Features | Security | Central Asia

Saudis Whistling Past a Graveyard?

Michael Scheuer takes The Diplomat just outside its regular beat for a closer look at Saudi Arabia. Still the biggest oil supplier to Asia’s largest economies, is the kingdom really as stable as its leaders like to make out?

Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma also applies to Saudi Arabia—an authoritarian regime that makes every effort to prevent the world seeing too much of its internal affairs.

Saudi Arabia has long been the home and educator of many who today inspire and lead worldwide Islamist militancy (not least, Osama bin Laden). The country’s leaders nevertheless strive to show the world they are ‘modernizing’ and subduing domestic militancy—anything required to keep the country stable and oil production dependable.

Indeed, in 2008, King Abdullah launched the highly publicized campaign for ‘Inter-faith Dialogue’ and called for the mixing of men and women in Saudi universities—moves meant to blur the country’s tough Islamist reputation. But foreigners should be wary of the smoke and mirrors game being played in the kingdom.

The Saudis always put their best face forward (and hire the West’s best public relations firms to help them do so). But they also have the advantage of addressing an oil-buying clientele of nation states that want to believe the kingdom is stable. And while this hungry-for-good-news audience includes all Saudi-oil customers, it’s hard to imagine any being as hopeful that all’s well as Asia’s big economic powers: China, Japan, South Korea and India.

China, for example, imports about a third of its oil from Saudi Arabia and its Arab Peninsula neighbours, while for Japan the figure is double that at 65 percent. They’re not alone in their dependency—India relies on the region for more than 35 percent of its oil, while South Korea gets more than half from there. With these percentages projected to rise, long-term Saudi domestic stability is essential for continued economic expansion.

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And today, on the surface, all really does seem well. King Abdullah has taken steps to make Saudi Islam appear less threatening, and he, his ministers, the state-controlled Saudi media and a corps of Western PR firms are conducting a media campaign to persuade their audience that the Saudi system of ‘re-educating’ former Islamist militants, insurgents and terrorists is overwhelmingly successful and has dramatically reduced the domestic militant threat.

So what does this programme involve exactly? People being locked up and taught to paint, listen to classical music, encouraged to marry and raise a family and tutored on Islam material less martial than what they learned in school. Saudi spokesmen have repeatedly described the programme’s ‘wonderful’ success. The nations of the non-Muslim world, always eager to believe man is perfectible, have responded with applause and sighs of relief all round.

Yet, while the Saudis have had some stability-protecting successes, there are straws in the wind to suggest importers of Saudi and Arab Peninsula oil shouldn’t take stability for granted.

Last month, for example, Saudi Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Interior Prince Naif claimed his ministry had stopped 230 of 240 planned terrorist attacks in the kingdom. Naif quickly passed over the startling incident total, and said citizens should be proud (but not complacent) about the record. The successes, he said, didn’t ‘mean the fight had stopped. It is just less high profile.’ He also noted that the ‘militants’ incompetence and a little luck aided security service operations.

Naif’s mild warning isn’t unlike those issued by Western leaders. But the fact is that the Saudis’ on-the-ground reality is more threatening than in most non-Muslim countries. After all, Prince Naif’s son, the deputy interior minister, has been the target of four unsuccessful assassination attempts. And despite the much-praised Saudi re-education system, recidivism exists at a time when the kingdom’s educational system is still mostly in the hands of strict Islamists. Riyadh’s ongoing weeding out of militant teachers has so far moved 2000 teachers to administrative positions since 2008 ‘for teaching radical views to students…(and) turning the mission of teaching into a tool for spreading radical and erroneous (religious) thought.’ Riyadh has also jailed 1,400 teachers found to be ‘sympathetic to al-Qaeda.’ 

That’s not all. The Saudi regime is also having trouble reducing the militancy of its large clerical community. Indeed, in June, a major Saudi-controlled daily said that ‘the consecutive successes scored by the security apparatus have not hidden the fact that (the Saudi regime’s) intellectual work has failed in its war against the terrorist organization [al-Qaeda].’ Another paper later said that in an ‘intellectual confrontation’ with militant Saudi scholars, the regime’s chance of prevailing is ‘nearly nonexistent.’

Although the kingdom has a 20-member senior religious council—the Senior Scholars Authority—that’s charged with guiding the country’s religious life, Saudi universities have produced large numbers of qualified Islamist scholars over the past three decades, men whose militant words and writings now drive and justify jihadi activities in the kingdom and worldwide.

Adding to the problem, the Saudi regime has sent many such scholars overseas to be imams (leaders) and teachers at Islamic schools and mosques in Europe, Africa, North America and the Muslim and partially Muslim states of Asia, especially Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. They are, of course, inculcating militancy in their congregations.

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Earlier this year, Riyadh apparently decided the number and stridency of non-official Saudi scholars (NB: Those not paid by the regime) was nearly out of control. In March, the respected scholar Shaykh Abdul Rahman bin Nasser al-Barrak issued a fatwa ruling that ‘gendered mixing is totally prohibited by the Quran and Sunnah’ and called for the death of those promoting mixing in workplaces and universities. Soon after, al-Barrack was publicly supported by 28 of his scholar colleagues.

King Abdullah reacted to this fatwa, which directly challenged his views, and other clerical radicalism with a royal decree saying only members of the Senior Scholars Authority can issue fatwas. Saudi officials said the decree was aimed at ‘dealing with pockets of radical clerics outside the official clergy’ that oppose what they see as ‘rampant Westernization in a country that is Islam’s birthplace.’

But the king’s decree signals the regime’s desperation. Trained Islamic scholars are viewed and respected by Muslims as the heirs of the Prophet Muhammad—their job is to make sure Muslim rulers implement only God’s law, and to defy them if they don’t. King Abdullah has upended this hallowed tradition by putting all religious authority in the hands of scholars he controls. He has, in essence, disenfranchised—theologically speaking—an enormous number of the Prophet’s heirs. By doing so, he has assured more, not less, scholarly opposition to al-Saud rule and has worsened the problem by driving the militant and now antagonized scholars underground.    

Meanwhile, the Saudi regime is also confronting its failure to eradicate al-Qaeda’s presence in the kingdom, notwithstanding success in pre-empting attacks and jailing ‘several thousand’ of the group’s fighters and other Saudis involved in culling money and Internet operations for al-Qaeda.

Saudi officials, journalists and professors admit al-Qaeda’s appeal in the kingdom is strong and may be growing, citing their special concern that al-Qaeda is succeeding with plans to recruit Saudi females. Saudi authorities believe that the arrest last spring of Haylah al-Qusayyir—dubbed ‘Lady al-Qaeda’ by the media for her recruiting of women and transferring funds to al-Qaeda—is just the tip of the iceberg. In Saudi society—and across the Muslim world—female dress affords the means to hide contraband, and social mores and religious rules severely limit the extent to which women can be searched. Saudi officials also say women are increasingly unwilling to report the militant intentions and actions of male relatives and are increasingly helping to hide them.

The threat to Riyadh, though, isn’t just from inside—al-Qaeda and its anti-Saudi allies have made substantial progress in ‘surrounding’ Saudi Arabia and its oil-producing neighbours. Before 9/11, al-Qaeda operatives had difficulty entering the kingdom from abroad, as well as in exiting after attacks. Indeed, much of Riyadh’s 2003-06 success in capturing large numbers of militants was due to its control of most entry and exit points.

But this is no longer the case. Al-Qaeda could still try to move fighters into the kingdom via official entry points, but there’s little reason to take the chance now. The post-9/11 growth of safe havens for al-Qaeda and other Sunni Islamists in Yemen, Somalia and Iraq ensures that entry to the kingdom can be made safely on the Saudi-Iraq border, the Yemen-Saudi border and across the Red Sea from Somalia. And the reverse is also true—if al-Qaeda is hard-pressed by Saudi security in the kingdom, it’s relatively quick and easy to retreat to secure safe havens in Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.       

Ultimately, this means that states that depend on secure Saudi oil production should take Riyadh’s well-publicized successes in stopping terror plots, jailing militants, ‘re-educating’ radicals and ‘controlling’ its community of militant scholars with a pinch of salt. In fact, the claims seem more the sign of a growing and intractable problem than a signal the security services have turned the tide in the regime’s favour.

Countries counting on secure, long-term access to Saudi oil would do well to mull the words of Abd-al-Rahman al-Rashid, editor of the London-based, Saudi-controlled newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat. In June, al-Rashid warned that:

'Despite that it is an organization representing the highest levels of religious and social extremism, al-Qaeda is fascinating not only in terms of its ability to recruit the young and the old, the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor and people from various social categories; it also is fascinating in terms of flexibility, the development of its thinking and the way this is implemented within the organization…This terrorist organization’s ability to infiltrate the closed society of Saudi women and its infiltration of the centre of Saudi provinces reveals that despite the arrests and hunts for hundreds of al-Qaeda elements, the organization is still active and is spreading like cancer.'

To put it more bluntly, the all-is-well tune Riyadh is now playing for its oil customers may well, in the not-too-distant future, sound a lot more like whistling past the graveyard.