North Africa, West Asia

A Saudi-Iranian grand bargain

Pundits have long criticised the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for propagating Wahhabism, its austere brand of Sunni Islam, but have failed to address the underlying regional context.

Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian
19 February 2015

Muslims hail from two main branches, Sunni and Shia. The schism arose from a dispute over who should be the Prophet Mohamad's successor. The two sects peacefully co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. Up until the American invasion begot Shia-domination of Iraq, Iran was the Muslim world's sole Shia-dominated country.

The Sunni/Shia breakdown by country. Sunni: Green. Red: Shia.

The Sunni/Shia breakdown by country. Sunni: Green. Red: Shia. Image based on map by Angela De La Paz. Some rights reserved.

The rise of an ideology

Wahhabism is the KSA's state-sponsored religion. It is also dominant in Qatar, with followers in the Indian subcontinent. Around two centuries ago, its founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, called for a return to the Islamic practices of the first Muslims and for a literalist adherence to Islam’s original texts. Wahabis reject religious debate, eschew theological interpretations and oppose doctrines held by other sects – including Sufis, Shiites and non-Wahhabi Sunnis. Mainstream Wahhabism preaches loyal obedience to the Saudi king. 

The present day tactics of the so-called Islamic State (IS), are all a throwback to the Al-Ikhwan's extremist ideology.

Al-Ikhwan was a militant offshoot of Wahhabism founded in 1912, dedicated to the forceful purification and unification of the world’s Muslims. This militia was initially used by the founder King Abdulaziz ibn Saud to unify the kingdom, before he crushed it after it rebelled. Al-Ikhwan followers attempted two failed armed uprisings in the 20th century, first against King Abdulaziz in the 1930s and against King Khaled in the 1970s accusing both of religious laxity. The present day tactics of the so-called Islamic State (IS), its slogans, flag, covered faces, swords, beheadings and the call for a pan-Islamic caliphate are all a throwback to the Al-Ikhwan's extremist ideology which continues to have resonance within the ranks of some Saudi and Qatari Wahhabis, including within the clergy.

Since the birth of the KSA in 1932, successive kings pursued the twin goals of politically and physically building the state's infrastructure through universal education (not only males — as was the tradition), the import of foreign labour and a modernisation drive. Their policies propelled a recalcitrant, religiously conservative population from a medieval mindset and lifestyle into the modern era, merging nomadic, feuding and illiterate tribesmen into a more sedentary, unified and homogenous nation state. While spearheading this effort, the Saudi royal family tried to avoid loss of legitimacy by heeding its Wahhabi clergy and by not outpacing its population — caution the Shah of Iran would have done well to emulate while aggressively pursing his modernising agenda at home. 

Exporting revolution

At the advent of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, Tehran launched a policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders. Ayatollah Khomeini stated that ‘establishing the Islamic state world-wide belongs to the great goals of the revolution.’ The twin goals of exporting its revolution and establishing a pan-Islamic state set the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) on a collision course with Arab leaders who perceived it as a regional threat to countries with sizeable, often discriminated against and disgruntled Shia minorities. Throughout the Arab world, Shia Muslims have since been perceived as a fifth column. For the KSA, the perceived threat is particularly worrisome given that the vast Safaniya, Shaybah and Ghawar oilfields and the HQ of Saudi Aramco are all located in the heavily Shia-populated Eastern Province. 

The Safaniya, Shaybah and Ghawar oilfields are all located in the heavily Shia-populated Eastern Province.

Suspicions worsened after large demonstrations by Iranian pilgrims chanting political slogans took place during Hajj in 1981 at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and the Great Mosque in Mecca. Saudi security forces clashed with the demonstrators; hundreds of pilgrims and security forces were killed. In the aftermath, Ayatollah Khomeini incited Saudi citizens to overthrow the ruling family.

This was not the first time that he tried to meddle in the internal affairs of the Kingdom; shortly after followers of the extremist militant Al-Ikhwan occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini stated that ‘It is not beyond guessing that this is the work of criminal American imperialism and international Zionism.’ His statements led to riots against Western symbols in parts of the Muslim world, and complicated the Saudi authorities' task. The perpetrators of the siege accused the ruling family of pursuing un-Islamic policies, called for its overthrow and for the repudiation of the West, the expulsion of non-Muslims from the KSA, a return to the original ways of Islam, an end to the education of women and the abolition of television, The bloody siege lasted two months and ended only after the Saudi armed forces resorted to accepting the technical assistance of French and Pakistani special forces.

It later transpired that the attackers had received donations from wealthy Saudi sympathisers and were well-armed and trained; some former military officials of the National Guard had even smuggled in weapons and ammunition, and taken part in the uprising. The clergy was eventually persuaded to issue a fatwa allowing troops to storm the compound, but refused to call extremists 'apostates.' 

At the time, this incident damaged the prestige of the Wahhabi establishment suspected of involvement with the insurgents. Bearing in mind their clergy's fundamentalism, King Khaled shied away from cracking down on excessive puritanism; instead, it reversed efforts at limited social liberalism, espoused ardent religiosity, pursued more orthodoxy, marginalised Shias and exported Wahhabism, all in an effort to stem accusations of religious laxity. 

Custodians of the two Holy Mosques 

The title ‘Custodian of the two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina’ was later adopted by King Fahd and his successors, to reaffirm their piety and their supremacy over the clergy, and to underscore their custodianship of the Sunni brand of Islam. 

To counter the doctrine of 'Vilayat Faqih' (Guardianship by Islamic Jurists of a theocratic government) advocated by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Saudi educational system was entrusted to pious Muslim Brotherhood (MB) mostly Egyptian teachers. They taught, along with obedience to the ruler, their ideology that ‘Allah is our objective; the Koran is the constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish.’ With time, they infiltrated, transformed and radicalised Saudi society, including at its highest echelons. The same holds true in Qatar. The KSA's relations with the MB have deteriorated steadily since 11 September; the interior ministry blamed its ideology for causing extremism in the Кingdom and accused it of being ‘the source of all problems in the Islamic world.’ Notwithstanding its recent designation as a terrorist organisation, the MB still enjoys quiet but substantial support among Saudis raised on its militant ideology.

Riyadh poured funds to purchase armaments in support of the Iraqi war effort during the Iraq-Iran war, and financed Taliban schools. 

In the 1980s, the west sought the KSA's assistance in countering the export of the Iranian revolution and in repulsing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Riyadh poured funds to purchase western armaments in support of the Iraqi war effort during the Iraq-Iran war, and financed Taliban schools in Pakistan where Sunni boys, including pious radicalised Saudis, were indoctrinated in jihad (struggle against non-believers), trained in the art of insurgency by the Pakistani secret service and the CIA and armed by the US, before being sent to fight the Soviets.

To recruit for and justify jihad, takfir (excommunication) of the perceived political enemy became part of the political lexicon of militant Sunni preachers. Ayman Alzawahiri (of Al-Qaeda fame), a leader of the Egyptian-born Takfir Wal-Hijra — at the time an outlawed offshoot of the MB — joined the fight against the Soviets. His influence led to the spreading of takfir ideology. Once the Soviets retreated, most fighters returned to the Middle East, North Africa and the West spreading takfir doctrine, to eventually sprout Al-Qaeda and its ideological offshoot IS.

The perception of Shia, and by extension of Iranians, as kuffar (apostates, non-believers) became so embedded in militant religious preaching broadcast to millions via dedicated satellite channels, that Arab leaders in general and Saudi leaders in particular became its hostage, complicating any political accommodation with the IRI.

Dynastic discord

Yet a political regional grand bargain is now essential. Saudi Arabia's dynastic stability — notwithstanding the smooth succession — and its ability to rise to the existential threats of sectarian strife on its borders and at home — would be diminished in the absence such a bargain.

The late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz commanded tribal loyalty and was perceived by most Saudis as a paternalistic, modernising, flexible, experienced ruler of undisputed probity and piety. In contrast, his successor King Salman bin Abdulaziz (whatever his past services and his consensus-building abilities might have been) is rumoured to suffer from incapacitating health problems — a recipe for diminished authority. His half-brother, Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz has no power base within the family, almost no government experience, and the dubious distinction of being the first crown prince without a ministerial portfolio. 

Younger second generation princes are of a different ilk to the more savvy and experienced elders.

Real power lies with 55-year-old Mohamad bin Nayef, who is the Deputy Crown Prince, interior minister and President of the Council of Political and Security Affairs, and with the King's son, the 36-year-old Prince Mohamad bin Salman, the head of the royal court, defence minister and President of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs. As head of the royal court, the King's son Mohamad issues his ailing father's royal decrees and holds the royal seal; he is perceived by some as the de facto ruler. This is an unprecedented concentration of power mostly in the hands of the Sudairi clan (the name of one of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud's wives) — of whom the King, his son and the deputy crown prince are members.

Younger second generation princes are of a different ilk to the more savvy and experienced elders. Rumours are rife that the deputy crown prince is not the consensus choice within the ranks of younger royals, and that Mohamad bin Salman is not popular, even among his brothers. How long will other clans within the House of Saud put up with the monopoly of power by the Suadiari clan? There is a precedent within the royal family for the forced abdication of an ailing King at a time of crisis (King Saud bin Abdulaziz in 1962, at a time of confrontation with Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser). 

Other than the risk of princely discord or of a palace coup, most of King Abdulaziz's grandchildren lack a power base and political experience, particularly in foreign relations, and appear apt to pursue zero sum confrontational policies within the region, in the belief that money buys international influence and protection and resolves domestic problems. 

Challenges abroad

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was founded in Yemen in 2009 as an alliance between Saudi and Yemeni Al-Qaeda branches that oppose the Saudi monarchy. It exploited Iraq's sectarian fault lines to start a civil war, giving rise to IS. Both Al-Qaida and IS use anti-western rhetoric and attacks on minorities to spearhead their efforts at destabilising Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan and Sub-Saharan Africa. More recently they imported these tactics to Gulf states that joined the US-led alliance fighting them. Their call to arms unfortunately echoes among some Wahhabis in the KSA and Qatar, raised on the state-sanctioned belief that Shias are apostates. 

The cesspool of sectarianism needs to be drained.

The Saudi establishment is faced with a conundrum: In protecting the country's Shia minority, the House of Saud would be engulfed by the takfiri propaganda; laxity in stemming and punishing attacks on foreign expats and on Shia compatriots would incur the wrath of the west and provide Tehran with casus belli for interference in Saudi internal affairs. The solution to this conundrum cannot be based on a security-only strategy. The cesspool of sectarianism also needs to be drained.

Sharing a border with IS in Iraq for years to come is not an attractive option for the IRI. It might thus be willing to fight IS and AQAP as part of a regional force. It is historically opposed to the advent of an independent Kurdistan — an increasing likelihood the longer Kurdish forces spearhead the fight against IS. It advocates a political regional solution to the Syrian and Lebanese problems, and would like to consolidate its influence over Iraq. While pursuing these objectives, Tehran might be wary of spreading its military, paramilitary and financial assets too thin over many theatres of sectarian strife in the Arab world. However, labouring under crippling sanctions over the nuclear issue and dwindling oil revenues, Tehran has so far chosen escalation in Bahrain, Yemen, and to a lesser degree the KSA. 

Tehran might be wary of spreading its assets too thin over many theatres of sectarian strife in the Arab world

Riyadh scored a major strategic victory over Tehran in Bahrain and over the MB in Egypt. In Iraq however, the sectarianism of ex-Prime Minister Nouri A-Maliki's policies led to the rise of IS and to Baghdad's alignment with Tehran. Riyadh is also losing its grip over Yemen to the Iran-allied Houthis and to AQAP. The kingdom runs the risk of its borders being sandwiched between IS forces in Iraq and AQAP forces in Yemen. It also faces a quagmire in Syria, a stalemate in Lebanon, civil war in Libya, possible contagion of Jordan and of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and most importantly, terrorist induced civil and sectarian strife within its borders. 

So far, the KSA has privileged a security response at home and supports Sunni uprisings abroad. A victory abroad however is becoming increasingly unlikely at a time when Washington is privileging the fight against extremist IS and Al-Qaida forces throughout the Mideast, and is contemplating a pivot towards the IRI who shares this goal.

A P5+1 agreement over the nuclear enrichment issue is looking increasingly likely; this would hasten the US pivot, and enable Tehran to reprise the Shah's role of Gendarme of the Middle East — an unattractive outcome for the GCC.

The continuation of an all-or-nothing national and regional strategy is hard to comprehend at a time when the KSA has opted to also tussle with the US, Russia and the IRI over its energy market share. Regional and/or sectarian strife would of course defeat Riyadh's bid to maintain low energy prices.

A grand bargain 

A grand regional bargain is a present-day political necessity with religious historic precedent; Muslim sects coexisted peacefully for centuries during the Ottoman era. It should be preferable to the protracted and disruptive alternative. It could involve institutionalised Shia-Sunni power sharing in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, and the integration of Hezbollah forces within the ranks of the Lebanese army. It would lessen the chances of further wars (either by proxy or directly) in Yemen and Libya, and would undermine IS's and Al-Qaida's support. 

Absent such a grand bargain, Syria's civil war and its destructive aftermath would be a dress rehearsal to the civil and religious strife that could engulf the Middle East and extend to Asian countries with militant Sunni and Shia populations harbouring grievances. 

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