In late 2019 a student pilot from Saudi Arabia committed a terrorist attack for Allah on the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, while a couple of his Saudi colleagues filmed it. This has caused a recycling of all the accusations against Saudi Arabia over the last couple of decades:
–Saudi Arabia has been accused of spreading extremism and jihad ideology across the globe.
–Saudi Arabia is responsible for the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS.
–Saudi Arabia has been accused of being responsible for 9/11.
–Saudi Arabia is equally responsible for the Pensacola Naval Air Station attack.
I will respond to these accusations at the end of this essay, but first we must point out some of the internal contradictions within Saudi Arabia:
–Saudi Arabia’s current leader has endorsed modernism, and moderation in religion.
–Saudi Arabia’s current leader has pushed for an end to mandatory prayer calls which close businesses.
–Saudi Arabia has been hosting a months-long music and performing arts festival bringing in performers from all over the world, of all denominations, and visitors from all over the world in violation of long-standing traditions and the prophet Muhammad’s edicts.
–Yet Saudi Arabia’s current leader, billing himself as a reformer and modernizer, attends international conferences overseas dressed in traditional Saudi garb in contrast to the more “modern” customs of his predecessors.
So, what gives with Saudi Arabia? Are Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms for real? Or is this just an artificial veneer hiding increasing extremism underneath. And, is Saudi Arabia really responsible for the accusations leveled against it at the top of this essay?
SAUDI ARABIA: THE ORIGINS
To understand the constant contradictions in Saudi Arabia, we have to have a brief grasp of its history. The Aal Sa’ud clan originated in the rich Qatif oases in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. In the 15th century, the Shaykh of Qatif arranged to have his son married to the daughter of the Prince of Riyadh, a small town in central Arabia. The Prince of Riyadh then gave his daughter the tiny town of ad-Dar’iyyah as her dowry. Ad-Dariyyah is located in the fertile wadi Haneefa area about five miles north of modern Riyadh’s ring road.
Ad-Dar’iyyah, the first Saudi capital (restored). Photo by the Author
So, the young Mr. Sa’ud and his new bride settled in there for their married life. Their offspring inherited the place and continued to rule it generation after generation. For the next several centuries the place remained nondescript except for the fair amount of wealth it produced from the dates and other agricultural products it grew, and sold to passing caravans and customers outside of the region.
In the middle of the 18th century, the then ruler of ad-Dar’iyyah and scion of the Aal Sa’ud, Muhammad bin Sa’ud, befriended a religious scholar by the name of Muhammad bin ‘abd al-Wahhab. ‘Abd al-Wahhab had originally come from another tiny Wadi Haneefa town a little further to the north called called al-‘Uyaynah. Before hooking up with the Aal Sa’uds, ‘Abd al-Wahhab, himself the son of an Islamic Qadhi, or jurisprudent, studied Islamic theology in Mecca, went to Iraq to study from Islamic scholars there, and dabbled in some Sufism.
After all of this, and much study of the Qur’an himself, he returned to the Wadi Haneefa convinced that they all had it wrong. Muslims were in bad need of a reformation, and none more so than those in his home town, and neighboring towns whom he believed had fallen into paganism by venerating the tombs and graves of their ancestors, and other sins. However, his attempts at returning the people to what he considered was the original Islam of Muhammad and the Qur’an, was rejected by the people of each town he preached in, including his home town–even by his own family.
He was rejected each time he tried preaching in a new town, until he ended up in
ad-Dar’iyyah. Homeless, rial-less, and friendless, he found refuge in the home of Muhammad bin Sa’ud. The two hit it off right away, and talked religion and politics for hours on end, and days on end. They became so enamored of each other, and Muhammad bin Sa’ud so convinced that al-Wahhab’s interpretation of Islam was the absolute correct one, that they formed a pact that was to change the world forever.
THE FAUSTIAN PACT
According to their pact, the male descendants of Muhammad bin Sa’ud would forever be the head of the political entity. They would be the temporal rulers. And, the male descendants of Muhammad bin ‘abd al-Wahhab would for ever be the religious leaders of that polity. They would be the spiritual rulers.
With that pact in place, they gradually began to gain some followers and eventually formed an army led by Muhammad bin Sa’ud with which they extended their rule over all of the Wadi Haneefa towns, including even Riyadh. And their movement grew. More and more people bought into the religious views of Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and as Muhammad bin Sa’ud increased the size of his realm, he obtained his religious legitimacy from Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab.
By the end of the 18th century they had conquered and converted most of the Arabian peninsula, including the Hijaz region in the west where the holy sites of Mecca and Medina are located. To this day, the descendents of ‘abd al-Wahhad comprise the ‘ulema’ (religious leaders) of Saudi Arabia, and the monarchy is headed by descendents of Muhammad bin Sa’ud.
The mid 20th century oil boom and Saudi Arabia’s sudden thrust into the modern world had put strains on this Faustian relationship between the Aal Saudi rulers, most of whom have become corrupt and worldly, and the Wahhabi clergy, yet the relationship endures. The Saudi rulers, at least up until the coming of the current Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin Aal Sa’ud, have always felt that they derived their legitimacy from their relationship with the Wahhabi clergy.
WAHHABI INFLUENE GROWS
Throughout the 20th century the Saudi rules, no matter how worldly, and how corrupt, were able to maintain this stamp of religious legitimacy from the Wahhabi clergy by using their oil wealth to serve Islam. They served Islam by building mosques–not only throughout the Arabian peninsula, and not only throughout the entrir Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia, but also throughout Europe and American as well. They then staffed these mosques with radical Wahhabi Imams and preacher and/or with Imams and preachers from the international Muslim Brotherhood whose ideology is nearly identical to that of the Wahhabis.
Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), is considered to be the intellectual godfather of all Sunni terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. And, Qutb’s views on jihad were identical to those of the 18th century Muhammad bin ‘Abd
al-Wahhab. This was only natural since both men based their views of jihad entirely on the Qur’an and the actions and statements of their 7th century prophet Muhammad.
Thus, it was also only natural for the newly wealthy Saudis to pick up the funding of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from the NAZIs after WWII up until 9/11, when the Saudis found it necessary to wash their hands of the MB.
The Taliban of Afghanistan fame are alums of religious schools called “madrassas” built and staffed by the Saudis. Up until recently as many as 80% of all mosques in the U.S. were built and staffed by the Saudis. So, looking back in history we can see how that mid-18th century pact between Muhammad bin Sa’ud and Muhammad bin ‘Abd
al-Wahhab, starting from very humble beginnings in a tiny mud-hut village in central Arabia, grew to become an influence that spans the globe.
That 18th century pact has been responsible, either directly, or indirectly, either partially or in whole, for nearly every single act of terrorism in the world conducted by Sunni Muslims over the last half century. Therefore, many people assume, and proclaim, in the West’s “War on Terrror” that Saudi Arabia should be target number one.
Not so fast I say.
THE WILLFUL BLINDNESS BEGINS
Many, if not most of the upper echelons of the Saudi royal family have used their wealth to insulate themselves from Wahhabi teachings for the most part. They live in elaborate palaces walled off from the outside world, and what ever mosque attendance they indulge in would be in a mosque within the palace grounds staffed by an Imam of their choosing who would preach an Islam compatible with the sensibilities of the palace’s patriarch.
Now, as many of these wealthy Saudis began sending their sons off to college in western countries, and then they too, built their own self-contained palaces to raise their off spring in, the dichotomy between the “Islam” of many of these upper-level royal family members and the real Islam taught by the Wahhabi preachers out in the regular society has increased significantly.
THE RUPTURES BEGIN
The first major schism between the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi clergy came in the 1920s when the founder and patriarch of the current edition of the Saudi dynasty was reconquering most of Arabia in the aftermath of WWI. King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Aal Sa’ud began to use motorized vehicles to transport troops, supplies, and himself to the various scenes of battle, and to use the new western-invented radio technology for military communications, the Wahhabi clergy protested vehemently believing that these modern inventions (since they came from outside of Islam) were instruments of the devil and should be banned from the kingdom.
The more radical of the clergy formed a group called the ikhwan (which in Arabic means “brothers” but should not be confused with the later group formed in Egypt called
al-ikhwan al-muslimeen, or “Muslim Brothers”). King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz had to fight a brutal civil war, exterminating most of the ikhwan before peace and unification could return to the kingdom.
While the clergy refrained from ever trying again to oppose the Sau’di rulers militarily, they retained their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Thus, the dichotomy between the palace and the clergy became entrenched, with few exceptions. Even the royal “family” itself is divided on the issue of “Wahhabism” (or fundamentalism), and modernization.
When I was in Saudi Arabia in the late 90s there were 2,000 princes, all receiving stipends from the country’s oil profits. Now, there are probably double or triple that number. Only a tiny fraction of these numbers serve in the government. Most are content to live out their lives as party animals off of the largess, drinking, fornicating, and breaking every rule in Islam. However, there are always some who take their religion seriously. And, therein lies the rub . . . or I should say, the terrorism.
A prime example was the takeover of the “holy” mosque housing the Ka’aba in Mecca by a “disgruntled” prince, back in 1979. This was an individual who had come to believe that the ruling members of the royal family, as well as all of the other rulers of Islamic nations, had become corrupt and were no longer following the precepts of the religion. So, he, and his followers, thought that by their taking over the Ka’aba in Mecca during the Hajj it would lead to massive uprisings across the Islamic world and a restoration of true Islam.
9/11 DID THE SA’UDIS DO IT?
One can hardly blame the government of Saudi Arabia for that act of terrorism (storming the “holy” mosque in Mecca) by a member of the royal “family.” The same has to be said for the alleged Saudi involvement in 9/11. I spent from the summer of 1997 to the summer of 2000 in Saudi Arabia and can personally vouch for the king of Saudi Arabia at that time, King Fahd, his Crown Prince ‘Abdallah, and the next guy in line, Minister of Defence Prince Sultan.
King Fahd spent his early years as a party animal, and in his later years was suffering the medical complications of that. He was also strongly pro-western, and anti-jihadi. In fact, during the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, he had the government of Saudi Arabia purchase tickets for any of their young men who wanted to jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. These were one-way plane tickets. The ruling click figured that sending jihadi wannabes off to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets was a good way to get rid of potential trouble causers at home. And, of course, they didn’t want them to come back should they survive the war–hence the one-way airline tickets.
Minister of Defense Prince Sultan was firmly in America’s back pocket, and even the Crown Prince ‘Abdallah, was a reformer, and best anti-terror friend America could hope for–though all of our “experts” in Washington were oblivious to ‘Abdullah’s real views.
That being said, there have always been, and still are, wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, both within and without the royal family and within and without certain levels of the government who have sympathized with al-Qaeda and donated to it. So, for an official sitting in a Saudi consulate out in California to have provided aide to individuals who later turned out to be 9/11 conspirators does not mean that King Fahd and his heir apparents plotted 9/11, or even knew anything about it until it happened.
TO SUM UP
So, have the Saudis spread extremism and jihad ideology across the globe? Yes.
Are the Saudis responsible for the emergence of the Taliban? Yes.
Are the Saudis responsible for the emergence of al-Qaeda? Partially.
(I say partially, because as most of the world, including the Islamic world, was pointing fingers at the Saudis for 9/11, the Saudis were pointing their fingers at the Muslim Brotherhood. And, there is a great deal of truth to the Saudi’s claim, as explained in the book listed below.)
Are the Saudis responsible for the emergence of ISIS? Partially.
(Certainly, the Wahhabi ideology and history played a huge role in ISIS ideology and practices, but ISIS was founded under Turkish auspices and was a tool of Turkey’s foreign policy, and its founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a Muslim Brotherhood alum.)
Are the Saudis responsible for 9/11? Yes and no.
(Here is where the answer has to get more nuanced. As explained above, there is no way that the Saudi government itself was responsible. However, there is also no doubt that the Wahhabi ideology that the Saudi royal family had coddled for hundreds of years played a huge role in 9/11. It is also quite possible that individuals within certain levels of the Saudi government, and even in the royal family itself (though not those of high position) may have played a role in facilitating the 9/11 perpetrators.)
Are the Saudis responsible for the Pensacola Naval Air Station incident? Yes and no.
(As in above, the belief system that caused the Saudi student pilot and his friends to conduct this terrorist action on U.S. soil, was the belief system that they grew up in, and that was taught in the mosques and religious schools of their country. However, this act was done without the knowledge or approval of the Saudi government.)
SO WHAT IS THE PROBLEM HERE?
The problem stems from what I describe in the book listed below as “Disneyland Islam.” Many Muslims, after the European colonization of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the overwhelming “modernization” of the entire globe from the last half of the 20th century into the 21st, have adopted a westernized “Islam,” almost a pseudo “Christianity” which they mistake for the Islam of Muhammad and the early Caliphate (even though the Islam of today’s moderates has not even the remotest resemblance to the 7th century Muhammad’s Islam).
Many of these Muslims, and this would include state leaders such as the upper crust of the Saudi royal family, have convinced themselves that Islam is a religion of peace and toleration. Their state-controlled media outlets continually mouth those phrases. And, as mentioned above, most of the higher, wealthy Saudis of today have grown up in sumptuous palaces totally isolated from the real Islam preached in the mosques outside their palatial compounds. Thus, it is quite possible that the leading Saudi government officials are actually as ignorant of real Islam as are the vast majority of America’s academics.
This “Disneyland” mindset then causes them to ignore the real Islam of the mosques and the Qur’an, or to convince themselves (even against the evidence) that the real Islam of the mosques and the Qur’an doesn’t exist.
I have maintained over and over in my writings, and my speeches, that this “Disneyland Islam,” and the profound insistence of moderate Muslims across the globe (including the Saudi Royal family) to believe that this “Christianized” Islam is the real Islam not only prevents them from attacking the real problem (which is Islam itself), but also causes naïve westerners to believe that this “Christianized” Islam is the real Islam which then in turn creates an environment whereby the real Islam of prophet Muhammad, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and ISIS, can ride into western societies on the coattails of the “Christianized” Islam of the moderates.
A prime example of this mindset of a “Christianized” Islam parading as the “real” Islam is the current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). Early in his rise to power when he began to hint his intentions on social reforms such as allowing women to drive, a western reporter asked him: “What about the Wahhabis?” (The implication being that the clergy would strongly object to any sort of reform.)
MBS’s answer was: “What Wahhabis?”
This answer was an indication that MBS was fully imbued with the fantasy of “no real Islam here.” By pretending that the Wahhabis don’t exist, he had to be pretending that their ideology preached every single Friday for centuries in every single Saudi mosque doesn’t exist.
As further proof that MBS lives in this fantasy world divorced from the reality of real Islam is when he claimed that the original Saudis were “moderate” and “tolerant” and that it was the Iranian revolution of 1979 that led to the radicalization of the Saudi and other Sunni youth. While the Iranian revolution and the fundamentalist propaganda coming out of that regime did give encouragement to fundamentalists across the Arab Sunni nations that they could do the same thing in their own countries (i.e. foment a revolution and install a fundamentalist Islamist regime), that Sunni fundamentalism was already well embedded in the Sunni societies due to a host of reasons as explained in the book listed below.
Also, to set the record straight, the “original” Saudis, that is the Saudis of the 18th and early 19th centuries who were operating as true believers under the pact made with the Wahhabis, behaved exactly as ISIS behaved in this 2nd decade of the 21st century.
At first I wondered whether MBS was playing the “moderate” card (by allowing women the right to drive, opening the country up to some forms of tourism, etc.), for the purpose of fooling westerners into thinking that reform was coming on one hand, while the other hand furthered the cause of the greater Islamic jihad.
If he was such a modernizer and reformer, then why does he continue to always wear the traditional Saudi garb when he travels overseas to meet with foreign dignitaries and/or attend international conferences? Previous Saudi crown princes, and even foreign ministers, always dressed up in western style suits for these sorts of functions in foreign countries, though they always wore traditional Saudi garb when in Saudi Arabia.
After having followed Saudi Arabian affairs for over two decades, and now observing MBS since his rise to power, I have come to the conclusion that his attempts to modernize Saudi Arabia and to de-fang the Islam its clergy preaches . . . is sincere.
The final piece of the puzzle that convinced me of MBS’s sincerity in reforming and modernizing his country was the several-months long mausom Riyadh (Riyadh season). Mausom Riyadh has been a never ending party of musical acts, dramas, and even such things as Hulk Hogan and the WWE, entertainers coming from all over the world, as well as Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, and it has even had unveiled female performers–even those from Saudi Arabia itself. These acts are performed at venues in a giant entertainment city that MBS had built on the outskirts of Riyadh for the purpose of opening up the Saudi citizenry to the outside modern world, and to introduce the outside world to the “new” Saudi Arabia.
Some of the critics of Saudi Arabia have called this a “bread and circuses” act to distract the kingdom’s younger generation from the regime’s totalitarianism. But, I say there’s no going back now. Once the citizens of Saudi Arabia have seen the sexy female version of WWE . . . that’s something that you just can’t “unsee.” Saudi Arabia will never be the same.
At the same time, MBS has been arresting and tossing in prison many of the more radical preachers in the country. There are rumors (based on news reports from al-Jazeera) that he has even executed some of these preachers.
As for MBS’s traditional garb at foreign gatherings, I think he’s doing that to deliver a message to the traditional Arab mentality in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and to the world outside, that traditionalism and modernism can go hand-in-hand. This, perhaps to diffuse potential traditionalists resistance to his modernization efforts on the one hand, while with the other hand he uses brute force to impose his version of a “Christianized,” “Disneyland” Islam on the populace.
So, the question now is, will it work? Without taking serious second looks at the Islamic “sacred” scriptures, including the Qur’an, and debunking and/or jettisoning great parts of these works out of the Middle Ages, no attempt at “Christianizing” Islam will work indefinitely. The Wahhabi clergy will continue to pump out fundamentalists and jihadi terrorists, even while the regime continues to pretend that it is a “tolerant” modernizing country and that its Islam is a “tolerant” religion of peace.
The American position should be one to continue good relations with the regime because they are an important ally vis-à-vis Iran, and their current jihad against the MB and terror-supporting states like Turkey and Qatar, as well as Iran, is an important contribution to the future of human society on this planet. At the same time efforts should be made to nudge them along the path re-evaluating the ideology of Islam and their relationship to it via the techniques discussed in the book listed below.
Barry Webb has logged a 25-year career as an Arabist for the NSA, has two MA degrees in related subject matter, and is currently a Senior Fellow with Americans for Intelligence Reform www.intelreform.org. He is the author of Confessions of an (ex) NSA spy: Why America and its Allies are Losing the War on Terror. His website is www.barrywebbauthor.com