by the ulema, if not for one crucial development – Muhammad ibn Saud, the leader of the Najd tribes, made a pact with Wahhab. The latter’s ideology would provide an important and religious underlying foundation for a centralised state under the control of the Saud family. Religious piety was combined with a political programme of state building. Saud set about crushing his rivals, to form a Saudi state based in Najd, with the Wahhabi ideology as the rallying cry.

Wahhab developed another important concept, one that has implications for political state building until today – Muslim impostors, those who did not accept the purity of the Wahhabi ideal, would be declared takfir (infidels), enemies of the original faith. Any Muslim who engaged in practices deemed to be bidah, and forbidden in the Wahhabi cannon, were to be annihilated. The main targets of this takfiri were Shia Muslims, Sufis and all those who refused to accept the strict impositions of Wahhabism. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Saudi clan and their Wahhabi associates controlled most of the Arabian heartland, and parts of what are today Iraq and Syria. In 1801, they ransacked the largely Shia city of Karbala (located in today’s Iraq), killing its Shia inhabitants. Medina itself fell to the Wahhabis. Wahhabism was no longer a fundamentalist theological creed; it was now an instrument of political imposition.

The Ottoman Turkish empire, viewing the rising Wahhabi-Arab threat as a growing danger to their empire, finally crushed the first experiment in the Saudi state-building in 1815, utilising Egyptian troops. The domination of the Ottoman Turks was restored, and that situation lasted until the final defeat of the Turkish empire at the end of World War One. The seeds of the Saudi state had been planted, and it would not grow again, until after the Ottoman Turks had been driven out. The new Saudi state that arose from the ashes would not be a purely Arab affair, for the rival imperialist powers of Britain, France and the United States coveted the Arab possessions formerly under Turkish control.

Out of the chaos of World War One, a new state is born in alliance with imperialism

The chaos of World War One, and the breakdown of the Ottoman Turkish empire, presented an opportunity for the Saudi-Wahhabi forces, organised into a new Ikhwan (Brotherhood) of Muslim insurgents, to assert their authority in the Arabian lands. The Ikhwan embodied the puritanical ambitions of the Wahhabi ideologists, and they began to conquer the lands that eventually became the first modern Saudi state.

However, Britain, France and the United States also sensed new opportunities to acquire the formerly Ottoman territories for their imperial ambitions. The Sykes-Picot agreement, arranged in secret between Britain and France in 1916 while the war was raging, defined sphere of influence for the rival imperialist powers once the defeat of the Ottoman Turkish empire was defeated. The borders of the newly defined Arab states, carved out of the defeated Turkish empire, facilitated the entry of the imperialist states into the Middle East.

Britain acted as the ‘godfather’ of the emergent Saudi state, forging an alliance with the Saud entity and promoting an Arab facade while real control remained in British hands. With British backing, the new Saudi-Wahhabi state was tied to the interests of western imperialism, serving as a bulwark in the Arab and Islamic worlds against any anti-imperialist forces. Over the twentieth century, Saudi Arabia has fulfilled its purpose as a faithful proxy fighting against any revolutionary, Arab socialist, or anti-imperialist project, be it pan-Arab nationalism, secular socialism or Ba’athism.

However, Wahhabism was not just a state policy, it was an overarching proselytising Islamic purist movement, refusing to remain confined national borders. It does not recognise political boundaries and projects drawn up by politicians motivated by state-interests. The Ikhwan, while initially recognising the need for a centralised and modern Saudi state, began to revolt against the Saudi rulers for elevating realpolitik and state-building over the militant puritanical drive to convert the world. The Ikhwani insurgents, after conquering the various regions of Arabia, began to attack the British and French protectorates of Transjordan, Syria and Iraq in order to force them to subjugate to Wahhabi doctrines. They came into direct conflict with imperialist interests in the Middle East.

Throughout the 1920s, the Saudi royal family, now elevated to kingly status with British imperial patronage, set out to crush the Ikhwani revolt. Wahhabism would no longer be a zealous ideological movement to convert the infidels and apostates, but an ideological foundation of a state. The Ikwanis were eventually crushed by the Saudi state by the end of the 1920s, and the remnants were absorbed into what became the Saudi national guard. However, this contradiction between the needs of a conservative state-building ideology and the movement of an Islamic-Wahhabi vanguard to proselytise has remained throughout the existence of the Saudi Arabian entity.

Here we can see historical echoes in the current activities of ISIS – the latter has set about smashing national boundaries, upsetting the post-World War One Sykes-Picot arrangement that has prevailed in the Middle East. The ISIS project, just like the Ikhwani revolt of the 1920s, seeks to redivide the imperialist status-quo, carrying the ideological zealotry of the Wahhabi project across state boundaries. The imperialist states, viewing their interests threatened, have responded with military force to reimpose the state boundaries and political actors subservient to their economic and military agendas.

Britain declines, the United States steps up

The 1930s and 1940s witnessed the last gasp of the once-mighty British empire. Having stretched across the world, its time had arrived. The United States was emerging as a strong and powerful economic and military force, and it viewed the Middle East, particularly its enormous oil wealth, as an asset to be acquired.

Already in the early 1930s, the United States established diplomatic relations with the Saudi state, entered into lucrative business contracts, helped to develop oil fields, participated in oil exploration in Saudi Arabia, reforming and revitalising the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (ARAMCO), and began the ongoing entrenched relationship with the Saudi royal family that has witnessed the emergence of deep military and economic connections. In 1945, at the conclusion of World War Two, no less a figure than US President Franklin Roosevelt met with the Saudi King Ibn Saud to conclude economic and military arrangements. The story of the mega-corporations and deep-seated political and economic links between the US and Saudi Arabia is quite detailed and is well known. What is less well known is the soft-power impact of this American support for the Saudi client.

Petro-nationalism underlies soft-power export of ideology

The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of a Saudi petro-nationalism, based upon the burgeoning oil industry and the growth of enormous transnational energy corporations. The petrol bonanza, and the western economies’ furious consumption of oil, not only filled the coffers of the Saudi state, but also provided the Saudi state with a new avenue to explore – petro-nationalism, spreading the Wahhabi ideology not as a creed of militant jihad, but as a cultural export to influence the direction of Islam.

Gilles Keppel, in his book Jihad: The trail of political Islam, notes that this oil wealth enabled the Saudi royal family to export its Wahhabite doctrine, countering the rival interpretations and denominations of the Islamic world, and to spread its influence over the Ummah (the community of the faithful). The oil bonanza enabled the Saudi ruling elite to maintain its hold over the holiest sites in Islam – Mecca and Medina – but also to project itself as the ultimate definer and protector of the Ummah. The Wahhabi project continues to be a useful counter-revolutionary opponent in the Arab world, first of Nasserist socialism, Ba’athism and since 1979, opposing the Shia radicalism of the Iranian revolution.

The Saudi state, a dynastic and tribal entity that serves as a proxy for imperialist states, now also developed its own regional ambitions as a power in its own right. Saudi wealth extends to its allies in the region – the Egyptian secular dictatorship of General al-Sisi has received generous and lavish financial support from Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s current war on Yemen is part of this pattern of serving as a regional strongman for western capitalist imperialism. The Saudi role as a regional gendarme for the United States has never been clearer. But the Saudis have never given up their goal of being the spearhead of Wahhabi cultural and social conservatism in the Muslim-majority countries. While ISIS is a product of the Wahhabist fountainhead, it has come into conflict with the political-state imperatives of the Saudi ruling class, who intend to remain a state actor within the overall imperialist system. ISIS wishes to demolish national state boundaries in their drive to resurrect their version of a Caliphate.

The Saudi attack on Yemen, and its ability to militarily intervene to crush democratic uprisings such as it did in Bahrain in 2011, is made possible and practical by sales of sophisticated weaponry to the Saudi state. Cutting off military supplies to the Saudi military would be a practical beginning in stopping the ability of the Saudis to act as a regional proxy. For instance, the European Union’s brisk armaments business with Saudi Arabia has continued unabated for decades.  The European states, along with Saudi Arabia’s long-term supporter the United States, have aided and abetted the spread of terrorism and increased the suffering of the people in the Arab and Islamic worlds. It is time to call out the criminals for who they are and hold them to account.

Saudi Arabia – the silent partner of the United States

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.