Are we witnessing the last days of the House of Saud?

According to this review in the Financial Times, if they are, it’s “been a long time coming.”

Ever since 1974, when the late Fred Halliday published Arabia Without Sultans, scholars and journalists have been predicting the end of a regime that tries to modernise its society while riding two tigers: a fundamentalist belief-system rooted in the teachings of the Wahhabi sect, and the demands of a powerful family network that traces its origins to the central highlands of Najd. Two new books reveal the stresses — internal and external — to which these forces are now subjecting the kingdom. While neither follows Halliday’s hubris in predicting the regime’s imminent demise, both paint a picture that should be deeply worrying for the dynasty at a time when oil prices have fallen to close to $40 a barrel.

For all the attempts by Saudi apologists to distance the desert kingdom from the atrocities committed by jihadis in London, Madrid or Paris, there can be little doubt that the culture of terror and religious intolerance that brought the Al Saud to power between 1906 and 1926 shares distinctive family resemblances with the values of al-Qaeda, Isis and their acolytes. It is well established, for example, that after Isis took over Mosul, Iraq’s second city, in June 2014, the group adapted Saudi textbooks for use in secondary schools. According to Aarts and Roelants, before the storm of criticism that erupted when it emerged that most of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi nationals, the textbooks used in religious classes — the most important subject on the curriculum — “propagated hatred of infidels and dissidents, creating a fertile atmosphere for terrorist activities”. Though these have since been subjected to “drastic alteration”, the authors think there is still too much emphasis on religious studies. The curriculum, they write, “does not relate to the requirements of the business world”, which is “why companies prefer to employ foreigners, and why so many young Saudis cannot find work”.

Small wonder, then, that at least 2,500 of them are now ensconced with Isis in Iraq and Syria. The culture of intolerance previously fostered in Saudi schools was directed not just against Christians, Jews and Hindus, who are forbidden from worshipping publicly inside the kingdom, but against the indigenous Saudi Shia who make up between 10 and 15 per cent of the population, mainly in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Aarts and Roelants put it bluntly. Wahhabi Saudis, they say, “think that Shiites spit in their food . . . so that it is difficult for Sunnis and Shiites to eat together. Or that it is unclean to shake hands with a Shiite, making a ritual ablution necessary.” All too often, Shia are denounced as rawafid (“rejectors” of true Islam) whose loyalties must lie with Iran. Unfortunately, this notion is not just held by the Salafists or religious literalists but is widespread among Saudis in general, even among the best educated and most cosmopolitan.

While regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, exacerbated by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, appears to fuel the flames of prejudice, it may actually serve the regime by facilitating a policy of divide and rule. Al-Rasheed states, for example, that when someone is detained for alleged blasphemy or radicalism, the support they get largely depends on which camp they belong to. While Islamists protest at the incarceration of their supporters, liberals are liable to confine their protests to those they count as their own. “Entrenched polarisation”, she says, between Islamists and liberals, Sunni and Shia, as well as men and women in Saudi society has “increased divisions to the detriment of common platforms for achieving political reform or human rights for all”.

Read more at the Financial Times


About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
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