The Arabs and Muslims have many internal enemies. But the greatest of these, in my opinion, are the Saudi regime – America’s key Arab ally – and the Wahhabi doctrine it has at different times promoted, exploited and tolerated. Its malign influence has spread to Pakistan, Afghanistan, West Africa, Egypt and inner-city Europe, where traditional and plural Islamic cultures are being crushed by reductive ‘rulebook’ religion and sectarian intolerance. The Saudis are currently interfering in Lebanon to prop up the Siniora government, funding and providing manpower for Sunni terror organisations in Iraq, and discussing attacks on Iran with the Israelis.
Despite being the chief sponsor of the Taliban and the homeland of most of the September 11th bombers, Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States remains strong. American miltary bases remain dotted around the country, secret police continue to cow people into suspicious silence, criminals (but not the big ones) are still beheaded in public squares on Friday afternoons.
How long will this traitorous and barbaric regime last? In ‘The Rise and Coming Fall of the House of Saud’ Saeed Aburish predicted the regime’s downfall – for the late 1990s. When I was in Saudi Arabia, from 2001 to 2003, there was a widespread sense that the regime was in its last days. Al-Saud governance – rigidly Islamist at home, supinely pro-imperialist in its foreign relations – satisfied no-one at all, from Taliban types to Western-educated shabab who wanted more personal freedoms.
The local education system, run by Wahhabi ideologues, has completely failed to produce a generation of Saudis capable of running their own economy, let alone of thinking critically. The majority of doctors, nurses, managers, educators, engineers, technicians, mechanics, cleaners, builders, computer programmers and salesmen are foreigners – a usually despised third of the population who have no reason to stay in the country once things start to break down. The capital city, Riyadh, has 4 million inhabitants and no local water supply. One well-placed bomb on the pipeline from the desalination plant on the coast, and you have 4 million thirsty people.
I once drove past a funfair in the desert. A ghost funfair. My companion told me that it is opened up, switched on, and staffed only when a prince decides he wants to visit. For all the other days in the year it sits there rusting. Not a bad metaphor for the massive corruption and incompetence that passes for economic management in Saudi Arabia. People in the West often think that the Gulf Arabs are rich, because of the newspaper stories about princes blowing millions on yachts, European palaces, binges in Harrods and so on. In fact, the income of all the Arab countries combined is less than the income of Spain. And most towns and villages in Saudi Arabia look no less third world than towns in Syria.
When the alliance of the al-Sauds and Wahhabi fanatics took control of the huge country that now bears the Saud family name (come the revolution, sisters and brothers, it shall be renamed Qunfuziyya, after me), they imposed the culture of their own region, Najd, on every province, and the anti-culture of Wahhabism on the non-Wahhabi Sunnis of the Hijaz and the Shia of the oil-rich eastern province. Their first act on taking Mecca was to destroy mosques associated with Sufi practices and shrines of any description.
In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, which the Saudis pretended to oppose even while giving the US access to their airfields, the kingdom resounded with whispers. “Something’s going to happen here,” people told me. “Something’s going to change. Within the next year or two.”
What happened was murderous bomb attacks on residential compounds and beheadings of foreign civilians. The regime was rescued by al-Qa’ida-linked Salafi terrorism, itself a creation of al-Saud acts and omissions. When the people saw that the alternative to the regime might be violent nihilism of this kind, they decided to stick with the regime. And now, high oil revenues allow them to pay their way out of crisis. There are signs that the Sauds have understood Wahhabism has become a threat to them too, and that they are trying to reduce its influence, at least within their borders. There are signs that they are making a proper effort to organise the economy.
Another boon to the regime has been the civil war in Iraq. Now they have a nearby location to export their salafis to. They rarely come back again.
I’ve complained on this blog about people who quote scripture out of its context, cheaply, to make political points. So it is with tongue halfway in cheek that I refer to the following hadeeth:
According to Saheeh Bukhari the Prophet said: “God bless our Sham (Syria/ the Levant); God bless our Yemen.”
Those present said: “And our Najd, O messenger of God!”
Muhammad repeated, “God bless Sham and Yemen,” twice, without mentioning Najd.
When the men continued to press the Prophet to seek God’s blessings for Najd, Muhammad said, “Earthquakes and fitnah (dissension/ tribulation) are there, and there shall arise the horns of Satan.”