Max Fisher provides answers to nine basic questions about Saud-family Arabia.
Like, what is it.
Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist Islamist dictatorship, an ultra-wealthy oil economy, and perhaps the most powerful country in the Middle East. It is a very young country in a very old part of the world. It formed in 1932, when a tribal leader named Abdulaziz al-Saud conquered an area three times the size of Texas and then named it after himself. He and his first generation of sons have ruled Saudi Arabia ever since.
The way that Abdulaziz al-Saud came to conquer and unify this country is crucial for understanding it: by allying with a fiercely conservative group of Islamist fundamentalists known as the Wahhabis. Saudi Arabia became “the only modern nation-state created by jihad,” as the journalist Steve Coll once put it.
Then it found oil, then it spent much of the oil money pushing its Islamist fundamentalism on the rest of the world, with great success. That oil was bad luck for everybody except the Saud family (not counting Abdullah’s four daughters who are under house arrest).
The siege of Mecca in 1979 was a turning point.
An armed band of apocalyptic Islamist cultists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, from which they denounced the Saudi royal family as hypocritical “drunkards” who had betrayed Islam, which they intended to purify. By the time French commandos ended the siege, hundreds of the cultists’ hostages had been killed.
The Saudis saw the siege as part of a dangerous wave of anti-government extremism — Islamists were also in the process of toppling the monarchy in nearby Iran — and responded by cracking down on dissent of all kind, as well as by aggressively co-opting ultra-conservative Islamism, forcing new restrictions, especially on women, to appease the Wahhabis.
Women are always the first to get it, and they always get the most of it. The way to fight modernism, the way to be pure, the way to show god how hard you’re struggling, is to force new restrictions on women.
The foreign jihadists thing.
This also goes back to the 1979 Siege of Mecca. Since then, the Saudis have attempted to reduce the threat of Islamist extremism at home by redirecting it abroad, turning jihad into a sort of quasi-official foreign policy.
That same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Saudi government, which hated the Soviets and saw them as a threat, sought to support Afghan rebels. Here was an opportunity: the Muslim world was outraged by the Soviet invasion. The Saudi government implicitly encouraged their country’s Wahhabi clerical establishment, recently rich with oil money and dangerously idle, to fund extremist Afghan rebels, and rebel-training extremist madrassas in neighboring Pakistan. Many young Saudi Wahhabis went off themselves to fight, usually quite poorly.
That makes sense – win-win – the Wahhabis get busy elsewhere, and the Saud family gets credit for zeal.
For the Saudi rulers, this foreign policy of jihad was at first a great success. It strengthened Saudi Arabia’s effort to fund Afghan rebels, it positioned the often-lecherous Saudi monarchs as leaders of the Muslim world against the Soviet atheists, and, crucially, it distracted the Wahhabis from causing trouble at home.
But this strategy was destined to backfire, and disastrously. Those jihadists would inevitably turn their guns on the very Saudi government that had enabled their creation, just as the Ikhwan of the 1920s and the cultists of the 1970s had done. The most famous of those was Osama bin Laden.
Then there was Kuwait, and all those filthy American soldiers in holy Arabia. Uh oh uh oh.
Fearing another 1979-style terror attack of worse, the Saudis once again co-opted and appeased the Wahhabis. They did this in part by shutting down some nascent reforms — some women had begun to drive in defiance of the female driving ban; initially tolerated, they were shut down. They also established the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which ostensibly supported Islamic charities but also funded Wahhabi extremism and jihadism throughout the Muslim world. It worked; the Wahhabi establishment directed their energies toward causing trouble abroad, which the Saudis tolerated.
And the fact that it’s fucked up much of the world for generations to come, and trashed the lives of who knows how many millions of women, is neither here nor there, as long as the Saudis aren’t being kicked out of their palaces.
Saudi Arabia was well aware of the threat posed by bin Laden and the movement he represented. As always, though, the Saudis played a double-game: they disavowed bin Laden but were one of only three countries, along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, to officially recognize the Taliban, an extremist group that had seized Afghanistan by force and officially sheltered bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
This double-game is part of why so many Americans still wonder if Saudi Arabia could have played some role in the September 11 attacks, though it would have nothing to gain and everything to lose by sponsoring such an attack on its most important ally. Another reason is that the Bush administration, which has longstanding ties to the Saudi royal family, ordered that the 9/11 Commission permanently seal 28 pages in the 9/11 Report that investigated possible Saudi links to the attack.
Could the Bush family and the Saud family please move to a small island somewhere in the Pacific and stay there forever?
If the 9/11 attackers were somehow facilitated or funded by Saudis within or connected to Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, this would be nowhere near the same thing as official Saudi policy. Simple logic makes clear the Saudis would never support an attack on their ally and patron, and conspiracy theories to the contrary make as much sense as accusing Israel or George W. Bush of responsibility. At the same time, it would be within the realm of possibility — and, indeed, would be consistent with the history of self-defeating Saudi policies — if Saudi Arabia’s short-sighted support for jihadism had unintentionally allowed extremists within Islamic Affairs to divert funds to the hijackers. Saudi Arabia’s support for extremism has been blowing up in its face since the 1920s; it was perhaps only a matter of time until it blew up in our face as well.
Why is the US so tight with these fascist theocrats? Mutual hatred of atheist communism.
The Afghan jihad also brought out the belief in both the Saudi and US governments that their countries shared common cultural values, as improbable as that might sound. Under the Reagan-era rise of a politically powerful Christian right, American evangelicals embraced the CIA- and Saudi-backed Afghan rebels as religious freedom fighters opposed to Soviet atheism. Some mujahideen were brought on tours of American evangelical churches to solicit donations. The Reagan White House particularly cultivated a sense among the Saudis that piety was a shared cultural value.
At its most basic level, the US-Saudi alliance has been driven by a shared interest in maintaining the status quo in the Middle East. This status quo is some ways about oil, but in the conflict-riven Middle East, security and stability are much more important foundations for the status quo than is oil. This helps explain why Saudi Arabia has been so assertive about projecting its influence across the Middle East, and why it works so closely with the US in every major Middle Eastern issue from the standoff with Iran to Yemen’s political crisis to Syria’s civil war.
Of course, the status quo in the Middle East sucks, but apparently that’s beside the point…
The biggest concern among the Saudi royalty has always been, and will likely always be, stability. The Saudi state is so artificial that the royal family believes it can only hold power through continued dictatorship, propped up by the oil exports that allow it to fund lavish Saudi lifestyles.
Note the Saudi assumption that its continued hold on power is an important goal.
I don’t see it that way myself.