As’ad AbuKhalil أسعد أبو خليل
Seven Stories Press (2004), 248 pages
My brother has lived in Dubai for the past eight years. As a result he has quite a large selection of excellent books on the region. Thankfully he’s moving back to Ireland soon. When I was over visiting him a couple of weeks ago I very kindly offered to bring some of his books back to Dublin! This is my first review from the haul of books on the Middle East I dragged back from Dubai. Although the term Middle East is obviously eurocentric there hasn’t been a better alternative coined to encompass the region. The Middle East definitely contains Arab nations but does it also include African countries west of Egypt such as Libya, Algeria, and Morocco? Do non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Iran form part of the Middle East? Israel and Palestine are the places most associated with the Middle East by westerners but it is perhaps Saudi Arabia which is the true heart of the so-called Middle East.
The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power is a brilliant book. AbuKhalil is neither in favour of the Saudi regime nor it’s Islamist opponents. He also shines a harsh light on the hypocrisy of Western powers backing a regime which regularly tortures opponents, denies women basic freedoms, and is completely undemocratic. Saudi Arabia’s huge oil wealth and guardianship of the two holiest sites in Islam has given the country of 29 million people an influence far greater than it deserves. Saudi Arabia’s wealth has been used to control large parts of the Arab press (including in the West, such as The Arab News newspaper) and stifle dissent. This book explains the roots of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi form of Islam that was adopted by the Saudi rulers (even if these same rulers were often mired in corruption and immoral behaviour that were forbidden by Wahhabism). AbuKhalil shows how the obvious hypocrisy of the Saudi rulers could be exploited by Islamist opponents of the regime (such as al-Qaeda) and how the extremism of Wahhabism provided the perfect breeding ground for extremism in the first place. It was no coincidence that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9-11 Attacks were Saudi Arabians.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932. As AbuKhalil explains it was a marriage of convenience between two leading tribes, “The House of Shaykh represents the kingdom’s clerical establishment and takes care of the Wahhabiyyah indoctrination and propagation, while the House of Saud rules politically so long as it upholds Wahhabisim’s fundamentalist Islamic norms.” (p. 36) The founder of Wahhabism was Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdul-Wahab (1703-92). His version of Islam is a fundamentalist doctrine of you’re either with us or against us, “Muslims who did not accept his doctrine were no longer to be considered Muslims but rather mushrikun [polythesists]”, (p.59) and therefore could be murdered. Variations of this extremist doctrine have been used to justify attacks on Shi’ites in Iraq, Alawites in Syria, Ahmadis and Shi’ites in Pakistan, Sufi shrines in Mali, and anyone who the Wahhabis judged as being un-Islamic.
The Saudi rulers, knowing that they were disliked by much of the population (for their corruption if not also their religious extremism), used their guardianship of Mecca and Medina to bolster their legitimacy. The Saudis worked hard to combat the Arab nationalism spearheaded by Egypt’s President Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s. This Arab nationalism was largely secular (after all there are many Christian Arabs too) and it’s populism posed a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. Arab nationalism although populist (and, in theory, socialist) was not inclined towards democracy as can be seen by the Ba’athist regimes in Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) and Syria and the rejuvenated military regime in Egypt (although this carries some of the trappings of Islamism as General Sisi and his wife are devout Muslims). Saudi Arabia’s response to Arab nationalism was to use its wealth to fund preachers and media outlets that espoused its worldview. As The Battle for Saudi Arabia illustrates, Osama Bin Ladin practices the Wahhabi version of Islam. He opposed the Saudi regime’s laxness in their own practices but, more importantly, he broke from the Saudi government over their foreign policy of allowing U.S. troops to be based in the country and Saudi Arabia’s secret talks with Israel. Saudi Arabia’s failure to follow its own religious doctrines, combined with rising social tensions (especially increasing poverty in a wealthy nation), and the increasing freedoms of other Arabs, would result in Saudi Arabia becoming a hotbed for extremism.
The U.S.A.’s ability to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record has a number of causes (the U.S.A. is not the only culprit here but they are the biggest one and this book is primarily written for a U.S. audience). Saudi Arabia’s massive oil wealth and the desire to prevent a repeat of the 1973 Oil Crisis is the primary driver of U.S. support. Saudi Arabia were also seen as an important counterweight to Iranian aggression (even though democracy and women’s rights are much more developed in Iran). This same attitude resulted in the U.S. supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War which gave him the confidence to invade Kuwait and launch missiles at Israel. The Saudis also spend huge amounts on U.S. weapons, between 1987 and 1997 the Saudi’s spent up to $11 billion a year on U.S. arms. Despite all this weaponry the Saudi’s still needed U.S. soldiers to defend the country during the 1990 Gulf War. It was clear from the Battle of Khafji that the Saudi’s couldn’t defend their own borders on their own. I’m not being overly critical of the Saudis as they had a big border to defend but when they’d spent over $25 billion in the three years before the war (based on 1997 prices) the average Saudi could wonder why they government still needed 100,000 U.S. troops to help defend the country. To many Islamic extremists it was at this point that the Saudi regime lost their legitimacy to rule Saudi Arabia and control Mecca and Medina.
The Battle for Saudi Arabia is a great book for anybody wanting to understand Saudi Arabia’s history from its formative years in the present time.
The Angry Arab News Service – As’ad AbuKhalil’s personal blog
Challenging the Red Lines: Stories of Rights Activists in Saudi Arabia (2013) – Human Rights Watch Report
Muslim World League – Saudi sponsored group that aims to spread Wahhabism