Between religion, oil dependence and reforms
Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman

An expert on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, Guido Steinberg explains that the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities last week were partly a manifestation of complex religious and historical forces. By Sabine Peschel

As Saudi Arabia and its close allies, including the United States, look for an appropriate response to drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities in early September, what expert Guido Steinberg calls a 'Gulf cold war' is becoming a hot war. But what are the deeper historical and religious forces that have put Saudi Arabia at the fulcrum of heightened tensions in the Gulf?  

Steinberg, a senior associate for the Middle East division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, is synthesising some of his decades of study on Saudi Arabia into a new book — working title: "Cold War in the Gulf".

An attempt to understand impenetrable Saudi power structures, Steinberg explores the country's 250-year history via three key themes: Wahhabist religious scholarship, oil and the Saudi ruling family.

Religious scholars lose dominance

It is perhaps not widely known that the extremist ideology of the Islamic State was greatly inspired by the radical Wahhabist teachings that emerged from Saudi Arabia – including the hatred of Shia Muslims and the destruction of their tombs.

Saudi Arabia is the nation where Mecca is located and also where al-Qaida was born. "Many IS leaders and many of the preachers who have promoted IS in Europe studied at the Islamic University of Medina, the Wahhabist mission centre," explained Steinberg.

Islamic propagandists have increasingly promoted Wahhabism, and its purist offshoot, Salafism, as the one true form of Islam. "Today, even many Turkish Muslims in Germany believe that Islam means going to the mosque five times a day, and many parts of the doctrine that originated in Saudi Arabia are suddenly seen as belonging to the mainstream," Steinberg said.

Such a doctrinaire form of Islam is often incompatible with other religious minorities or with broader secular society.

Photomontage symbolising the importance of oil, religion and specifically Wahhabism to Saudi Arabia (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Jasmin Merdan/ –
Petrodollars for the global export of religion: the influence of Saudi Wahhabism on Islam as a whole is increasing. Saudi Arabia promotes the construction of mosques, invites religious scholars from all over the world to train in its institutions, while dispatching its own Wahhabist emissaries around the globe. Guest workers in Saudia Arabia who hail from other regions of the Islamic world are inevitably influenced by Wahhabism, importing it back into their own countries

But after Saudi Arabia began producing oil in 1938 and eventually became the world's largest oil exporter, the once monolithic power of the Wahhabist scholars was gradually challenged.

Following the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, crude prices rose sharply and Saudi Arabia, now extremely wealthy, underwent rapid modernisation. At the same time, "the geopolitical focus shifted after 1973 from Cairo to Dubai, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi," said Steinberg.

But radical Wahhabist scholars rebelled against the introduction of modern infrastructure and culture and in 1979 demanded a return to the old society. They wanted mud huts instead of skyscrapers.

Oil – the burning issue

The tension continued as the price of oil dropped in the 90s and the Saudi Arabian economy almost collapsed. Saudis could no longer finance their households and their oil-generated benefits had to cease. It was one of the reasons for the emergence of al-Qaida, Steinberg said.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil remains unbroken. The Saudi state receives 90% of its income from the state-owned Saudi-Aramco, the world's largest oil-producing group.

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