‘The world has lost a revered leader’, claimed US Secretary of John Kerry on the death last week of Saudi King Abdullah, a ‘man of wisdom and vision’, in Kerry’s words. David Cameron praised his ‘commitment to peace’ and ordered flags to be flown at half mast on government buildings. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, even hailed him as a proto-feminist, a ‘strong advocate of women’.
In reality, the man that virtually every Western leader has bent over backwards to praise over the past few days was a vicious tyrant, the absolute ruler of a kingdom that practiced torture and judicial murder, crushed any opposition, flogged and beheaded dissidents, imposed sharia law in the most brutal fashion, and exported jihadism across the world. He governed over a kingdom in which women need the approval of a male relative or guardian to marry, open a bank account, obtain a passport, attend university or to see a doctor, even for serious medical emergencies; a kingdom in which a woman must have a male chaperone any time she leaves home and is forbidden from driving. One would have thought that even the head the IMF should be able to see that this does not amount to ‘strong advocacy for women’.
Apologists for the late King Abdullah claim that he was a ‘reformer’ because he sought to bring about change slowly against the entrenched forces of the clergy and of culture. In fact, both the ‘cultural traditions’ and the ‘traditional’ religious norms of Saudi Arabia have only been established over the past two centuries, created, or appropriated, by the Saud clan, as a means of consolidating and maintaining its power.
The story begins in the early eighteenth century with the teachings of a religious scholar by the name of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, born in the remote central Najd region of the Arabian peninsula. Al Wahhab disavowed popular religious practices, with their relatively relaxed attitudes to worship and ritual, particularly those of Shiism and Sufism, and demanded a more austere, puritan faith. He condemned what he considered to be ‘superstitions’, such as the honouring of saints or the erecting of tombstones, which he saw as contrary to the ‘pure’ faith of Muhammad. Those who rejected his beliefs and practices were not Muslims at all, in his eyes, and could be put to death.
There had been many ‘fundamentalists’ like al Wahhab throughout the history of Islam. Most lived on the margins of Muslim societies, and few found much support, either among the people or among the clergy. Al Wahhab himself was expelled from Najd. He found refuge in the neighbouring region of Diriyah where Muhammad ibn Saud had declared himself ‘emir’ after winning a power struggle within the ruling al Migrin family.
Ibn Saud was ruthless and ambitious. Over the next few years he waged a relentless series of wars against neighbouring clans to take control of the Arabian peninsula. He saw in al Wahhab’s puritanical, exclusionary teachings the perfect ideological complement to his own militarism, a means of overturning Arab tradition and convention, and thereby forging a path to power. The two men made a pact in 1744 to support each other’s ambitions. What came to be known as ‘Wahhabism’ provided for ibn Saud a radical weapon with which to attack tradition, a cohering philosophy for his own new local empire, a claim to Islamic ‘authenticity’ and purity, and a means of enforcing control over his population. And what was called the ‘First Saudi State’ provided for al Wahhab the physical means of achieving his religious goals.
The upstart Saudi state did not, however, last long. In a series of wars between 1812 and 1818 it was crushed by the armies of the Ottoman empire – and Wahhabism consigned again to the margins.
1n 1824, the remnants of the Saudi clan founded the ‘Second Saudi State’ having retreated to their heartlands. The second state was rent by internal conflict, both within the Saud clan and between the Sauds and rival families. Over the next seventy years, a series of murders, palace coups and wars led to the continual violent overthrows of rulers and the seizure of power by rivals. Eventually in 1891 the Sauds were defeated by the forces of the rival Rashid clan, and forced into exile.
In the years following the First World War, the Saud clan, now under the leadership of Abdul Aziz, attempted to reassert its military authority over the Arabian peninsula. Again he faced fierce competition from both within the clan (in particular, the so-called ‘Saud al-Kabir’ faction), and from rival clans, including their old foes, the al Rashids. The turmoil created by the First World War, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the abolition in 1924 of the Caliphate, provided new opportunities for clans that could seize the moment. By 1926, Abdul Aziz (now known as Ibn Saud) had managed to capture Mecca, Medina and Jeddah. By 1932 he had disposed of all his main rivals and consolidated his rule over much of the Arabian Peninsula. During his years of struggle and intrigue against his rivals, Ibn Saud had taken for himself a variety of titles, from ‘Sultan of Najd’ to ‘King of Hijaz and Najd and their dependencies’ as a means of proclaiming his importance. In 1932 he declared his possessions the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, made himself king, and his relatives the Royal Family.
Ibn Saud consolidated power by marrying into most of the clans and tribes within his territory. It is thought that he had during the course of his life some 22 wives, though the exact number remains disputed. He fathered some 45 sons. The number of his daughters are unknown – they were never officially counted – but according to some accounts there are more than 50. Ibn Saud’s descendents became known as the ‘royal family’ and each member accorded the title amir or amira (or ‘prince’ or ‘princess’). After his death, Saudi kings were chosen from among his sons, beginning with the oldest, Saud. The new king Salman is the sixth to have claimed the throne.
While ibn Saud’s family mutated into the Royal House of Saud, al Wahhab’s theology was restored as the official dogma of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism came to be not simply a reactionary theological movement, but also the key ideological prop to promote loyalty to the royal family and to justify the king’s absolute power. The power of the Saud clan is inextricably linked to Wahhabism – and all that goes with it from beheadings and torture to the denial of the most basic rights for women.
That power has become entrenched over the past century through the ability of Saud clan to exploit three very different factors. The first has been the family’s control over Mecca. Not only has this provided the Sauds with a spurious historical and spiritual legitimacy, but in the wake of the destruction of the Caliphate, it has also allowed them to parade as leaders of the global ummah.
Second, there was the discovery in 1937 of oil, which transformed Saudi Arabia from a poverty-stricken state to a fabulously wealthy nation, with considerable economic and political leverage. Oil revenues allowed the Saudi royals to export Wahhabism, and to shape the character of Islam worldwide. It also allowed them to fund jihadi movements, particularly in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
And third, the role of Western powers has played a crucial role in consolidating the power of the Saudi rulers. Western nations have generally preferred a supportive tyrant to a potentially-hostile democratic state. From the CIA and MI6 orchestrating the 1953 coup against the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq in Iran, because of Mossadeq’s desire to nationalize oil reserves, to French support for the Algerian military in cancelling the 1992 elections that threatened to bring Islamists to power, and the subsequent brutal war against the opposition, to the support for a succession of Egyptian dictators from Anwar Sadat to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the West has always taken an instrumental view of democracy and tyranny. Perhaps in no case has this been clearer than in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Royal family, deeply reactionary, has long been seen as force for stability and bulwark against ‘radicalism’, whether that of the Soviet Union, of Iran or of local democratic movements. So, Western leaders are happy cynically to present Abdullah’s brutal repression of the opposition, denial of rights to women, and enforcement of sharia law, as ‘reforms’. The cynicism of Western policy has helped turn a bunch of vicious chancers into ‘men of wisdom’ and ‘revered leaders’.
The photos are of Abdul Aziz’s forces in the early part of the twentieth century and of Abdul Aziz.