Intelligence Political Analysis Report
Saudi Arabia has openly embraced Salafism to shield itself and its fellow conservative Gulf monarchies from the wave of anti-government revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. This counter-revolutionary strategy is a gamble with wider repercussions beyond the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has long been seen as the main backer of Salafis across the globe. It has always, however, shied away from officially endorsing the Muslim trend that until recently preached a politically quietist return to the way of life at the time of Islam’s first seventh century Caliphs. If Saudi support and funding of Salafi communities in the past constituted a key but discreet element of its soft power strategy aimed at countering Iran’s perceived revolutionary Islamic appeal, today it serves to counter Islamist forces who trace their roots to the Muslim Brotherhood. It also seeks to curtail the revolutionary zeal of protesters that are clamouring for true democracy rather than cosmetic change. At the same time, it counters idiosyncratic foreign and domestic policies of forward-looking and long-time Saudi rival Qatar – the only other Arab-Muslim nation whose theological origins trace back to the Wahhabi founders of Saudi Arabia. Qatar is home to Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian Muslim Brother, and one of the world’s most respected yet controversial Islamic thinkers critical of Saudi Arabia’s puritanical concepts. The Gulf state has further emerged as a champion of revolts in several Arab countries with Bahrain as the notable exception, a media powerhouse thanks to Al Jazeera, and a key US interlocutor in the region. The change in Saudi tactics highlights the rupture in relations between the kingdom and the Brotherhood more than a decade ago when Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz denounced his erstwhile allies in the wake of the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. Saudi Arabia welcomed the Muslim Brothers in the 1950s and 1960s as they fled a crackdown in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Many became teachers in their newly found refuge where their political interpretation of Islam cross-fertilised with the ideas of the 18th century cleric-warrior Mohammed Abdul Wahhab whose puritanical views shaped modern Saudi Arabia and inspired Salafism. It took Prince Nayef, widely viewed as a hard line conservative, months to acknowledge in 2001 that 15 of the 19 perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks had hailed from Saudi Arabia. But once he did, he turned his wrath on the Brotherhood, which decades ago had abandoned violence except in the case of the Palestinian struggle against Israel, but has been the starting point of numerous first generation jihadists. In an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, Prince Nayef charged at the time that the Brotherhood was responsible “for most of the problems in the Arab world” and had “done great damage to Saudi Arabia”. The prince acknowledged that whenever they got into difficulty or found their freedom restricted in their own countries, Brotherhood activists found refuge in Saudi Arabia, “which protected their lives” but said that they had “later turned against the kingdom”. Ten years later, Crown Prince Nayef is leading the kingdom’s embrace of Salafism when it has discarded its non-involvement in politics and has emerged in Egypt’s first post-revolt elections as the country’s second largest political force with a quarter of the votes. Egyptian state-controlled media, citing unnamed Justice Ministry sources, reported that Saudi Arabia had financed the Salafis to the tune of $63mn last year. In December, Prince Nayef and the kingdom’s mufti and advisor on religious affairs, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Shaikh, a descendant of Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, gave keynote speeches at a conference convened under the title, Salafism: Legal Path, National Demand. The conference constituted a rare occasion on which the kingdom acknowledged Salafism as a full-fledged school of thought within Sunni Islam, though Saudi political and religious discourse had often referred to al-salaf-al-saleh, Prophet Mohammed’s immediate successors who are revered for their piety.
“My brothers, you know that true Salafism is the path whose rules derive from the book of God and the path of the Prophet…This blessed state (Saudi Arabia) has been established along correct Salafi lines since its inception by Imam Mohammed bin Saud and his pact with Imam Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab. Saudi Arabia will continue on the upright Salafi path and not flinch from it or back down,” Prince Nayef told the conference participants. In an apparent response to criticism of Wahhabi and Salafi discrimination of Shiite Muslims, intolerance towards non-Muslims and harsh restrictions of women’s rights, the prince described Salafism as “authentic and contemporary” and an ideology that promotes progress and “peaceful coexistence with others and respect for their rights”.
In a similar vein, Sheikh Abdul Aziz said Salafism was “a comprehensive godly path based on moderation and the middle way; it is based on unitarianism and forsakes innovation, superstitions and erroneous things”. The kingdom’s embracing of Salafism follows the sentencing of Mokhtar al-Hashemi to 30 years in prison on charges of funding terrorism and plotting a coup in cooperation with Al Qaeda in seeking to create an Islamist political party in the kingdom based on Brotherhood thinking.
The question is not whether the Arab revolt will reach the kingdom but how it will progress in Saudi Arabia, which last year witnessed several protests in the predominantly Shiite, oil-rich Eastern Province. In fact in November 2010, a month before the eruption in Tunisia, it had been the scene of anti-corruption demonstrations. The vote for Salafists in Egypt was more a vote against established politics than opting for a Saudi-style system. Demonstrations in December by groups of activists not only in Shiite Qatif but also in the capital, Riyadh and the Wahhabi stronghold of Buraida, constitute a shot across the bow of the House of Saud. Saudi rulers, by embracing Salafism and adopting the ways and mores of the righteous Caliphs, hope to shield themselves from the regional and global uprising against repressive and failed regimes. It is a gamble whose outcome could have repercussions far beyond the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s Succession Labyrinth
Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-aziz arrived in Cleveland for medical tests March 10 amid rumors he had suffered a stroke. This development comes a week after the kingdom’s official news agency, SPA, said the crown prince, who has long been the country’s interior minister, was seen off at an airbase by a large royal entourage as he was leaving for a vacation to an undisclosed destination. The 80-year-old Prince Nayef became crown prince in October 2011 after the death of his elder brother, Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz. His health reportedly has deteriorated in recent years, along with that of his half-brother, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz. Since 2005, when Abdullah ascended to the throne after the death of his predecessor, King Fahd, the Saudi kingdom has been engaged in a slow transition of power. Besides King Abdullah, there are some 18 surviving sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, King Abdul-aziz bin Abdel-Rehman al-Saud, of whom only three can be considered likely successors to the throne given their current positions and influence. This means the grandsons of the founder, a much larger group, will very soon dominate the hierarchy of the Saudi state. So long as power was in the hands of the second generation, succession was not such a difficult issue and was dealt with informally. However, due to the massive changes occurring both within Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East, this transition will come at a particularly difficult time for the next-generation leadership that, despite the formal processes for succession instituted by Abdullah, will likely be far less unified than the current one. The Saudi royalty’s health problems come at a time of great uncertainty for Riyadh. On the home front, the Saudis are trying to ensure that the regional Arab unrest does not spill into its borders. At the same time, they are trying to counter an increasingly aggressive Iran. That said, the al-Saud regime has proved to be remarkably resilient over the course of its history, remaining in power despite the forced abdication of the founder’s successor, King Saud, in 1964; the assassination of King Faisal in 1975; and the stroke-induced incapacitation of King Fahd for nearly a decade until his death in 2005, when King Abdullah took the throne.
The stability of the second generation’s leadership can be attributed, at least in part, to three key clans of the royal family acting as checks on one another. These include the Faisal clan, named for the successor to King Saud, who succeeded the founder, King Abdul-Aziz; the Abdullah faction, named for the current king; and the Sudairi clan, named for the founder’s eighth wife, Princess Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi. While Byzantine in its complexity, this balance has prevented incessant power grabs by King Abdul-Aziz’s hundreds of descendants. The clan of former King Faisal includes Prince Saud, the current foreign minister, and Faisal’s other two sons, Prince Khalid, governor of Mecca, and Prince Turki, who served as the kingdom’s intelligence chief from 1977 to 2001. The Faisal clan has somewhat weakened in recent years. Prince Turki, after briefly serving as ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom from 2003 to 2006, currently holds no official position, though he remains influential. His older full brother, Prince Saud, who has been foreign minister since 1975, is 70 years old and ailing, and could step down soon. Despite his influence over the years as head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) from 1962 to 2010, crown prince from 1982 to 2005, and de factor ruler since 1995, King Abdullah’s faction is numerically small; he has no full brothers who hold key posts, and thus his clan is made up of his sons. King Abdullah’s most prominent son, Mitab bin Abdullah, recently took over the SANG, and the king’s oldest son, Khalid bin Abdullah, is a member of the newly formed Allegiance Council, set up to govern the succession process. Mishal bin Abdullah assumed the post of governor of the southern province of Najran, while another son, Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah, has been an adviser in his father’s royal court since 1989. The Sudairis have held a disproportionate amount of power, due in part to the fact that their leader, the late King Fahd, was the longest-reigning monarch of the kingdom, ruling from 1982 to 2005. The Sudairi faction includes many powerful princes, such as the clan’s one-time patriarch, former Crown Prince Sultan, who served as minister of defense and aviation and as inspector general; Interior Minister and Crown Prince Naif; Defense Minister Prince Salman; Deputy Minister of Interior Prince Ahmed, and the former vice minister of defense and aviation, Prince Abdul Rahman. Even though the crown prince’s clan is bigger and more prominent than the king’s, the two clans remain the principal stakeholders in the Saudi ruling family because they control the two parallel military forces of the kingdom. This has been the case since the early 1960s when then-Crown Prince Faisal — as part of his efforts to take power from his half brother, King Saud — appointed Crown Prince Sultan as minister of defense and aviation and King Abdullah as head of the SANG. The two men controlled the two separate forces for many decades. King Abdullah’s move to appoint his son, Mitab, to head the SANG shows that control over the force will remain with his clan. The situation with the defense ministry is somewhat different. Sultan’s son Khalid, the assistant defense minister, did not take over the regular armed forces after his father’s death despite his background as an army general. The king, opposed to the move, instead appointed Sultan’s full brother Salman, who had been governor of Riyadh until then. In a sense, the position remains within the clan. (Further complicating the situation is that, thus far, clans have been composed of the various sons of the founder from different mothers. Now, many of these second-generation princes have multiple wives, who have produced many sons all seeking their share of power, adding to the factionalism).
Setting Up a Succession Plan
Sensing that the power-sharing method within the family had become untenable due to the sheer number of descendants seeking power and influence within the regime, King Abdullah in 2007 moved to enact the Allegiance Institution Law, which created a leadership council and a formal mechanism to guide future transitions of power. When King Abdullah dies, the council will pledge allegiance to the crown prince, currently Prince Nayef, though given his declining health it is questionable whether he will outlive the king. But the issue of the next crown prince is mired in a potential contradiction. According to the new law, after consultation with the Allegiance Council, the king can submit up to three candidates to the council for approval. The council can reject all of them and name a fourth candidate. But if the king rejects the council’s nominee then the council will vote between its own candidate and the one preferred by the king, and the candidate who gets the most votes becomes the crown prince. There is also the option that the king may ask the council to nominate a candidate. In any case, a new crown prince must be appointed within a month of the new king’s accession.
This new procedure, however, conflicts with the established practice in which the second deputy prime minister takes over as crown prince, a policy that has been followed since King Faisal appointed Fahd to the post. In fact, the current king, after not naming a second deputy prime minister (essentially a crown prince-in-waiting) for four years, appointed Interior Minister Prince Naif to the post in March 2009. But since Naif became crown prince (and thus deputy prime minister), the post of second deputy prime minister remains vacant. Salman, next in the line of succession, should have been given this post, but this has not yet happened. Regardless, however, the post of second deputy prime minister after the establishment of the Allegiance Council raises the question of whether established tradition will be replaced by the new formal procedure. The law also addresses the potential scenario in which both the king and crown prince fall ill such that they cannot fulfill their duties, which could transpire in the current situation given the health issues of both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Naif. In such a situation, the Allegiance Council would set up a five-member Transitory Ruling Council that would take over the affairs of the state until at least one of the leaders regained his health. If, however, it is determined by a special medical board that both leaders are permanently incapacitated, the Allegiance Council must appoint a new king within seven days. In the event that both the king and crown prince die simultaneously, the Allegiance Council would appoint a new king. The Transitory Ruling Council would govern until the new king was appointed. While it has been made clear that the Transitory Ruling Council will not be allowed to amend a number of state laws, its precise powers and composition have not been defined.
What Lies Ahead
The kingdom has little precedent in terms of constitutionalism. It was only in 1992 that the first constitution was developed, and even then the country has been largely governed via consensus obtained through informal means involving tribal and familial ties. Therefore, when this new formal mechanism for succession is put into practice, the House of Saud is bound to run into problems not only in implementation, but also competing interpretations. To make matters worse, the Saudis are in the midst of this succession dilemma — and will be for many years to come given the advanced ages of many senior princes — at a time of massive change within the kingdom and a shifting regional landscape. Saudi Arabia is perhaps at the most important historical impasse since the founding of its first incarnation in 1744. A number of internal and external events are occurring simultaneously and subjecting the Saudi state to extreme strain. On the external front there are a number of challenges, the most significant of which is the regional rise of Iran, catalyzed by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. The Saudis also do not wish to see a U.S.-Iranian conflict in the Persian Gulf, which would have destabilizing effects on the kingdom. While Riyadh was struggling with the challenge from Iran, the Arab unrest erupted in early 2011, which has created two major hot spots on the eastern and southern borders of the kingdom. On the southern flank, Yemen was grappling with three different insurrections challenging the regime of aging Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh even before the Arab unrest. A year later, Yemen is now in a post-Saleh period with a new president and various others jockeying for power. The Saudis are concerned about the Yemeni state and whether it will be able to hold together given that various forces are pulling Sanaa in different directions and jihadists are taking over significant swaths of territory. On Saudi Arabia’s east coast, Bahrain’s Shia majority rose up against the minority Sunni monarchy. Bahrain is a bridge away from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which houses the largest concentration of Shia and represents a huge potential for Iran to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. This is why we Riyadh teams up with its Gulf Cooperation Council allies to engage in its first-ever foreign military deployment to assist Manama’s security forces. Through this action, Saudi Arabia was able to contain the agitation, at least for the time being. The empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — and like-minded Islamist forces elsewhere in North Africa poses another major challenge for the Saudis. The meltdown of decades-old autocratic regimes together with the electoral successes of Islamists has implications for the stability of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic monarchical model of governance. Concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood being a beneficiary of the uprising in Syria has the Saudi kingdom proceeding cautiously in supporting the rebels there, even though the ouster of the Syrian regime represents the single best option to weaken the threat from Iran.
Furthermore, the Syrian unrest has implications for Lebanon, Jordan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — all key areas of interest for the Saudis on their northern flank. Turkey’s bid for leadership in the Middle East is a new variable the kingdom has not had to deal with since the close of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire. In the near term, the Saudis take comfort in the idea that Turkey can serve as a counter to Iran, but the long-term challenge posed by Turkey’s rise is a worrying development, especially since the Saudi leaders’ predecessors lost control of the Arabian Peninsula twice to the Ottomans — once in 1818 and then again in 1891. Even in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Saudis are caught between two unappealing options: side with the Taliban, as they did during the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, and risk empowering al Qaeda-led jihadists, or oppose the Taliban and thus help Iran expand its influence in the area. While the Saudis have time to deal with a number of these external challenges, they do not enjoy that same luxury in their domestic affairs. The Saudis have been largely successful in containing the threat from al Qaeda, but they have had to engage in radical reforms, spearheaded by King Abdullah, in order to do so. These include scaling back the powers of the religious establishment, expanding the public space for women, changing the educational sector and undertaking other social reforms. These moves have led to a growing moderate-conservative divide at both the level of state and society and have galvanized those calling for further socio-political reforms as well as the significant Shia minority that seeks to exploit the opening provided by the reform process. These domestic issues have been magnified exponentially given the Arab unrest. In addition to the growing Shia protests in parts of the Eastern Province, there are reports of student unrest in the southwestern province of Asir.
There are also early signs of mainstream Saudis trying to mobilize in other parts of the kingdom — at least over the Internet. It is difficult for the Saudi authorities to prevent a large university-educated youth population — a large segment of which is unemployed — from being affected by the new protest norm in the region. Complicating this situation are fears of the religious establishment that the new regional climate is weakening its influence, especially if the government moves to engage in additional reforms. While thus far the Saudis have been able to control prominent Muslim scholars, known as the ulema class, especially with the limits on who can issue fatwas, the potential for backlash from the ulema remains. At the very least, the ulema will support more conservative factions in any power struggle. All of these issues further complicate the Saudis’ venture into uncharted territory insofar as leadership changes are concerned. There are several princes who have already distinguished themselves as likely key players in a future Saudi regime. These include intelligence chief Prince Muqrin, the youngest living son of the founder and a member of the Allegiance Council; Prince Khalid bin Faisal, the governor of Mecca province; Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, the new commander of SANG; and Assistant Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif, the kingdom’s counterterrorism chief and head of the de-radicalization program designed to reintegrate repentant jihadists. Intelligence sources, thus watching this issue very closely for any movement on the part of the untested Allegiance Council, which is expected to choose a crown prince and king as per the new succession law in the event of the death of the incumbents. Salman could take over as Crown Prince, but he is seen as the last of the major princes, which means it will be important to see who among the grandsons of the founder of the modern kingdom will emerge as key stakeholders in the Saudi system. But in the end, the real issue is whether the historically resilient Saudi monarchy will be able to continue to demonstrate resilience moving forward.
Saudi Arabia: Time for Reform?
American Point of View
Opinion remains divided over the significance of the recent announcement by King Abdullah that women will be allowed to stand and vote in the 2015 Municipal Elections as well as becoming members of the currently all male majlis al-shura (Consultative Council). The 150 member appointed majlis al-shura will welcome female delegates from the next session due to commence in 2012. Many were surprised by the King’s inaugural address at the opening of the latest session of the majlis al-shura. It was described as ‘unexpected’ and framed within the usual backdrop of supposition and rumour so beloved by many observers of the Kingdom. However, in early September Asharq Alawsat reported that the majlis al-shura had passed a resolution calling for ‘all necessary measures’ to be taken to allow Saudi women to participate in this year’s and future municipal elections. The draft resolution was put forward by Dr. Zuhair Al Harthy, a progressive council member with a PhD from the University of Kent and former member of the Saudi Commission for Human Rights. The issue was debated in the council and the motion passed with a majority vote. This vote took place more than four weeks ago and subsequently, the recommendation was forwarded to the king for approval. We shouldn’t have been surprised by the king’s announcement. However announcements do not always relate to action.
Saudi women were not allowed to vote in the first municipal elections in 2005 and were barred from the recent round of municipal elections held on 29th September although it is hoped that they will be able to participate in 2015. That said, the planned 2009 elections were repeatedly postponed and many believe that it was the upheaval of the Arab spring that prompted the government to finally hold the delayed vote. Undoubtedly the turmoil in neighbouring states — in particular the demands of youth and women — has coloured the government’s approach to crucial issues such as women’s rights, unemployment and Saudization. However, there is no guarantee that the 2015 municipal elections will take place or that women will have the vote. Therefore, the appointment of female members to the Consultative Council may prove to be more significant in both the short and long-term. Indeed, there is a pool of highly-qualified, dynamic Saudi women who are more than ready to become active council participants. Indeed, debating issues such as the right to drive from within the council, as opposed to in the media, could prove to be a major factor in alleviating the marginalisation of Saudi women. The council already has approximately a dozen female advisors at committee level and the Chairman of the majlis al-shura has confirmed that initial procedures paving the way for female delegates are nearing completion. The move also appears to indicate recognition by some council members that the body needs to acquire greater societal legitimacy. In order to achieve this, the council must be seen to be listening to the aspirations of Saudi society — both men and women — and be willing to discuss contentious and previously ‘taboo’ issues such as the recent session on sexual harassment in the workplace.
Norah Alfaiz, Deputy Minister for Girl’s Education – the first Saudi female minister – has laid the groundwork for other Saudi women to assume future governmental roles. In addition, women are highly active and effective participants in the Saudi Chambers of Commerce and in other institutions such as King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue. There are also renowned journalists such as Samar Fatany, Amira Kashgari and Dalal Dia who have championed the cause of greater female socio-political participation in the kingdom’s affairs for many years. Some royal ladies have also assumed a higher profile, most notably King Abdullah’s influential daughter Princess Adila. The princess is married to the Minister of Education Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Saud and is said to have been instrumental in the appointment of Norah Alfaiz. Princess Loulwa Al Faisal – sister of foreign minister Saud Al Faisal – supports women being allowed to drive and has attended the World Economic Forum in Davos. During a recent keynote speech at a Clinton Global Initiative Event (CGI) in New York, Princess Amira, wife of Kingdom Holding Company Chairman Prince Waleed bin Talal stated that it was impossible for society to ‘go back’ to a situation where there is no freedom of speech and no socio-political participation as nowadays the ‘channels of communication are wide open’.
King Abdullah’s support for greater female participation in the country’s development is recognised by many prominent Saudi women, but they understand that it is up to them to seize the opportunity. Nevertheless, many also acknowledge that Saudi social norms and the ‘Saudi way’ of doing things both need to be respected. Indeed, whilst Saudis of all ages and from all constituencies desire increased socio-political reform, more government accountability, improved human rights and opportunities for all, they also recognise that viable long-lasting reform needs to be acceptable to society and compatible with the Saudi way of life.
- Plot foiled in Saudi Arabia (radionz.co.nz)
- Courting the House of Saud (dissidentvoice.org)
- Saudi Arabia: Shoura Council To Have 30 Women (eurasiareview.com)