The Role of Wahabi Scholars in Saudi Arabia

Political Islam Hindering Reform

In order to ensure its power, the leadership in the Saudi capital Riyadh continues to uphold its alliance with Wahabi scholars. Guido Steinberg says this policy prevents the country from engaging in any fundamental reform

Attack in Riyadh - A bulldozer moves rubble from the smoldering ruins of a house (photo: AP)
The young generation of Radical-Islamists in Saudi Arabia are exerting increasing pressure on the Saudi government, frequently also through terror attacks inside the kingdom

​​Although the government of Saudi Arabia has been taking steps over the last few years towards a more liberal domestic policy, there's no reason to expect fundamental reforms.

One explanation for this is the traditional alliance between the ruling family and Wahabi scholars. These scholars provide the basis for the religious legitimation of the government and are the most important instrument in the fight against the Islamic opposition in the country, as has repeatedly been shown in past crises.

That is why the government has bowed to the scholars' resistance to political involvement by non-Wahabis in a more open political system. The government tries rather to reduce the pressure for reform by means of measures which are inadequate, but which do not diminish the position of the powerful scholars too significantly.

Dependence on Wahabi scholars

How far the government of Saudi Arabia is dependent on the support of the Wahabi scholars became clear for the first time in 1979 when several hundred mainly Saudi Islamists occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca and took pilgrims hostage.

They were Wahabis who rejected the customary interpretation of Wahabi teachings by leading scholars under which the scholars support the power of the state. The scholars base their view on an alliance drawn up in 1744/5 between the religious reformer Muhammad bin Abdalwahhab (1704-1792) and the then ruler and founder of the Saudi state, Muhammad bin Saud (died 1765).

Although the Saud family massively reduced the influence of the scholars in the course of the twentieth century and reduced them to the role of a junior partner in Saudi politics, they still were prepared to demonstrate their loyalty in 1979.

They may have had sympathy for the demands of the rebels – which included the removal of "unbelievers" from Saudi-Arabia, withdrawal from the alliance with the USA, the ending of the rulers' luxury and corruption and, more generally, turning back on the steps which had been taken towards modernisation in the country – but they condemned the occupation of the mosque and defended the military operation with which the rebels were driven out.

The occupiers of the mosque were in effect demanding a return by the Wahabiya to its militant and purist roots. Ibn Abdalwahhab and Muhammad bin Saud had together fought uncompromisingly against all those who, in Wahabi terms, were unbelievers.

These unbelievers were mainly Muslims in the border areas of the Arabian Peninsula, which were then part of the Ottoman Empire. They did not share the Wahabi ideology and did not live according to their strict code of behaviour.

Wahabi xenophobia

They were all to be opposed in a continuing holy war (jihad), which should ideally end with the defeat and "conversion" of all non-Wahabis. In the twentieth century, the xenophobia of the Wahabiya extended to the Jews and the Christians, and that fact has created difficulties for the close security relations between Riyadh and Washington which were entered into in 1945.

While the occupiers of the mosque developed a revolutionary ideology on the basis of these principles, the Wahabi scholars held the view that only their alliance with the Saudi state could guarantee the continuation of the Wahabiya as a religious movement. Their public support of the ruling family was a major factor in ensuring that Saudi Arabia survived the 1979 crisis undamaged.

On another occasion, in the early 1990s, the Wahabi scholars proved their value to the ruling family in its attempts to check and hold down the Islamic opposition. As long as the ruling family was able to maintain a certain discretion about its close relationship to the USA, protest remained sporadic.

Rift with the younger generation of Islamists

But when, in August 1991, US troops were called into the kingdom to protect Saudi Arabia from its powerful neighbour, Iraq, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, many Wahabis felt a sense of outrage towards the ruling family.

There arose for the first time a broad-based Islamist opposition movement, protesting above all against the presence of non-Muslim troops in the "country of the holy cities," Mecca and Medina. They saw the presence of Americans in the home of Islam as a sacrilege.

As the protests became more intense in late summer 1993, the government responded by arresting many Islamists, among them several prominent younger religious scholars.

The leading Wahabi scholars may have been quite sympathetic towards some of the demands of the young radicals, but they decided once more to line up with the ruling family – and thus contributed significantly to the stabilisation of the domestic situation.

Nowadays, the strong position of the scholars in the country works as a brake on the government's reform policy. The main engine for liberalisation since 2001 has been Crown Prince Abdullah (born 1923), who became king in August 2005 after the death of his brother Fahd.

"National Dialogue" seen as a danger

Even while King Fahd was alive, Abdullah was pursuing a careful policy of reform, the high point of which was the communal election in 2005. But it was the "National Dialogue" which the Wahabi establishment found particularly hard to take. The Dialogue was a series of conferences held from 2003 onwards, in which representatives of all the groups in the population met and discussed difficult issues.

If the presence of liberal reformers and women was hard for many conservatives to accept, the participation of Shiites met with a stern rejection.

The problem of the Shiites is symptomatic for the difficulties of domestic reform in Saudi Arabia. Shiites make up between eight and twelve percent of the population of Saudi Arabia and are seen by the Wahabis as dyed-in-the-wool unbelievers.

Discrimination against Shiites

As a consequence Shiites are disadvantaged in Saudi Arabia in social and economic terms, they are marginalised politically and their right to practice their religion is severely restricted.

The fact that they were allowed to take part in the National Dialogue showed on the one hand how far King Abdullah was prepared to go against the wishes of the Wahabi establishment; on the other hand it showed the limits of possible reform. Shiites failed to achieve recognition as Muslims and citizens with equal rights.

Such recognition remains impossible because the ruling family wants to maintain the religious legitimacy which only the support of the Wahabi scholars can grant them.

Although the Islamists in Saudi Arabia are currently weak and unorganised, the government sees itself as threatened by their opposition. And as a result it will not abandon its alliance with the Wahabi scholars. But as long as that alliance is maintained, there will be no fundamental domestic political reforms.

Guido Steinberg

© Qantara.de

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Guido Steinberg is a researcher with the Research Unit, Middle East and Africa, at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin

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