After the previous posts on the Afghan war, my intention was originally to examine the participation of foreign fighters in that war and their subsequent attempts to launch jihad in various other countries in the 1990s. I will defer this story for another post, however, as I wish first to backtrack somewhat to where we were after part two of this series, that is, back in the Arab world, and back in the 1960s, looking at the demise of the secularist Arab nationalist movement, personified by Egypt’s president Gamel Abdel Nasser. What left the story somewhat incomplete at that stage was the existence of an opposing movement in the Arab world at the same time that Nasser and his allies were espousing a modern, technologically-driven rebirth of society that would stand up against western imperialism. This was a conservative, theocratic vision centered around the traditional monarchies of the region, led by Saudi Arabia, which in the 1960s would become the standard-bearer and chief rival of Nasser’s Egypt in what scholar Malcolm Kerr termed the ‘Arab Cold War’.
I wouldn’t push this analogy between the US-Soviet Union Cold War and the Egypt-Saudi Arabia one too far. It certainly isn’t universally accepted and differs in profound ways. One similarity is that it did not develop into direct military confrontation, but involved proxy conflicts fought between the two regional powers in other countries, namely Yemen, which sadly is back in the news (although not enough in the news) on account of outside interference. In any case, this rivalry, and the wider battle for the soul of the Muslim world, between conservative Islam and secular nationalism, is crucial for understanding what lies ahead. The notion of an Arab Cold War is also a useful framework within which to prepare the ground for future posts I want to write on Iraq, Libya and Yemen, although a lot will be said about Yemen in this post as well. In part two, I took a fairly detailed look at what was happening in Egypt up to the assassination of Sadat. In part one, I also covered the beginnings of Saudi power in Arabia, and its emergence as a power after world war two, when it positioned itself as a firm partisan of (and oil supplier to) the United States in the Cold War.
To comprehend the weirdness of Saudi Arabia, it really has to be understood how rapid was the transformation from a feudal (probably a clumsy use of that word, sorry) society, tribal in structure and desperately poor, to a modern petro-state, one of the richest in the world with the military capacity of the world’s preeminent superpower at its disposal, and yet underpinned by a conservative religious ideology that sought to reinstate an imagined ‘purer’ Islam, using tremendously-enhanced resources, acquired by linking its economic fate inextricably with the modern world, while at the same time trying to keep that world at bay. Contradictions such as this about in Saudi Arabia. While a bastion of traditionalism, there is nothing traditional about the kingdom. It is a thoroughly modern creation, dating as we saw in part one, to the 1920s-30s. The name literally means the country conquered and ruled over by the Saud dynasty. I can’t think of any other country whose name reflects its rulers in this way; it’s as if ‘Putin’s Russia’ or ‘Elizabeth’s England’ were the actual official title of those respective countries.
We have already seen, in brief outline, how Ibn Saud came to power by warring on his rivals in the decades prior to ‘independence’ in 1932. What we haven’t really examined, however, is how the kingdom he established came to be a functioning coherent state, as opposed to a loosely-allied group of warlords under the umbrella of one uber-warlord. And this is where the American oil companies came in, for it was they who initially built the infrastructure which would tie together the new state and lay the foundations of its power. At the time of independence, little of this existed. Ibn Saud consolidated his power by personal alliances, marriages, suppressing possible rivals (especially within his own huge dynasty) and lavish hospitality. All this left him with huge debts, which the Standard Oil company of California, SOCAL (a predecessor of today’s Chevron Corporation) offered to help him with if he would let them prospect for oil in his territory.
It is interesting to note that Ibn Saud took the trouble to consult the religious authorities, the ulema, on the wisdom of consorting with infidels in this matter, not so much because they said it was acceptable, but because the were hardly likely to say otherwise. The fact is that the Saudi king had already co-opted them to a large extent, consulting them publicly on the compatibility with Islam of other innovations such as the car and telephone, to none of which they offered any serious challenge. It was a formality, but nonetheless it is notable that he felt the need to keep up the pretense. This was because, despite the acquiescence of the religious establishment in his project, Ibn Saud still faced opposition from Islamic traditionalists in other corners of Saudi society. At the time the first foreigners were arriving to look for oil, anecdotes tell of the imam of the mosque in Riyadh giving a sermon to a congregation of which Ibn Saud was a part about the sinfulness of co-operating with infidels. The king is said to have interrupted angrily and countered with another sura from the Qur’an, suggesting such co-operation was permitted. This tension, between the Saudi government-sanctioned form of the faith, and those who felt the integrity of Wahhabist doctrine had been compromised, will be a constant underlying theme throughout the whole of Saudi history, and once we’ve had a look at the kind of state Ibn Saud and his sons created, we will backtrack a bit and examine the various undercurrents of dissent that existed in the country and how they were dealt with (spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty).
Oil was of course found, in large quantities, in 1938 at Damman on the Persian Gulf in the east of the country and things moved quickly from there. Although the disruptions caused by Second World War in some ways slowed early development, the post-war reconstruction and alliance with the United States no doubt made up for this. A subsidiary of SOCAL, the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company, took care of business in Saudi Arabia, and in 1944 its name was changed to the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO). It might be argued that ARAMCO is as important a factor in the story of Saudi Arabia as the Saud family itself. In these first decades after the war, ARAMCO basically performed the functions of a state which the Saud family didn’t initially have the resources to: building infrastructure (much of it in the early years at least, primarily for the use of the royal family) such as roads, railroads, a communications network, schools, hospitals, you name it: ARAMCO took care of it, for a hefty fee of course.
Riyadh’s population exploded in these years, from around 50,000 at the end of the war to 150,000 in 1960 and over 500,000 in 1970. The capital was connected by railway (built of course by ARAMCO) to Damman in 1951. The country was basically a construction site, much of this work (not to mention the drilling) supervised by infidels the conservative elements in Saudi society had been so reluctant to allow in-mostly Americans but also some Dutch, British, Italians, etc. While the years after oil-extraction commenced saw an explosion in the numbers of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia (before this, they had probably numbered fewer than fifty), this does not mean that they wandered around the country at will, freely interacting with the locals. On the contrary, ARAMCO’s workers lived in a weird, cloistered world shut off from Saudi society in vast compounds in which they attempted to recreate as much as possible the conditions of suburban America which they had left behind. At the Dhahran compound near Damman, a regime of racial segregation was imposed in which the foreign workers lived in luxurious, air-conditioned quarters surrounded by barbed wire fences, while their Arab colleagues lived right next door in an unfenced compound that, in the early days, lacked basic services such as electricity, water and plumbing.
The Saudi workers in these oil-fields were people who, for the most part, had been almost entirely cut off from the outside world, living a sedentary or nomadic life within the desert that had changed little in centuries. This world was suddenly turned upside down, exposed to the influence, not only of the westerners which both ARAMCO and the Saudi government attempted (but never completely managed) to confine within the compounds, but also of Arabs who came from other parts of the middle east to work in the industry. Palestinians, for example, came and told their fellow Arabs of their travails and the Nakba; ideas of pan-Arab nationalism begin to foment within Saudi Arabia, even secularism; workers came under the influence of socialist ideas and attempted to organise. Another potentially destabilising factor was the fact that in the early years, most of the functioning oil wells were in the eastern province of the country where most of the country’s Shia live, a minority (about 10%) with which the Saudi rulers have not always enjoyed smooth relations, especially after the revolution of 1979 in nearby Iran. In the mid-1950s, about 60% of ARAMCO’s native workforce were Shia.
This propaganda video gives an idea of the kind of hybrid world being built in the desert in the 1950s:
These revolutionary social developments began to see political consequences in the 1950s, for all the government’s (and the Americans’) efforts to maintain the status quo. The deplorable conditions in workers’ camps led to strikes among the ARAMCO workforce in 1953 and 1956 that obtained some improvement of conditions. The authorities’ tactic seems to have been to take the edge off this dissent by making material concessions, but conceding nothing in the way of political rights, and certainly not allowing the labour movement any opportunity to organise itself into anything resembling an opposition. The most prominent of these opposition figures was Nasir al-Sa’id, a worker from Ha’il in the northern interior of the country. While offering improved wages and camp conditions, people like al-Sa’id were imprisoned. When released, he left the country and led a kind of opposition in exile from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. While not regarded as a huge threat by the Saudis for most of the 1960s-1970s, in the period following the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in late 1979, which he claimed was part of a people’s revolution, al-Sa’id was kidnapped from his home in Beirut and never seen again, the widespread suspicion (never confirmed) being that the Saudis got hold of him.
What happened to al-Sa’id—exile, possibly execution, attempts to excise him from public memory (he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page as far as I can tell, nor can I find a picture of him anywhere) is typical of those who have stood up to the Saudi regime, which has this strange double face: on the one hand presiding over dramatic changes in the social and material fabric of the country, while simultaneously trying (largely successfully) to maintain an unchanging political hegemony. Just as all these dramatic changes were taking off, the country’s founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud died in 1953, and power passed to the first in a series of sons which, to this day, have ruled the kingdom in succession. Saud (one of forty-five sons) came to the throne at the age of 51. He had been groomed to inherit his father’s kingdom from an early age, after the death of his older brother of flu in 1919. Here he is, posing with two of his favourite butlers in 1957:
Saud was a dud, which became clear over the following decade. He spent lavishly on palaces and stuff for himself and his dynasty while the country’s debt spiraled out of control. While the oil business was booming, but it wasn’t that booming, and huge debts (much of which he had inherited from his father) meant that cuts had to come somewhere, given the refusal of ARAMCO banks to extend. Under Saud, these cuts generally came from public works projects. Given that the ‘public sphere’ in Saudi Arabia was more or less limited to the royal family, opposition to Saud coalesced around two focal points: his brother Faysal, with whom he had been vying for power since before their father died, and a much younger brother, Talal. But Faysal first:
Both Saud and Faysal had received extensive training in expectation that they would succeed to positions of power in the kingdom. This training seems to have impressed itself upon the mind of Faysal more profoundly than Saud. He had been minister for foreign affairs since 1930 and prime minister since the time of Saud’s accession, when the post had been created, along with a Council of Ministers, as a gesture on Saud’s part towards sharing power with his relatives. This council would instead become a battleground, as Saud used it to promote his adherents and immediate family members. Government ministries became pawns controlled by the king as he sought to scheme against what he (rightly) suspected was his brother’s scheming against him and filled posts with allies, some from the royal family, others from less-prominent collateral branches or people he trusted. This alienated those in the family who felt shut out, who rallied around Faysal. One of the most important of these was the ‘Sudairi Seven’, so called because they were all sons of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud with Hussa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi, and two of whom have succeeded as king. Instead of getting bogged down with all their names for the moment, just to note that these were a powerful ally for Faysal as the Saud regime’s financial situation deteriorated and the king’s incompetence more and more apparent to those in the know.
Relations began to deteriorate between the two brothers in the early sixties and Saud was less successful than Faysal in maintaining a power-base. Saud’s assumed for himself the powers of prime minister in 1960 and at this point his rival was merely waiting for his opportunity to act. This came in 1962 when Saud went abroad for medical treatment. Forming a cabinet in his brother’s absence, Faysal, with the support of the ‘Sudairi Seven’ and other allies, announced a program of reforms that included the creation of a basic law, the abolition of slavery (yep, they still had that) and the establishment of a judicial council. Having secured the support of the ulema (Islamic religious scholars), it was a done deal by the time Saud came home. Although there was a short period in which he was allowed to remain as a figurehead, it wasn’t long before Faysal had him removed from this capacity as well, and Saud left the country, dying in Greece in 1969.
And yet in many ways, his predecessor was the least of Faysal’s worries. Saud was yesterday’s man. The threats facing the Saudi regime going forward came from other sources, some within, some without. As we have already seen, politics in Saudi Arabia was essentially something practices only by the extended family of the king. Everyone else was a bystander, if they were even observing public events. Among those in the inner circle were younger sons of Ibn Saud, especially Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (below) whose mother was Armenian, and who Ibn Saud had doted over in his old age. Talal and some other younger brothers formed a faction that oscillated in their loyalty between Saud and Faysal, and when Saud failed to listen to their proposals for some modest liberalisations of the autocratic regime, Talal and some of his allies moved abroad in 1961, forming an opposition in exile in Lebanon and Egypt and heavily influenced by the vibe behind Gamal Abdel Nasser, hence the moniker they gave themselves: the ‘Free princes’ (cf. the ‘Free Officers Movement’ in Egypt).
Although influenced by Nasser, the Free Princes did not go as far as proposing the deposition of the king, merely its transformation into a constitutional monarchy. Although their movement was clothed in the revolutionary-sounding language of nationalism and socialism, in reality it was liberal and rather modest in its vision for Saudi Arabia. It basically envisaged the Saudi kingdom making the leap that France had made in the 1790s. Notwithstanding these ideological differences (although Nasser’s ideology is somewhat opaque also), the Free Princes Movement became closely associated with the charismatic Egyptian leader, who enjoyed a god-like status in the Arab world in the early 1960s. Nasser had not always been at loggerheads with the Saudis. Initially, they had been allied in common enmity towards the Hashemite regimes (see part one) of Jordan and Iraq. Nasser visited Saudi Arabia in 1956 and was greeted with popular enthusiasm, something worrying to the Saudi authorities. Don’t forget this was an era when monarchies were being overthrown all over the place (Egypt: 1952, Iraq: 1958, Yemen: 1962 and Libya: 1969). The image of solidarity was shattered when it emerged in 1958 (following the short-lived union of Egypt and Syria) that Saud had hired a hitman to assassinate Nasser.
By the time the Free Princes Movement emerged, therefore, relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia had soured, and this rivalry for leadership in the Arab world is what is sometimes dubbed the ‘Arab Cold War’, a rivalry between two states that were merely emblematic of a deeper rivalry between two visions for the future of the Arab world: one secular, modernising, left-leaning and the other monarchical, conservative, informed by a three-centuries-old religious orthodoxy. When Faysal came to power in 1964, he defined more sharply Saudi Arabia’s role as a counterweight to secular nationalist regimes like Egypt and Syria. You would probably think, standing at the vantage-point of 1964, that a contest between these two visions would inevitably lead to the triumph of the modernising, forward-looking vision. You’d be wrong.
The ‘Free Princes’ were reconciled with the Saudi regime when Faysal came to power. It might be asked why. They achieved none of their aims really. Their return to the fold had less to do with improved relations with the dynasty back home than a worsening of relations with Nasser, and this had a lot to do with the ‘Cold War’ between Egypt and Saudi Arabia which had become distinctly hot. This actual war took place in one of those corners of the Earth where ‘great powers’ like to wage their proxy wars: Yemen.
Rather than treating Yemen as an aside in another story (which is the way it often gets treated) I want to go into it in a more detailed post of its own) so let’s not dwell here on the circumstances surrounding the civil war that started in 1962 when republicans took power from the king and imam, Muhammad al-Badr, who had only been in power a week. This transformed the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (what is today the western part of Yemen, often confusingly referred to as ‘North Yemen’) into the Yemen Arab Republic. The king fled north and got help from the Saudis, the republicans got help from Egypt. This set the scene for a proxy war between the two Arab heavyweights on Yemeni soil (sound familiar?), the Saudis being freaked out by the sudden presence of 20,000 Egyptian soldiers on their southern borders, not to mention the first republican government on the Arabian peninsula.
While Nasser’s commitment to the republicans in Yemen was wholehearted, Saudi support for the royalists was less spectacular, reflecting the fact that, while the country was an economic powerhouse, politically, militarily, Saudi Arabia remained a fairly minor player in the Middle East. To change this was one of Faysal’s main objectives. The Yemen war, however, was something of a shambles; some Saudi pilots even flew their planes off to Egypt to defect. Saudi Arabia got some half-hearted help from the Americans, but under Kennedy, they themselves were going through a period of attempting to win Nasser over from the Communist side, so they weren’t going to do too much to help; indeed, the United States recognised the Yemen republic in late 1962 to the dismay of the Saudis. Saudi and Egyptian involvement in the Yemen war would come to an end in 1967. They had already agreed behind the scenes that it was mutually destructive and in any case they had bigger fish to fry in dealing with Israel in the Six Day War. Incidentally, the Yemenis themselves worked out a compromise that ended the civil war in 1970, but more of that in a separate Yemen post.
While the Saudis did not achieve their objective of restoring the king in Yemen, it could not be said that Egypt emerged from the war with the spoils of victory. Yemen is sometimes referred to as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’ and, in the years that followed, Faysal would implement a series of administrative and fiscal reforms, coupled with a series of diplomatic manoeuvres which would place Saudi Arabia in a more commanding position within the Arab world. Crucially important was Arab defeat in the Six Day War, which damaged the reputation of Nasser, and after which the Saudis pledged a great deal of petrol-dollars to the Palestinians’ struggle. Perhaps even more important were the events which followed the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. At the same time, Faysal brought the country into greater alignment with Israel’s greatest ally, the United States. In order to flex its muscles more effectively in the world at large, Faysal took advantage of the only asset Saudi Arabia had: oil.
After the outbreak of another war with Israel in 1973, the Saudis will lead an attempt to punish Israel’s western allies, especially the United States, for its steadfast support for the occupation of Palestine. This oil embargo on a select group of countries is epoch-making, not so much for the impact it had on the Israel-Palestine conflict (very little as it happens) but as heralding in a new era of Saudi power and the increased centrality of oil to geopolitics, not to mention contributing greatly to a severe recession which would have huge knock-on effects, both political and social, which we arguably live with to this day. It is worth backtracking a bit to look at the evolution of Saudi oil policy and the creation of OPEC, the organisation through which this embargo was effected.
Handing over the exploitation of your oil to someone else, in return for a cut of the profits, makes some sense when you don’t have the expertise or resources to get it out of the ground, refine it and transport it around the world. What happens over time, though, is usually that the resources derived from oil-wealth are partly spent on developing indigenous resources and infrastructure, educating and training indigenous technicians and administrators, until the day comes when the reasons for handing over your resources to the oil companies no longer apply. The original disadvantageous agreement comes to be seen as an unfair constraint on the country with the natural resources, and the desire to reassert control over them becomes irresistible. We have already seen what happened in Iran when Mohammad Mosaddegh attempted to nationalise Iran’s oil and take it back from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (BP to you and me). In Saudi Arabia, taking over control of the oil did not have such destabilising consequences. ARAMCO remained an American-owned company until the 1970s, when the Saudi state began to buy it out, a process complete by 1980.
From the 1960s on, one of the most important figures in Saudi politics was the head of the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. The first of these was Abdullah Tariki (below), who had gained an education abroad patronage of the state in geology and was made first minister for oil in 1960. That year, he was instrumental in founding OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) along with his Venezuelan counterpart. They did this (Iran, Iraq and Kuwait also joined) in the hope of exerting more control over the price and volume of oil produced, which at that time was controlled by the a cartel of multinational oil companies with little regard for the countries from whom they had obtained concessions. Particularly resented was the oil companies attempts to keep prices low as new sources of oil glutted the market in the post-war decades.
In its early years, OPEC wasn’t hugely successful in its objectives. Much of the oil was still in the hands of western multinationals, not the states in question, but as states like Saudi Arabia acquired more and more control over its own resources (another long-term strategic goal of OPEC) their leverage gradually increased, as did the prospect of them using oil prices to exert influence over politics, especially as they concerned Israel-Palestine. To those in the west who are happy to guzzle petrol like there is no tomorrow, but pay little attention to where it comes from (i.e. most people) the measures taken by the Arab OPEC countries in response to the west’s support for Israel in the 1973 war came as a big shock. It shouldn’t have (OPEC had, only months before the war, raised the price of oil by nearly 12%) but it did, and I think if we are honest, there has always been a sense among many in the west that the petroleum under the ground in foreign lands, even if they are no longer colonies in a formal sense, is somehow the birthright of white people living in Europe and America.
In October 1973 then, OPEC cut production by at least 5% (and some countries like Saudi Arabia by more) and increased prices by an initial 17% (in the following months, this would result in a 70% increase in the price of oil internationally), but most spectacularly of all, announced a complete oil embargo against Israel’s main western allies: the United States, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Tariki had been replaced by this stage by Ahmed Zaki Yamani (below), who in many ways was the face of this effort to deter the west’s support for Israel.
To show the long-term effects of the ‘oil crisis’ of the 1970s is beyond the scope of this post. Just one observation: it can be seen as a crucial nail in the coffin of the post-war economic boom and the social-stability afforded by the accommodation between business and organised labour, resulting in rising living standards, the welfare state, etc. All of this entered a period of crisis in the 1970s, which was taken advantage of by neoliberals like Reagan and Thatcher at the end of the decade.
But for Saudi Arabia, the results of this period were more mixed. Israel emerged triumphant from the Yom Kippur War and the embargo was lifted in March 1974 having failed to achieve its political objectives. The increase in oil prices that following during the series of oil shocks of the 1970s brought a huge increase in revenue to Saudi Arabia, from about 22.5 billion SR (Saudi Riyals) in 1970 to 163.6 billion SR in 1975, to 546.6 billion in 1980, an astonishing increase of 2329% in just a decade. An image in the west of underhand practices, of oil being used as a kind of blackmail, and underhand manipulation of the oil markets became widespread in the west at this time, which is kind of hypocritical when you consider that multinational oil companies had been doing this for decades. Their cartel had been informally known as the ‘Seven Sisters’ and while there isn’t space to go into it here, this Al Jazeera series on the subject is well worth a watch:
This is the time when an image of the ‘greedy sheikh’ emerges in the west, and a growth in anti-Arab feeling in some quarters, a resentment towards the Arabs for using their oil-wealth which follows logically from the idea that this is really the property of western nations. The 1970s can be pinpointed as the beginnings of what will become a widespread Islamophobia in the west. It is worth reflecting that it emerges at the same time that the oil-producing nations began to assert control over their own natural resources. Just a thought.
Faysal was able to use these huge financial resources to invest in infrastructure, to both improve living conditions for Saudi citizens and consolidate his control over them, not to mention purchasing ARAMCO from the Americans. His stance in at least offering symbolic support for the Palestinians bolstered his country’s standing in the Arab world, at least temporarily, and in flexing its economic muscles and provoking conflict with the United States, Saudi Arabia actual found itself in a more favourable relationship in the aftermath, having demonstrated how indispensable they were as an ally. Faysal was not to enjoy the fruits of all this for long though, as he was assassinated in March 1975 by one of his nephews, ostensibly as an act of private revenge for the killing of the assassin’s brother ten years earlier (although conspiracy theories abound).
Faysal’s trusted oil minister Yamani was standing next to him when he was shot and, in December (he had a hell of a year) he and several other oil ministers were taken hostage at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna by a team led by Carlos the Jackal who hoped to promote the Palestinian cause. The plan was to ransom all the oil ministers with the exception of Yamani and his Iranian counterpart, Jamshid Amuzegar. A plane was provided which brought the kidnappers to Algeria, where they had hoped to fly on to South Yemen. In the event, pressure from the Algerian government, which was revolutionary but not that revolutionary, secured the release of the oil ministers, although they did allow Carlos and his associates to walk free.
When all this smoke had cleared, the tensions between Saudi and American interests appeared to have been resolved. The old deal stood firm: Saudi Arabia would supply cheap oil to the United States and Europe and in return, the United States guarantee Saudi Arabia’s (or rather the Saudi dynasty’s) security, both internal and external. But there was always (and still is) a glaring paradox to both parties allegiance to the other: Saudi Arabia’s closest ally just happened to be the main sponsor of Israel; later on, when American claims to be combating Islamic fundamentalism will be starkly contradicted by their close alliance with the Saudis. Another problem was that the explosion in oil-wealth had produced a materialism in Saudi society, as well as a growing reliance on American military technology, which was frowned upon by the hardline Wahhabists and others who questioned the Saudi monarchy’s claim to be the legitimate interpreters of what constituted the ‘true’ path.
It is interesting to reflect that the Saudi monarchy has always tried to legitimise itself by stressing its religious credentials and its adherence to the Wahhabist doctrine of returning to a ‘purer’ Islam and shedding it of idolatrous and erroneous practices that it has allegedly accumulated over the centuries. At the same time, the measures that it has taken to maintain its grip on power and accumulate its massive wealth have involved what many would argue have taken the country in the opposite direction. While always careful to get the establishment ullema onside, not everyone has been convinced, and it hasn’t always been easy for the Saudi monarchy to put the genie of religious fundamentalism back in the bottle once out. An early and dramatic example of this came in November 1979 (only months after the revolution in Iran) when the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Masjid al-Hara, was seized by al-Ikhwan, armed followers of a religious figure they claimed to be the Mahdi, or redeemer who many Muslims believe will appear shortly before the end days and rid the world of evil. Many of those who participated in the seizure of the Masjid al-Hara were indoctrinated by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who had fled Nasser’s repression and been offered sanctuary by Faysal in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their military leader was Juhayman al-Otaybi (below), who was the son of one of the original Ikhwan, who had fought for Ibn Saud in his conquest of the country in the 1920s. When Saud won independence and recognition from the British, and began to collaborate with westerners to consolidate his rule, the Ikhwan, who had been told that all foreigners were infidels and wanted to keep fighting, revolted against Saudi rule in 1928 and were brutally suppressed in the following years.
The complaints of the 1979 Ikhwan bear certain resemblances to their forefathers’ criticisms of the Saudi regime (by now, Khalid was king: 1975-1982), that they had betrayed Islam by their pursuit of profit and adoption of western decadence; also subject to criticism were the ulema for rubber-stamping all this. Al-Otaybi railed against any concessions to a public role for women, immodest dress, television, and currency with an image of the King on it. The mosque seizure lasted two weeks and was ended when Saudi troops, with Pakistani and French assistance, stormed the area and captured most of the Ikhwan, beheading al-Otaybi and sixty-two others the following month at eight locations around the country.
But this, as you no doubt know, was far from the end of Salafist militancy in Saudi Arabia. Much of its energies would be channeled into fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, a cause the Saudi government heartily supported, providing them with funds and training and packing them off on their merry way. The cause of the Mujahideen Afghanistan was also helped by private donors, the more ardent of which even traveled to the country itself to see what could be done on the ground. Among these was the seventeenth son of fifty-two children born to a construction magnate named Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, who had come from Yemen with practically nothing and become one of Saudi Arabia’s richest men by founding a construction company which undertook a large number of infrastructure projects for the monarchy. Mohammed, a close associate of Faysal in particular, was also deeply religious and before his death in a plane crash in 1967, imbued in his children a deep respect for the austerity and orthodoxy of Wahhabite traditions, despite the temptations offered by their enormous wealth. Here are some of his kids on a visit to Falun, Sweden in 1971, while one of the brothers conducted business with Volvo. See if you can spot the most famous child, Osama, aged sixteen.
But this story will be the subject of a future post on foreign fighters in the Afghan war and the development of the Salafist movement generally in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether this will be the next post or the one after that I am not sure yet. I would like to set things up for a proper assessment of political Islam as it becomes a major geopolitical factor in the nineties. This involves taking a close look at places like Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, not to mention giving Yemen some detailed attention. In summary to this post though, we have seen in the 1960s and 1970s, the eclipse of the left-leaning, Nasserite vision in the Arab world by a conservative Islamic monarchist one, American-allied and fiercely anti-communist. Even in Egypt, as we saw in part two, the regime after Nasser’s death will begin to move away from the Soviet sphere of influence and towards the Americans, flirting with political Islam as it did so, although Sadat would pay dearly from his drawing back from this alliance when he perceived that it was a force that he might have trouble controlling.
If there was a winner of the ‘Arab Cold War’, it was the religious conservative establishment, personified by the Saudi monarchy, a triumph that seemed to be consolidated as the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc tottered and fell in the 1980s. But although they used religion to legitimise their rule, and the Americans were happy to see Islamic fundamentalism as a stick to beat the Russians with, they had opened up a Pandora’s box and unleashed a political ideology they would lose control of in the very moment when the ‘end of history‘ seemed to have arrived. Of course, it might also be argued that the west simply needed a new bogeyman once the communist one had been vanquished, and the Islamists fit the bill perfectly.
Featured image above: Nasser and Faisal of Saudi Arabia, 1960s.
P.S. Osama bin Laden is second from the right.