In various entries in his unpublished diaries, British Mesopotamian officer Harry St. John Philby, on special mission to central Arabia during 1917-1918, recorded the minutes of his many private “interviews” with Ibn Saud. He concluded that the newly re-emerging Wahhabi movement under Ibn Saud would, with British political and military support, effectively serve British military and political objectives in the Arabian Peninsula and beyond during the ongoing war and in its aftermath. Three decades later, with British power receding and the United States ascendant in the Middle East, a new patron-client relationship was forged between the West and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “Our faith and your iron” was how Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, described in 1946 the new post-WWII American-Saudi client relationship in a conversation with Colonel William A. Eddy, the first US Minister to the Kingdom. This relationship remains intact — despite, or perhaps because of, the rise of Salafist militancy that US and Saudi policies purposefully and unwittingly nurtured.
Ibn Saud and Saudi Wahhabism
Contrary to much of the current literature on the Kingdom, which essentially regards the creation of modern Saudi Arabia as the result of an aggressive Wahhabi ideology espoused by a politically ambitious, if not religiously inspired, Ibn Saud, a close investigation of the available documentary evidence shows that the territorial expansion of the Saudi state between 1914 and 1927 was the outcome of the implementation of Britain’s imperial policy to achieve its military and political objectives in the Middle East. The personality of Ibn Saud and Wahhabism both served as the instruments to pursue these objectives. The expansion was initiated at the conclusion of the Anglo-Saudi protectorate treaty of 1915, and ceased formally and permanently with the signing of the 1927 Treaty of Jeddah, which granted Ibn Saud a quasi-independent state with borders not of his own choosing, and which, with subsequent minor amendments, constituted the permanent political boundaries of present-day Saudi Arabia.
Ibn Saud lacked either political ambition or religious zeal; his motivation was primarily defensive, preservationist, and in complete conformity with the acquiescent, essentially non-expansionist nature of Wahhabism. Due mainly to Wahhabism’s dogmatic and austere nature at the domestic social level, many scholars have failed to appreciate the fundamental characteristic that distinguishes Wahhabism from mainstream Sunni Islam with respect to the notion of jihad and relations with the outside world. While classical Sunni Islam defines jihad in terms of offensive warfare directed at the non-Muslim world, Wahhabism views it in defensive terms, directed principally against non-Wahhabi Muslims, and restricts its declaration and conduct to the ruler, to whom obedience is absolute. The strict and intolerant conditions imposed on its followers, combined with its hostile, often aggressive, attitude towards non-Wahhabi Muslims, contrast sharply with Wahhabism’s pragmatic, and even benevolent attitude towards non-Muslims. This attitude is illustrated by the staunch, consistent pro-Western foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the other Wahhabi state). It also is illustrated by the total absence of any public manifestation of popular anti-Western opposition, even with regard to the all-important issue of Palestine. The link between “Wahhabi Islam” and both the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1980s and September 11,, 2001 originated in the early 1950s. The onset of the Cold War led to the slow though steady transformation of traditional Wahhabism.
The Internationalization and Transformation of Saudi Wahhabism
Due to its anti-atheistic and pro-capitalist tenets, Islam in general and Saudi Islam (Wahhabism) in particular became an effective tool in US foreign policy in combating pro-Soviet and anti-Western secular and nationalistic ideologies in the Middle East and the Muslim world at large. In pursuing its Cold War agenda in the Middle East, the United States supported the creation of ideologically motivated regional groupings such as the Muslim World League in 1962 (to replace the ill-fated Baghdad Pact), the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in 1969, and the Islamic Development Bank in 1976 — all headquartered in the Saudi province of Hijaz, the home of Islam’s holiest sites. The United States also supported the importation en masse into Saudi Arabia of a large number of Islamist political activists, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot, hizb al-tahrir (the Party of Liberation), who had fled the secular, pro-Soviet regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Algeria. The late Saudi King Faysal, the main architect of the pro-Western Islam-inspired policy in the Middle East, put these Muslim émigrés, assisted by some influential scholars from Pakistan, in charge of all levels of the Saudi educational system. It is they who, while paying lip service to Wahhabi rituals, penned a manifesto declaring the ultimate target of Islamization to be all facets of knowledge and professional activity. Officially renamed the Educational Policy of Saudi Arabia, the manifesto was adopted by the Saudi government in 1971 and implemented immediately. This policy, which remains in force, has not just shaped the education of Saudi students, but also millions of non-Saudi children and youths who began to flock to the country beginning in the mid-1970s. As a result, Wahhabism itself has been gradually transformed — subject to the influence of aggressive and intensely political religious ideologies from Egypt and Pakistan that had their origins in Salafism.
The internationalization of Wahhabism obliterated the sacrosanct notion of absolute obedience to the ruler and, more importantly, expanded Wahhabism’s inherently hostile attitude towards non-Wahhabi Muslims, to include non-Muslims and non-Muslim powers (i.e., the Soviet Union and the West). By the late 1970s, the internationalization of Wahhabism had led to the emergence of a new generation of Muslims espousing a form of highly politicized Islamic fundamentalism that might be called “Wahhabi Salafi Islam” — Wahhabi in outward appearance (i.e., in manner of dress, long beard, anti-smoking and anti-music) but adherent to the militant strands of Salafi Islamic ideology as represented in the writings of the Pakistani Abu A‘ala Maududi and his Egyptian disciple of Indian descent, Sayyid Qutb. Until shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the writings of these two Muslim scholars in particular were required readings at all levels of Saudi education. These writings, along with highly sanitized edited versions of other Wahhabi and Sunni scholars, were published in many languages and distributed freely worldwide by the Saudi government.
For some years, Islam, and Wahhabi Salafi Islam, in particular, capably served Western strategic interests and, by default, the interests of their Saudi and other regional allies (e.g., Iran and Pakistan) in the struggles against revolutionary regimes in the Arab and Muslim world such as Nasserist Egypt, Ba‘thist Syria and Iraq, and socialist Algeria and South Yemen. The most striking example of this service occurred in the planning and execution of the policy response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution. While the US supplied the arms and training in camps inside Pakistan, Saudi Arabia provided the money and, more importantly, transported from all over the world, free of charge, thousands of mostly young, indoctrinated Saudi and non-Saudi volunteers seeking martyrdom. The base camp (al-qa‘ida) where they reported upon arrival and from which they departed for battle in Afghanistan was run by young Usama bin Ladin, who supervised the reception, housing, and training of these mujahidin fighters.
Those who fought Soviet forces and later conducted deadly attacks in the US, Europe, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere were young men of middle and upper class families, either Saudi citizens or non-Saudis who were born, raised, and educated in Saudi Arabia or otherwise indoctrinated in the tenets of Wahhabi Salafism in Saudi government-sponsored schools and institutions worldwide. Many of the fighters in present-day Iraq and Afghanistan are incredulous Saudis seeking martyrdom in order to meet the heavenly virgins promised to them. Other such indoctrinated young men are greatly coveted as would-be suicide bombers by various political factions and state security institutions across the region (including the Syrian and Iranian intelligence services) seeking to advance their own agendas.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989 (for which both the US and Wahhabi Salafis claimed credit), the United States was free to pursue its interests worldwide. However, Saddam Husayn’s vows to acquire nuclear weapons and wipe half of Israel off the map, followed by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and possible march on Saudi Arabia in 1990, posed a serious threat to US strategic interests in the Middle East. For their part, Wahhabi Salafis (by then well organized, well trained, and well financed) had become a worldwide movement, proclaiming aloud what they had been taught and believed in all along — that the crusading West was irreligious, materialistic, decadent, and bent upon destroying Islam; and that Western powers had succeeded in colonizing Muslim countries and planting the Jewish state of Israel as their agent in Muslim Palestine. Thus the two former allies found in each other, out of expediency if not ideology, the enemy for which each had been searching since the demise of the Soviet Union.
In the late 1990s, Bin Ladin, as the leader and main financier of the movement, moved his base (al-qa‘ida) to Afghanistan. With the traditional Wahhabi notion of absolute obedience to the ruler no longer sacrosanct, the overthrow of the pro-Western, traditional Wahhabi-based regime in Saudi Arabia became not only permissible, but, as Bin Ladin declared, obligatory. In 1998, he declared war on the US and regional allies. Soon afterwards, his organization carried out the September 11 attacks on US soil and, later, deadly, though less spectacular, attacks, in Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, and other countries. The September 11 attacks provided the US government with the moral and legal rationale needed, with the active assistance of both the Shi‘ite Islamic Republic of Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, to realize its long-cherished, if not planned, strategic and economic objective of removing Saddam from power by (falsely) linking the Iraqi regime to Bin Ladin. These momentous events, if anything, appeared to enhance the close and sometimes cozy relationship between the ruling House of Saud and the George W. Bush Administration.
Today, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is still Wahhabi and remains, as it has been since its formal establishment in 1932, the staunchest pro-Western and pro-American Arab-Muslim client state in the Middle East. Meanwhile, however, Wahhabi Salafism persists while its pool of expendable foot soldiers is replenished. This dichotomy’s effects continue to reverberate across the region and influence policymakers around the world.