Saudi Arabia may indeed be heading into a perfect storm, but the key drivers are likely to be far more existential. Those drivers, interlinked since the 1979 Iranian revolution, are the Al Saud’s increasingly problematic Faustian bargain with Wahhabism and Iran.
Saudi government leaders have long sought to counter Iran by motivating Sunnis to fear and resist Iranian influence. Framing its rivalry with Iran in sectarian terms, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of fuelling sectarianism by backing Shia militias who have targeted Sunnis in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.
Saudi Arabia had no doubt legitimate concerns in the immediate wake of the Iranian revolution. The fall of the autocratic pro-US regime of the Shah made place for a regime that was revolutionary and keen on exporting its revolution to the Gulf. Iran made no bones about it. It took however less than a year for nationalism to trump revolution in Iran. The process was accelerated by the Saudi-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran and the eight year-long Iran-Iraq war.
The Saudi determination to counter the Iranian revolutionary threat by defeating rather than containing it has ever since shaped Saudi policy towards Iran and Shia Muslims despite the occasional thaw in relations. Iran has repeatedly taken the bait with the creation of Hezbollah, political protests during the hajj in Mecca, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to name just a handful of incidents.
Nonetheless, the kingdom’s handling of relations with Iran was certain to ultimately backfire and position the Islamic republic as an existential threat. Rather than embrace its Shia minority by ensuring that its members had equal opportunity and a stake in society, while countering discriminatory statements by the clergy and government institutions, the kingdom grew even more suspicious of Shias who populate the country’s oil-rich eastern province. In doing so, they provided Iran with a golden opportunity to forge closer ties with disgruntled Shia communities in the Gulf.
Instead of acknowledging legitimate grievances, they relied on repression at home and on autocratic minority Sunni leaders in Iraq and Bahrain to keep a grip on majority Shia populations. Saudi leaders failed to recognise that Tehran’s perception of itself as Shia Central was no less legitimate than Riyadh’s insistence on being Sunni Central or Israel’s claim that it is the centre of the Jewish world. They also consistently ignored the fact that some one million Iraqi Shia Muslims died in the Iran-Iraq war defending their country against their Shia brethren.
Bent on provocation
The perceived Iranian threat prompted Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, for decades a key player in the shaping of Saudi security policy and the kingdom’s relations with the United States, to warn Richard Dearlove, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, already more than a decade ago that: “the time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia.’ More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”
The Saudi approach has sown the seeds for intermittent domestic unrest and repeated tit-for-tat attempts to weaken and undermine the legitimacy of the other, set the stage for a global effort to ensure that Muslim communities across the globe empathise with Saudi Wahhabism rather than revolutionary Iranian ideals, as well as poisoning relations by supporting Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran.
The execution in January of Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was not simply designed to send a message to domestic opposition, nor was it simply intended to send a message to Iran. The message, ‘don’t mess with me,’ has long been loud and clear. The execution was part of a deliberate strategy to delay, if not derail, implementation of the nuclear agreement and Iran’s return to the international fold. Iranian hardliners played into Saudi hands with the storming of the Saudi embassy. It is the hardliners that Saudi Arabia sought to strengthen in advance of February’s elections in Iran for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the council that eventually will elect Iran’s next spiritual leader.
The strategy made – and still makes – perfect sense. Saudi regional leadership amounts to exploitation of a window of opportunity rather than reliance on the assets and power needed to sustain it. Saudi Arabia’s interest is to extend its window of opportunity for as long as possible. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. Punitive international sanctions and international isolation long took care of Iran.
And that is what is changing. Iran may not be Arab and maintains a sense of Persian superiority, but it has the assets Saud Arabia lacks: a large population base, an industrial base, resources, a battle hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete, at least not with Wahhabism in control.
As a result, the Al Sauds are inching ever closer to a fundamental change in their deal with the Wahhabis. Reform that enables the kingdom to become a competitive, 21st century knowledge economy is difficult, if not impossible, as long as it is held back by the strictures of a religious doctrine that looks backwards rather than forwards, which idealises life as it was at the time of the prophet and his companions.
Wahhabism was Saudi Arabia’s defence against the Islamic revolution that demonstrated that rulers can be toppled, that raised questions about a clergy that slavishly served the needs of an autocratic ruler and that recognised some degree of popular sovereignty. To be sure, Wahhabism has been an expansionary, proselytising force from its inception. But the success of an Islamic revolution that could potentially inspire not only Shias but also Sunnis persuaded the Al Sauds, flush with oil dollars in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, to kick Wahhabi proselytisation into high gear.
It may be hard to conceive of Wahhabism as soft power, but that was the Saudi government’s goal in launching the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history to establish Wahhabism and Salafism as a major force in the Muslim world, capable of resisting any appeal Iran might have. Estimates of Saudi expenditure on this campaign in the almost four decades since the Iranian revolution range from $75 to $100 billion.
Counting the cost
The cost, however, is beginning to become too high. Saudi Arabia finds itself being increasingly compared to IS. Not unfairly. Wahhabism at the beginning of the 20th century and the creation in 1932 of the second Saudi state was what IS is today. Saudi Arabia is what IS will become should it survive. Despite their denunciations of IS as a deviation from Islam, Saudi clerics admit this.
One can question the effectiveness of the Saudi soft power effort on multiple levels. True, the Islamic Conference Organisation recently backed Saudi Arabia in its conflict with the Islamic republic. But only four countries broke off diplomatic relations with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy in Riyadh. All four – Bahrain, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia – are dependent on the kingdom. None of the other Gulf states did so, although some lowered the level of their diplomatic representation in Tehran.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia recently hastily announced the creation of a 34-nation, Sunni Muslim anti-terrorism military command to be headquartered in Riyadh. The command appeared to be a paper tiger from the moment it was declared in December 2015 by Mohammed Bin Salman. Various Muslim nations, including Malaysia, Pakistan, Lebanon and Indonesia were quick to state that they had not been consulted and had yet to decide whether they would be part of the Saudi initiative.
On the level of Muslim communities and at the level of Saudi relations with a host of government agencies in Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the kingdom’s soft power strategy has paid off. It is proving however to be increasingly a pyrrhic victory. Societies, particularly in countries with governments that play politics with religion, have become more conservative. The result is greater intolerance towards minorities and greater social volatility. The payback is obvious: take the example of a recently retired intelligence chief who believes, even after the IS attack in Djakarta last month, that Shias rather than Wahhabis, Salafis or jihadists constitute the greatest domestic threat to Indonesian national security.
Two major political parties in the Dutch parliament recently asked the government whether there was a legal basis for outlawing Wahhabi and Salafi institutions, schools, academies or social services that are funded by Saudi and Kuwaiti institutions. The government has yet to respond to the question. Nonetheless, imagine a scenario in which the government did move to a ban that would likely be challenged in the courts and imagine that the ban would be upheld in the courts. The next step would be the banning of Saudi funding and ultimately the expulsion of the Saudi embassy’s religious attache. It’s not a development the Saudi state can afford.
The Al Saud’s risk was also evident late last year when German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, in a rare attack on Saudi Arabia by a senior Western government official while in office, accused the kingdom of financing extremist mosques and communities in the West that constitute a security risk and warned that it must stop. “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over. Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany,” he said.
To conclude, the complex relationship between the Al-Sauds and Wahhabism creates policy dilemmas for the Saudi government on multiple levels, complicates its relationship with the United States and its approach towards the multiple crises in the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria, IS and Yemen.
Historian Richard Bulliet argues that Saudi “King Salman faces a difficult choice. Does he do what President Obama, Hillary Clinton and many Republican presidential hopefuls want him to do, namely, lead a Sunni alliance against the Islamic State? Or does he continue to ignore Syria, attack Shias in Yemen and allow his subjects to volunteer money and lives to the IS caliph’s war against Shia? The former option risks intensifying unrest, possibly fatal unrest, in the Saudi kingdom. The latter contributes to a growing sense in the West that Saudi Arabia is insensitive to the crimes being carried out around the world in the name of Sunni Islam. Prediction: in five years’ time, Saudi Arabia will either help defeat the Islamic State, or become it.”