University of Bucharest
Faculty of Political Science
English Section – sophomore
Subject: International Relations
Instructor: Ruxandra Ivan 37387gic74eli9t
Student: Doru Frantescu
Political Islam and Democracy – An International Relations Perspective
Case Study: Saudi Arabia – Playing at Both Ends
The Concept of Political Islam
The House of Saud
A Moment of Choice: the Golf War of 1990-1991
Religious Opposition - The Saudi Ulema
Ideological Point of View: The Holly War
Saudi Arabia’s Relations with Other Countries
Saudi Arabia’s Special Relations with the United States
The Concept of Political Islam
Political Islam is a concept that defines the way in which Islamic religion is influencing politics in Islamic states. In this study I aim to establish to what extent the Islamic-thinking affects politics and especially Saudi Arabia’s internal and foreign policy. In order to do that, we need to know how powerful the Islamic ideology is in this particular country.
The population of Saudi Arabia is 90% Muslim Arab of the Wahhabi/a> sect (a branch of Sunni Islam), although there is a small percentage of Shiites, mainly in the Northeast. Islam is the only officially recognized religion, and other faiths are not publicly tolerated.
The states resulted after the First World War were cursed to have a very harsh life. The geographic delimitation was mainly the result of the arbitrary division according to foreign interests. Twentieth Century’s Middle East is, in reality, an Anglo-French creation and had little to do with the dynamics of that specific region.
The House of Saud
As the Ottoman Empire dissolved after World War I, Ibn Saud of the House of Saud worked quickly to consolidate his family's power over the Arabian Peninsula. Ibn was a despot of old type. He was aided materially by the British who were interested in destroying the Ottomans. Ibn Saud gave birth to a modern and powerful dynasty by having numerous children with his many wives. Today there are, depending on the source, some 3000-4000 or 7,000 princes in the House of Saud with eight or ten new ones born each week. Women and girls do not count so there are no princesses. Saudi women are among the most harassed on earth.
Ibn Saud belonged to Sunni part of the Wahhab sect representing an extreme interpretation of the Qu'ran and Hadith. Wahhabism soon became the state religion and became just as oppressive as the Taliban. Since WW II especially, Wahhab Mullahs began preaching against Western thought and influence, which was exported to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The House of Saud is now ruled by King Fahd, but, because of his poor health, Fahd is now only a titular leader. His brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, actually runs Saudi Arabia. Both are over 70.
The Saud dynasty is supported by oil revenues, which have increased although the wages of the working class decreased at almost 50%. It is said that Each Prince is awarded some $500,000 annually for expenses. The Saud family receives some two-three billion dollars annually, even as the state budget runs annual deficits. This is aside from diversions of state funds that they have been accused of. At the same time, aside from the military, the Saud Dynasty has done little to modernize Saudi Arabia. Saudi women remain terribly oppressed.
This data shows us that the House of Saud has had a very great political and economical power and that it is well established at the rule of the country. Practically, most of the people that live today in Saudi Arabia were born under Saud rule and they can hardly imagine another ruler. This tells a lot about the chances of the system being overtaken. Still, there were some revolts and we shall see their causes and their results.
On the other hand, these features have led some commentators to predict that the end of the dynasty is near. During the last decade the income per capita has severely decreased while the national debt got bigger and bigger. Despite much official requests about democracy and human rights, there can be seen the 'permissive' attitude of the West towards the House. As regional dictators like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qadhafi are punished for arbitrary imprisonment, mistreatment of minorities and elimination of any opposition, the House of Saud is seen as a pillar of regional stability. The reasons are clear enough: religion and oil.
Saudi Arabia also holds 25 per cent of the world's known oil reserves and plays a moderating role in OPEC by manipulating supply to keep prices down. This is why the House makes the object of only occasional warnings in the West. However, after the September 11 attacks and the anticipated rise of Russia as a strong world oil producer, this might change.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, editorialist at “Asia Times”, points out that the contradictions in the policies used by the House of Saud are weakening the regime. He reminds to the readers that in 1979 a group of religious fanatics occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca. They questioned the legitimacy of the Saudi government, claiming that it was not “Islamic enough”. The government reclaimed the mosque, and the group’s leader and most of his followers were executed. However, even though the protestors were killed, the government adopted the very ideology for which they gave their lives. After the Mecca incident, the Saudi authorities began to impose strict rules. Women were banned from appearing on television, music was not allowed in the media, stores and malls were closed during the five daily prayer sessions, and the religious police were granted greater powers to monitor people’s lives. Similarly, four years ago, in Buraydah, a city of about 150,000 people fundamentalists raised the flag of Islam on minarets in protest against the House of Saud for 48 hours before the Saudi National Guard was able to subdue them. Shahzad argues that these incidents proved that “the extremists were in fact dictating terms”. I wouldn’t go that far. Considering that there are only a few of this kind of events in a such big period of time, I’d say that this proves only that the fundamentalists were still active and that they didn’t agree to the policies of the regime.
A Moment of Choice: the Golf War of 1990-1991
The “both ends” strategy of the leaders from Riyadh has had some important consequences. Osama bin Laden’s exile is one of them. Bin Laden broke with the Saudi monarchy over the first war against Iraq, in 1990-1991 and now eagerly seeks its overthrow. In 1990, bin Laden proposed to the Saudi defense minister to let him mobilize veterans of the 1979-1989 Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, in order to defend Saudi Arabia against Iraq. Probably the rulers feared that by letting bin Laden to gather troops they would lose control over the country and so the Saudi government rejected the offer, preferring an US-led coalition. The US sent 500,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. This happened only after US secretary of defense Dick Cheney (now vice president) promised King Fahd that the troops would be removed after the war. Still, more than 5000 are still present in the country. Ever since, bin Laden has resented the presence of “infidel troops” on the Holy Land where the Prophet Muhammad founded Islam in the 7th century. The first of 1990-1991 put the rulers from Riyadh in a situation in which they had to choose out of two evils, and they thought US is the smaller one. This was the only option in which they could hope to continue to stay in power. Thus, it was proved once again that defending religious convictions was not a priority to them.
Religious Opposition – The Ulema
Since the eighteenth century, the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula have shared power with their religious contemporaries, and this is still the case in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today. The monarch is technically the country's supreme religious leader and custodian of Islam's two holiest mosques of Mecca and Medina. In fact, he shares authority with a powerful group of spiritual leaders, the ulema. For nearly 300 years, the Al Saud has controlled the state while the Al ash-Sheikh, the descendants of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) has controlled the religious institutions. This cooperative and consensual relationship has provided the kingdom with one of the most stable societies in the region and has allowed it to avoid the war and revolution that has affected nearly every one of its neighbors.
The Ulema has no formal control over policymaking and is this fact that makes some Western observers miss the power of the ulema. Nawaf Obaid argues that the influence of the Ulema is far greater that the Western annalists consider, and that it has been extending to the political sphere also. He states that “the ulema exercise their sway in subtle, silent ways” and he nominates four political decisions, to support this:
In 1973, following the attacks by Egypt and Syria on Israel, Saudi Arabia imposed an oil embargo against the United States. This took completely by surprise the policymakers in the US.
In 1990, Saudi government agreed to host troops of the US-led coalition against the threatening Iraq who had massed troops along the Saudi border. On this occasion King Fahd needed the consensus of the Ulema and so, in exchange for their approval, he had to make some concessions. There was enormous domestic opposition. At first, the proposition of the king was disregarded, but after presenting satellite images of Iraqi troops closing on, the religious leaders agreed. Specialists anticipated that in the eventuality of an attack, Saudi Arabia could not defend itself against Iraq. King Fahd called together 350 Islamic leaders and scholars to Mecca to debate this topic. This effort resulted in the following edict (fatwa), issued by Sheikh bin Baz:
“Even though the Americans are, in the conservative religious view, equivalent to non-believers as they are not Muslims, they deserve support because they are here to defend Islam”.
But the ulema also extracted several agreements from King Fahd in exchange for their blessing. He had to offer assurances that non-Muslim troops would respect the traditions of the kingdom and that, once no longer needed, those troops would immediately leave. In particular, they won more authority for the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Propagation of Virtue, better known as the morality police.
After the war was over, the Americans left more than 5000 troops in the country, in spite of Islamic demands that there should not by any non-believers on holy land. The negative impact was not only long term and theoretical. The depth of these feelings was shown in the bombings that followed. First in Riyadh on November 13, 1995, at the Saudi National Guard communications complex, killing five American military trainers and two Indians. A second one was in Dhahran on June 25, 1996, at the Khobar Towers, an U.S. military housing compound, killing nineteen American servicemen. Following the Kuwait war, most of the senior ulema resisted the presence of U.S.
Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban regime and provided it with resources and ideology, in spite of their lack of interest towards human rights and their harsh authoritarian regime.
The journalist tries thus to show that Ulema is actually the ultimate decision-maker in the Saudi Kingdom and that the Western politicians don’t understand this. I shall argue against his hypotheses. First, the decision of imposing an oil embargo is not necessary a decision taken out of religious reasons. It had such of justification, but there were also other reasons, such as economic ones. It was an excellent opportunity for the leaders from Riyadh to prove their economic power, and the dependency of the Western societies on Saudi’s oil. By doing so, House of Saud gained at both national and international power. They increased their popularity by opposing to Western interests and won more financial power by eventually rising the oil price; not to speak about winning the sympathy of the fellow Islamic countries. Also, history is full of examples in which countries imposed embargoes on former allies. For instance Romania imposed joined embargo on Yugoslavia. Secondly, allowing or not allowing foreign troops into the country is a great dilemma for every state that faces this problem. It doesn’t matter if it is Islamic or not. It is a question of national security and people’s pride. Again, we don’t need to look too far as Romania offers us good examples. There were numerous discussions about providing help to allied troops when bombing Yugoslavia and then allowing Russian planes to fly over Romanian air space. Also, we have to take into account that many Islamic countries provided help of different type to the American-led coalition in the second war against Iraq.
Thirdly, there is no wonder that the Saudi regime provided help to Talibans, as it was itself an authoritarian regime. Indeed, Western idees had begun to spread in Afghanistan and Pakistan and this threatened the stability of the area. But the support of the Taliban regime was not for the sake of the religion itself, but because of the fact that along with instability in those countries the House of Saud was facing the danger of losing control of the country. Moreover, the Americans themselves helped the Talibans and the mujahedins in order to repel the Soviet aggression. And this was not done due to ideological or religious, but merely due to geo-strategically ones.
I think that the right conclusion out of the four examples given by the Arab journalist is that the people indeed think and act according to Islamic beliefs, as they did when planing terrorist attacks. But the rulers, the superior social classes are not very religious people and are making use of this extremely powerful tool when need to justify some of their actions.
Ideological Point of View: The Holly War
The war, in the opinion of Ibn Khaldun, Arab historian (1332-1406): “Wars never ceased to exist, since the beginning of the world. At the origin of wars it’s the desire for revenge. Each adversary is sustained by its own clan, the thirsty of revenge is usually due to jealousy, envy, adversity, religious excess or devotion to the sovereign’s cause and to the attempts to establish a dynasty. The first type of war brakes out usually between neighboring and rival tribes or families. The second one, provoked by adversity, is the one of the peoples’ from wildness and the desert, like the nomad Arabs, the Turks, the Kurds and those alike. They find support in the top of their pikes and live rubbing the others […]. The third type of war is the one that the religious world calls it “holly war” (jihad). The fourth is the dynastic type against the heretics and the rebels. The first two kinds of war are unjust and infamous; the other two are just and holly”. In other words, war is not excluded as a means of solving problems between the Islamists and the infidels, on the contrary, it is encouraged. This is well known in the Muslim world due to the fact it has been evoked ever since the beginnings of this religion. What is more questionable is who decides whether a war is holly or not. Of course, there is the religious elite who assumes the role of interpreting the teachings of the Koran, but the fact that the Muslims don’t live in a single state makes the problem extremely complicated, as the interest of the specific states enters the game.
It is very difficult to establish who is in reality the decision making party within a state, the state officials or the religious leaders. In what concerns Saudi Arabia, it seems that neither has complete control and the result of a certain policy is the vectorial result between the two. Some political analysts say that political Islam developed along with the domination of the West, becomes more violent along with it, and will weaken when Western domination will also weaken. This means that there is a direct connection between Western involvement in the area and the influence of Islam over politics. It’s the same as in the case of nationalism in Europe or other parts of the world.
Saudi Arabia’s Relations with Other Countries
Saudi Arabia agreed to give $140 million a year to Egypt and Jordan, which were devastated after the 1967 war with Israel. Saudi Arabia denounced the 1979 agreement between Israel and Egypt and terminated diplomatic relations with Egypt. Saudi leaders opposed both the leftist and radical movements that were growing throughout the Arab world, and in the 1970s sent troops to help quell leftist revolutions in Yemen and Oman.
Saudi religious interests were threatened by the fall of Iran's shah in 1979 and by the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. As we have seen above, in November 1979, Muslim fundamentalists calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government occupied the Great Mosque in Mecca. After two weeks of fighting the siege ended, leaving a total of 27 Saudi soldiers and over 100 rebels dead. Sixty-three more rebels were later publicly beheaded. In 1980, Shiite Muslims led a series of riots that were put down by the government, which promised to reform the distribution of Saudi wealth.
Saudi Arabia supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War throughout the 1980s. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, King Fahd agreed to the stationing of U.S. and international coalition troops on Saudi soil. Thousands of Saudi troops participated in the Persian Gulf War (1991) against Iraq. The country took in Kuwait's royal family and more than 400,000 Kuwaiti refugees. Though little ground fighting occurred in Saudi Arabia, the cities of Riyadh, Dhahran, and outlying areas were bombed by Iraqi missiles. Coalition troops left Saudi Arabia in late 1991; however, more than 5000 U.S. troops remained in the country.
Saudi Arabia’s Special Relations with the United States
The special relations between these two countries are well known. The reason is the great quantity of oil imported by the Americans from Saudi Arabia. Due to this fact, the Americans have a huge interest in protecting the stability of the country, as long as it suits their interests. But after September 11, things got complicated.
In his editorial “Now 'political Islam' draws fire”, Ehsan Ahrari journalist working for the same reputed newspaper Asia Times states that there is a “Cold War” developing against the Muslims and the Bush administration is not even aware of that. He thinks that the president himself is guilty of this through his harsh declarations as "civilizations clash", "enemies of civilization", or "evildoers".
The Saudis are playing both the Wahhabi card and the American card. Even as they sought to Wahhabize the Muslim World they continued to maintain good relations with rich and powerful Americans and became US most important ally in moderating OPEC and maintaining the stability of oil supplies and prices. There are numerous instances when the Saudis have helped western economies by manipulating oil prices and keeping it within limits acceptable to American consumers. By becoming useful to America they gained its support and protection
The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia infuriated bin Laden and exacerbated the conflict between the kingdom and the prince of mujahedeen. In the Saudi internal tensions, the US took sides and has protected the regime from terrorists as well as other Arab threats such as Saddam Hussein. Over the years Islamists in Egypt such as Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (bin Laden's right hand man and mentor) had concluded that Egypt could not be transformed as long as it enjoyed US support. Bin Laden soon reached the same conclusion that Saudi Arabia could not be transformed as long as the US supported and protected it.
Hezbollah became drove both the US and Israel out of Lebanon using truck and suicide bombers. Thus it became the strategic model and in order to politically transform the Middle East. Al Qaeda decided to drive the US out of the region through a sustained terrorist campaign. Thus, Muqtedar Khan states that the main reason for which America suffered the attacks of September 11 is its support to the Wahhabi monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Also, hate against the Americans was spread by the same Saudi regime in along with exporting Wahhabism.” The spread of Wahhabi ideas which are extremely anti-Western and anti-modernity see the West as a threat to Islam and the US as a barrier to Islamization.”
If we look at the issue from the Saud family’s point of view, ruling Saudi Arabia is not at all an easy thing. The political leaders find themselves caught between the hammer and the anvil. On the one hand they need to have good relationships with the West and mostly with the US on which they are economically dependent. On the other hand they don’t have to prove too pro-Americans to their own people as the Americans are considered infidels and this friendship could lead to a popular revolt. Democracies are accusing them of not being democratic enough, while religious fundamentalists within their own country accuse them of being too much democratic. Here is something that will help us understand how complicated is the issue. In November 2003, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), a London-based Saudi dissident group, called for national protests over the Saudi government's refusal to implement political reforms. As a result, hundreds of Saudi citizens took to the streets of Riyadh on two separate occasions, rare occurrences in the deeply conservative Kingdom
At a first glance we might think that liberal Saudis are challenging the House of Saud's conservative Islamist government. But no. The Western media's portrayal of a liberal David fighting a Wahhabi Goliath is mistaken and misleading. What almost all reports fail to mention is that MIRA has only one ultimate goal: a more Islamic, more conservative Saudi Arabia.
The group's “commitment to democracy” is temporary and purely tactical. Its members believe that democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia would erode the ruling family's autocratic power and provide MIRA with an entrance foothold from which to pursue its radically conservative political agenda. While visiting MIRA's website (www.yaislah.org), one finds that the group views religious freedom as a terrible affront to Islam, whose values, according to MIRA, “have no room for subjectivity”. However, although growing numbers of Saudi citizens are deeply dissatisfied with the present system of royal government, in reality there is very little support for a Western-style democracy which, it is feared, would undermine the country's Sharia code of Islamic law.
In autumn 2003 Saudi government promised elections which will provide the population the chance of electing half of the members of local councils. The real danger is that the latest proposals will be interpreted as yet more evidence that the dynasty founded by Ibn Saud is showing signs of weakness. Rather than strengthening the present royal government, local elections may well prove to be the beginning of the end.
Other analysts are arguing that the Saudi regime is strong enough to impose its will over Islamic thought and that it should do so. One of them is Wael Al-Abrashi, deputy editor of the independent Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef: "Wahhabism needs now an attack of another kind that will be like the attack of Muhammad 'Ali, but will be this time an ideological, cultural, religious, and political attack that will be led by the Saudi authorities themselves, and will not be forced from without. The attack must be Saudi, and not American, it must be more ideological and political than [based on] security. The attack on Wahhabism is an attack on terror, backwardness, and fanaticism. Wahhabism has moved from Takfir to destruction, and we do not want it ultimately destroying Saudi Arabia."
According to this perspective there is the possibility that the terrorist trail will eventually lead to Saudi Arabia financially and/or politically. He states that Saudi Arabian foreign policy has consistently remained pragmatic and even rational and that Saudi rulers have not used Islam as a criterion to determine their foreign relations as Iran has: ”They have been guided by the singular overriding desire of regime continuity in their foreign policy. They have however used Islam as a legitimizing tool first within their domestic constituency by building a strategic alliance with Wahhabi Islam, and then within the global Muslim community through the expansion and lavish redecoration of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and through financing <<Islamic projects>> worldwide.”
Saudis started exporting Wahhabism in order to protect Wahhabism at home. They have also tried to control the interpretation of Islam even in America to prevent Saudi students living here from discovering that there are other interpretations of Islam, some of which are even tolerant and advocate freedom of thought and claim that Islam and democracy are compatible. This Saudi attempt to protect Wahhabism and the continuity of their regime by reconstructing the rest of the Islamic world in their own image has contributed to the growth of intolerance among
Muslims. This tendency was most spectacularly manifest in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Now the US faces a real challenge of protecting as well as reforming Saudi Arabia. It needs the present regime out of economic and geo-strategically reasons. Regime change in Saudi Arabia might bring pro-bin Laden forces to power. Maintaining the present situation is also dangerous because September 11 happened as a result of present conditions in the kingdom. Even though the administration has
repeatedly proclaimed that it will go after all those who support terrorists and that it hopes to democratize the entire Middle East, Saudi Arabia seems excluded from both these actions. A difficult question arises: for how long can the US do nothing about Saudi Arabia? If democracy can reduce terrorism, as the Americans say, then they must push Saudi Arabia towards democracy. If liberal Islam promotes dialogue and co-existence then liberal Muslims in the Kingdom should be supported.
The special case of Saudi Arabia’s dual behavior towards Islam and democracy seems to be illustrating very well the way in which the two interact. In the end, the ultimate purpose of the political leaders from Riyadh is to conserve their power, regardless of what strategy is needed in order to do that. Religion, as well as their strong connection to Western democracies are only tools they use to manipulate public opinion on the one hand, and to establish economic relations on the other hand. Nevertheless, we have to take into consideration the influence exerted by the religious leaders and the pressure they are able to put on the authorities. One cannot say that this influence is formal. Still, the mere fact that a non-religious regime is in power and not the Ulema proves that in terms of political influence Islam is not that strong as it may seem. In countries that have religious rulers such as Iran, there is, of course, a greater pressure from the religious factors in building policies. But even there, the institution that comes first seems to be the state, not the Islamic religion. The explanation is that if it weren’t so, there wouldn’t be any conflicts among Muslims on territorial issues. The expansionistic trends of Iraq and its wars against Iran and then Kuwait are proof of that. Of course, most of the soldiers that fought in those wars may have not agreed to the war, but the decision was taken by the non-religious rulers, which is exactly my point. Religion is for the people, politics is for the rulers.
Muqtedar Khan considers that is about time that Saudi Arabia should choose between the two pillars for their security - the US and Wahhabi Islam. I’d say that a decision of this kind would end their dynasty. If they stop exporting oil to the Americans, the latter will search for someone else to rule the country according to their interests. Installing a new pro-American regime in Saudi Arabia would be very difficult indeed, but, as it was proved in Iraq in 2003, not impossible. On the other hand, if Saudis choose to pass to democracy, it will probably be a civil war. As long as bin Laden and his terrorist organization live, this decision means much bloodshed. However, if the Saudis choose one of the two, the latter option won’t be the chosen one. But a choice will not be made as long as the House of Saud is in power. Is in nature of mankind to want both power and money.
Political Islam is thus the interpretation of Islam in accordance to political purposes. In Islamic countries politics is based on Islamic religion in the same manner in which in democratic countries politics is based on its values such as capitalism, freedom or the human rights. Also it is the same manner in which communist regimes justify their politics by appealing to communist ideology which is interpreted and implemented by them. Islam is a mean of communication from the people to the rulers and vice versa. We’ve seen that in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia the population is very poor comparing to country’s revenues. Also, the level of freedom is very low as well as the level information. Education is made according to Islam’s tradition. For this kind of people religion is the most precious value and this is why they are prepared to defend it to the death. Is a lot like nationalism promoted in the late 19th century in Europe and the reason is the same: uniting people along a common shared value of which the regime proclaims itself its protector. It’s a means of legitimization and of justifying its policies. Religion is a very powerful weapon in this part of the world in the same manner in which mass media is in democracy. Both are means of communication used by the leaders.
In most of the countries in which Islam is the dominant religion, the extent in which the decision-makers are protecting Islam is decisive for their staying in power. This is why they need to practice a political Islam. But if they need good relations with the democratic countries, they are able to tilt their policy gradually. This is the only way in which these countries can become potentially democracies: gradually and by having strong interest in having good relations with the democratic regimes. As the regime controls the educational process, a gradual switch in the ideology promoted through education and religion can finally produce a liberal population that will not oppose the import of democracy.
Asia Times Online - www.atimes.com
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Kepel, Giles, Jihad, Didot 2003;
Khan, Muqtedar - “The Empire and the Kingdom: Saudi-US Relations in Crisis Again” article published in The Globalist 08.01.2003;
Khaldun, Ibn – Discours sur l’histoire universaille, 1978;
Massoulie, Francois, “Conflicte in Orientul Mijlociu”, Ali 2001;
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Morse, Edward L. and James Richards, “The Battle for Energy Dominance”, in Foreign Affairs, vol. 81, no. 2, March-April 2002, pp. 16-31;www.roadtopeace.org/history
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