Saudi Arabia’s Lesser Known Exports after Oil: Wahhabism and Pro-Imperialism
By Rupen Savoulian
April 19, 2015
Antipodean Atheist, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with author's permission -- 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 Yemen 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-US 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 – 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 Barack 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 18th 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 program 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 18th 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 I. 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 I, A New State is Born in Alliance with Imperialism
The chaos of World War I, 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 20th 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 [also known as "Islamic State" or ISIL] – 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 II, 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.
Rupen Savoulian is Socialist Alliance activist in Sydney.