April 24, 2014

State, Islam, and Opposition in Saudi Arabia: The Post Desert Storm Phase

This article reviews the status of Saudi religious groups after the Second Gulf War. The historical roots of opposition to the monarchy are traced and it is noted that while the monarchy did consolidate its authority and adapt over time, groups critical of the government and its positions have occasionally appeared. Recently, economic leadership and security crises have given rise to a new opposition, unique in its combining Islamic and “modern” concepts. Thus far, as in the past, the regime has dealt with its opponents effectively, although the ultimate impact of this latest opposition surge is not yet determined.

The formation of the Saudi Kingdom–transformation of the rudimentary, tribal Saudi chiefdom into an organized monarchical state in the late 1920s and early 1930s, transformed Islam’s role in Saudi society. Until the late 1920s, Islamic principles practiced according to the Wahhabi creed, which dominated the core Saudi society of Najd, were all-embracing. These tenets were the motive for Saudi expansion: expunging unlawful religious practices (bid’a) in the newly occupied territories; propagating a moral code of behavior according to the holy law (Shari’a) to establish an exemplary Islamic polity (Siyasa Shar’iyya); and promoting a unifying ideology beyond tribal and regional identities. With the establishment of state institutions, political centralization and borders, processes that began evolving during the late 1920s, Islamic functions developed in two different forms: a state- controlled religion and the opposition’s untamed Islam, which objected to state interests and resisted state control.

The split was reflected in the dispute during this period between the Saudi leader ‘Abd al-’Aziz Ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman, commonly known as “Ibn Saud”, and a collection of tribal groups, the Ikhwan, fiercely loyal to Islam and resisting the Saudi state-building process. Ibn Sa’ud sought to capitalize on their expansionist tendencies, while subjugating them to a centralizing government. There were fierce debates between the two parties, which also included the leading ‘Ulama.(1)

In 1930, as Ibn Sa’ud was winning his campaign against the Ikhwan, and afterward, the Saudi king was designating Wahhabi Islam as a state religion. This meant that only the senior ‘Ulama, part of the Kingdom’s establishment, would wield supreme religious authority. Mandatory religious opinions would only come from them and not arbitrarily by any competent interpreter. It also meant that the senior ‘Ulama would not operate independently but in the framework of state-controlled and funded institutions. Moreover, state interest, as defined by the King and the government, would take precedence over any Islamic interests. Wahhabi Islam thus remained a moral code, a unifying factor and ideological motivator of society, but only in accordance with state interests and by legitimizating royal Saudi rule.(2)

The Saudi regime thus implemented several principles and strictures of Islam, mingled with state practices and institutions: the Shari’a served as the main source of law and as a constitution; the Wahhabi code was adopted to govern public behavior; education and intellectual life were mainly shaped by the ‘Ulama’s preaching and sermons. Yet there was no Wahhabi doctrine for governing. The political order evolved according to state interests. The royal family, government ministers, elite businessmen and regional governors together ran the regime.

In 1929-30, the Ikhwan tribal groups were decisively defeated and their version of how to uphold Islamic principles did not dominate Saudi society. In addition, the Ikhwan’s version resisted the incumbent Saudi government hegemony, preferring a different regime. Islamic goals should be supreme over state interests.(3)

However, their convictions remained as a latent, undercover factor serving various opposition groups over the years. Religious authority does not rest, at least not entirely, with the establishment ‘Ulama. Even today, other qualified persons may interpret holy law as they understand it, challenge the establishment interpretation and gather followers.

Two conclusions can be reached. First, the vagaries of state formation provoked the opposition’s attempt to restore what it regarded as a controlled, just rule. They objected to the sometimes extreme intensification of modernization–evident in a Westernizing lifestyle–and of a centralizing, bureaucratic, even absolute, government. Second, both the authorities and their opponents used the language of Islam, accusing each other of breaching holy law, neglecting Islamic goals and deviating from Islamic practices even in administrative, economic and political affairs. Thus, while Saudi Arabia emerged as a state with a puritanical, Islamic- oriented regime, the phases of state formation maded opposition groups accuse the government of unlawful Islamic conduct and to suggest alternatives–even a new government–in the name of Islam.

To be sure, outward tension between an emerging opposition and the government was rare in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi state was a flexible, accommodating institution.(4) Its evolution into an organized state in the 1930s, driving toward economic development and a centralizing government, was balanced by maintaining personalized, informal decision-making at the top, contacts between the rulers and the lower ranks, intermarriage between princes and commoners, and cultivation of senior ‘Ulamas.

True, in the late 1950s, during King Sa’ud’s reign (1953-1964) an opposition movement developed that questioned the state arrangements and exposed that order’s anomalies. In light of initial oil income and the advent of radical pan-Arabism, the process of unordered decisionmaking and personal, arbitrary conduct of King Sa’ud was deemed obsolete. At that time, the intellectual or even literate community in Saudi Arabia was still limited so an opposition movement emerged chiefly from among young princes, led by Prince Tallal. They advocated a constitutional monarchy, based on liberal and socialist principles. With the exception of Prince Tallal’s short period of participation in government in 1960, this movement remained a vocal, non-violent but also ineffective critic. In 1962 Tallal and some of his associates went into exile (to Lebanon and then to Egypt) where they continued their futile calumny of the Saudi regime for some time.(5)

During King Faysal’s reign (1964-1975), a new stage of state building emerged, focusing on the reforms he introduced to remedy the shortcomings of the earlier state order. This structure, initiated by Faysal and continued by his successor, King Khalid (1975-82), strove to continue the supreme, unrestricted rule of King and even reinforced his role by an elaborate government and strong bureaucracy. It also rested on an economy based on oil wealth and geared to the development of business, health and education services. From this framework emerged socio-economic stratification and educated groups. Absolute rule, socio-economic and technological change were balanced by maintaining both the Wahhabi moral code and patron-client, tribal and personal contacts among the different groups, notably between princes and commoners, all of which reinforced a traditional, familiar lifestyle. An elaborate welfare system was introduced, guaranteeing free health insurance and free education to Saudi citizens, especially to support those elements who did not benefit from business opportunities and social change.(6)

Faysal’s order was sustained for many decades, mainly by satisfying most of Saudi society. Consequently, the opposition movement of November 1979 was an exception to the relative calm and did not portend further challenges. In that instance, several hundred activists, mostly from the former Ikhwan tribe ‘Utayba, formed their group amilitary service with the National Guard. While some of them were students at the Islamic University of Medina, they were motivated in several ways, as their leader, Juhayman al-’Utaybi, demonstrated in his published letters which explained their anti-establishment religious convictions.

‘Utaybi’s group violently took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest of all Islamic sites, on 20 November 1979. It drew support only from the manual workers and students of tribal origin, of the lower classes and foreign laborers (from Egypt, Yemen and Pakistan). The vast majority of Saudi society regarded them as a marginal group whose elimination by security forces was fully justified. A fatwa of 30 leading ‘Ulama, dated 24 November, depicting them as rebels and troublemakers, added to the negative image.(7) In addition, ‘Utaybi’s demand that oil should not be sold to the United States and that state wealth should not be squandered but used only to meet society’s needs,(8) had little appeal against a regime using considerable funds to raise its subjects’ living standards.

‘Utaybi’s group was reacting, in an extreme fashion, to the sudden affluence and Western lifestyle which had begun to emerge in the Kingdom. He attempted to delegitimize Saudi rule in the tradition of the Ikhwan: Ibn Sa’ud deceived the Ikhwan by failing to lead them in a Jihad against neighboring states, instead forming an alliance with the “Christians”. A good Muslim’s duty, contended ‘Utaybi, was to fight the West and reject the socio-technological “progress” of Saudi society. Further, he argued, the authority of the main ‘Ulama was false. They were aligned with the Saudi family in a bond of corruption.(9) Like the Ikhwan, Juhayman’s movement rejected the state’s Islamic authority and monopoly of interpreting Wahhabi Islam with a call to overthrow the Saudi family, and combat the West and the senior ‘Ulama. However, in 1979, there were no obvious and widely agreed reasons in Saudi society to do so. Most Saudis were basically satisfied with Faysal’s order.

A challenge from a different source, Saudi Arabia’s Shi’i minority living in the Gulf region of al-Hassa, erupted shortly after the Grand Mosque takeover. Demonstrations on the Shi’i ‘Ashura festival on 28 November 1979 and 1 February 1980, deteriorated into riots against the authorities. While the Shi’i suffered discrimination in jobs and welfare, the protests were kindled mainly by Iranian provocation, among Khomeini’s efforts to export a newly victorious Iranian revolution. The regime harsly suppressed the riots (with 21 dead in the two incidents) as well as improving economic conditions and developing their home areas.(10) The Shi’i outburst was not repeated and did not demonstrate a well- organized opposition movement. The Decline of Faysal’s State Order

Only in the 1990s did a more sustained radical Islamic opposition movement emerged. Like its predecessors it questioned the existing state order and gave its own interpretation of Wahhabi Islam. This development was sparked by a decline of some of the state order’s underpinning and inherent balances, partly catalyzed by the 1990-91 Gulf War which exposed deep structural problems in Saudi society. Saudi leaders, who should have been the primary force in the ongoing process of state building, were both aging and losing prestige. King Fahd, Crown Prince ‘Abdullah and Defense Minister Sultan were all septuagenarians. King Fahd suffered from cardiac and diabetic problems, and in November 1995 had a minor stroke, which compelled him to transfer authority temporarily to ‘Abdullah. Their ability to lead the country was thus increasingly doubtful. Moreover, the need to rely on 500,000 foreign soldiers to cope with the Iraqi threat during 1990-91 and the expenditure of around $80 billion from Saudi financial reserves (about $20 billion paid to Iraq during its 1980-88 war with Iran, and $60 billion for Desert Storm) left the Kingdom in an economic recession, and worsend the Saudi people’s image of the royal family as charismatic, resourceful and invincible rulers.(11)

The economic well-being which anchored the state was no longer guaranteed. The economy had been in recession since the mid-1980s when oil prices started to decline. In the 1990s, a barrel of oil sold for $18 or less, budget deficits neared $20 billion, unprofitable investments, a declining GDP per capita from $17,000 in the early 1980s to just over $7,000 in 1995, and growing internal government borrowing meant a relatively poor situation.(12)

In addition, social conditions, proof of the regime’s previously successful balancing acts, were also declining. Growing unemployment (about 25% among university graduates) and reduced health and educational services were particularly disturbing in a fast-growing Saudi society with an extremely high birth rate (about 3.6% annually). Building a healthy, well-educated and growing Saudi society became more difficult under new budget constraints.(13)

Changing demographic conditions, a relative economic recession, the rise of a new, educated generation, and the country’s aging and somewhat incompetent rulers all shook Faysal’s order and exposed its deficiencies in the 1990s. A fundamentalist opposition movement, though not extensive, gained some support since the Kingdom’s economic, social and political arrangements were unsatisfactory to a considerable segment of Saudi society. Opposition leaders were able to interpret grievances in an Islamic language which, unlike the 1979 movement, related to current circumstances.

The new fundamentalist opposition’s most important characteristic has been its educational and socio-economic base. Its members were neither lower class nor tribally identified. Instead, the common denominator was membership in the new middle class: graduates of higher education graduates working as professionals or administrators. These activists were the product of an affluent era.

As William Ochsenwald has noted, many young Saudis opted to take advantage of higher education opportunities, either in one of the seven Saudi universities or in a Western university. In their studies, young Saudis mixed lay, academic or technical studies with a religious curriculum. A new sort of young ‘Ulama also emerged, who mixed traditional tutorials with university education, where they were exposed both to a secular education and currents of thought popular among foreign ‘Ulama’, the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and various Islamic revivalists. In addition, many ‘Ulama’ embarked on secular careers. So a new mix emerged: lay-educated professionals with religious knowledge, and ‘Ulama interacting with wider elements of Saudi society.(14)

The careers and occupations of some of the main activists in the fundamentalist opposition reflects these changes. Safar al- Hawwali, a preacher with his own following, was a lecturer and then head of the religious department at the Islamic University in Medina. Another popular preacher, Salman al-’Awda, studied both natural sciences and law before becoming a lecturer in religious studies at the Imam Muhammad University, Qasim Branch, in the city of Burayda. The main activists of the fundamentalist opposition office in London, the Committee for the Defense of the Legitimate Rights (CDLR) (Lajnat Difa’ ‘an al-Huquq al-Shar’iyya) were Muhammad al-Mas’ari, a physicist, and Sa’d al-Faqih, a lawyer and former head of the Saudi Board of Grievances.(15) In a recent study, R.H. Dekmejian showed how academics and religious sages mingled: the signatories of two petitions presenting Islamic-fundamentalist demands to King Fahd (52 signed in May 1991 and 107 in September 1992) were backed by a group comprised of about 60% academics and almost 40% holders of religious posts.(16)

The opposition’s wide-ranging socio-political critique reflected this combination of “modern” and Islamic education. A “liberal opposition” of academics asked King Fahd in April 1991 to establish a Consultative Council (Majlis Shu), grant more rights and make government appointments based on merit. In the ensuing months, however, the liberals were silenced by government intimidation or promises of change and subsequently disappeared from the political stage. The fundamentalists showed more staying power and used arguments representing a wider range of academic, middle-class public opinion in criticizing the government. They aspired to act, in the words of Sa’d al-Faqih, as an “enlightened fundamentalist trend” which deeply “penetrated the public, and has influence over the middle class and among intellectuals”.(17)

The fundamentalist opposition maintained that its resentment of Saudi rule was grounded in the government’s violation of moral and efficient administration and economics, and lack of attention to strategic planning. The opposition’s beliefs echoed the call for consumer rights and a more just economy they learned on Western campuses. Indeed, among the first middle-class Islamic opposition activists were Saudis studying in the US, who faxed home their complaints about the Saudi leaders’ corruption.(18) The September 1992 memorandum, a revision of earlier petitions, articulated these arguments against government practices: ministers and officials should be appointed without favoritism based on kinship, ethnic or regional considerations. Overseas spending should be subject to scrutiny. Luxury construction and wasteful expenditure must cease. In its publications, the CDLR often pointed out the high stipends for princes and the commissions they receive on military transactions, while the average Saudi must pay indirect taxes on telephone, petrol and electricity, risk of unemployment and endure worsening health, educational and postal services.(19)

To be sure, the opposition, had a clear Islamic agenda and a definite Islamic purpose. The yardstick for measuring government’s policies was how it followed the law . The remedy was full implementation of the Shari’a and Islamic goals. In the 1992 memorandum of 1992 and other CDLR publications, implementation of the Shari’a, as an integral part of the virtues of Islamic equality and morality, constituted a guarantee of untainted appointments, prevention of illegal indirect taxes, and controlled social services. Government ministries would have to operate according to Islamic goals which would ensure their correct, lawful conduct.(20) Discrediting the Incumbent Regime

The opposition’s discrediting campaign sought to delegitimize Saudi rule by destroying its foundations. The opposition did not entirely discredit the role of tribal values in Saudi society, instead it criticized Saudi rulers’ use of such values to assure their absolute rule. In one publication, the opposition attacked the hegemony of the House of Sa’ud, as evinced by the name Saudi Arabia. The writer, M.S. Zein Al-Abdin, noted that various people of a variety of tribes (i.e. Qahtan, Mutayr, ‘Utayba, Shammar and others) should not really regard themselves as “Saudi citizens.” “I do not know how their citizenship can be Saudi while they themselves claim purer nobility and ancestry than the family of Sa’ud?” he asked rhetorically.(21) The Saudi rulers were usurpers, depicted as misusing tribal principles, focusing on personal preferences to further their rule. They were described as using state funds to pay rents to maintain their dynasty’s personal wealth, appointing their proteges to the state bureaucracy. According to the opposition, the Saudis also conducted internal relations according to negative tribal principles, notably the encouragement of factions within the royal family. The CDLR thus criticized the Saudi leaders for maintaining the rift between Fahd with his six Sudayri brothers and Crown Prince ‘Abdullah. The example which they tendered was Prince Sultan’s (Fahd’s full brother and Minister of Defense) public announcement in November 1995, describing Fahd’s recent health problems as a “slight ailment,” thereby trying to dispel the impression that Fahd’s handover of power to ‘Abdullah was permanent, hinting at Sultan’s refusal to acknowledge ‘Abdullah as King.(22)

The Islamist opposition also focused on the corrupt, asymmetrical allocation of wealth: the royal family, some cronies, and certain “lucky” regions enjoyed the lion’s share of oil wealth, while the middle and lower classes and most of the peripheral regions (bordering Yemen, Jordan and Iraq) were neglected. “Despite these problems, their actions do not suggest that Al-Saud has given the slightest thought to the above questions, since shortsightedness and self-concern guide their activities”.(23)

The opposition also pointed out the Saudi rulers’ poor human rights’ record as demonstrated by the arrest and torture of opposition leaders (notably arrest campaigns such as that launched in 13 September 1994 against Islamist preachers and academics). It was extremely vocal over the regime’s attempts to block political freedom and criticism of itself, namely the right to pass on information and hold meetings. The opposition depicted these efforts as proof of the government’s weakness; its leaders regarded any criticism as a threat to their existence. Unlike strong, credible regimes, the Saudis could not tolerate criticism. The opposition made public a long list of cases in which their leaders, mostly academics engaged in public preaching against the government’s foreign policy, had been warned to stop and taken into custody when they refused to do so.(24)

The Islamists most potent efforts to discredit the regime were directed at the government’s outward appearance as a lawful, Islamic regime. The opposition viewed the rulers’ association with senior ‘Ulama, notably of the Supreme Council of Senior Scholars, as an way to initiate a suitable “fatwa”, or religious opinion, to justify policies. Sa’d al-Faqih, the deputy leader of the CDLR, viewed these ‘Ulama as fatwa-makers “not out of conviction, but out of fear of the consequences of not doing so”.(25)In another opposition publication, the writer, Ehsan Ehsanullah, tried to prove that Saudi rule violated its presumption of upholding Muslim rule within the prescribed limits of the Shari’a, namely (Siyasa Shar’iyya). The Saudis, he declared, had attempted to establish a Mulk, a secular, ruler’s estate, rather than an Islamic community (Umma). Their rule over a kingdom was an antithesis to Islam, and their control of the holy places an unlawful practice (bid’a). The Saudi rulers also had not transformed society into a “rightful society” (Umma Wasatan) characterized by law-abiding members of a religious community but rather kept inhabitants content by economic welfare. Saudi rule should thus be regarded as a common power state or sultanate; one CDLR publication referred to the Saudi rulers as “Pharaohs,” non-Islamic and idol-preaching rulers.(26)

In the CDLR’s view, the regime “can be classified at best as a mix of a mutilated form of Islam combined with tribalism and feudalism. It has even degenerated into a form of Mafia-like family rule”.(27) The illegitimacy of the Saudi regime was, in the opposition’s view, plain to see, particularly since it had discredited itself in areas where the Saudi rulers hoped to legitimize and solidify their rule: reliance on tribal values, Wahhabi Islam, and economic welfare for the whole Saudi society. These failures, stripped them of any meaningful legitimacy. Organizational and Operational Remarks: Where does the threat to the regime lie?

The Sunni Islamist Opposition represents several ideological trends: There are Hijazi neo-Salafi groups, oriented to a strict interpretation of the Shari’a, but these are non-Wahhabi and do not accept the rulings of the Najdi, Wahhabi ‘Ulama.(28) In addition, the leading theologians, such as Safar al-Hawwali, Salman al-’Awdah and ‘Aid al-Qarni, their students and other “middle-class” followers as well as the CDLR, directed their main effort to discrediting the Saudi rulers. They were all critical of the rulers’ interpretation of Shari’a and of the senior ‘Ulama’s authority. However, they have not (at least until now) established a clear ideological alternative, for a number of reasons: 1) They lack a unifying ideological trend which would define their position within the broader Islamist fundamentalist discourse. The variations among Wahhabi and non-Wahhabi fundamentalist origins, and the need of the Saudi-Wahhabis opposition to appeal and build bridges towards other fundamentalists and Western-educated supporters, led them to draw on Western ideas of good management, Muslim-Brotherhood-related concepts of justice, and Wahhabi responses to unlawful government. 2) They also lack a clear political platform: they preach against Saudi rule and the royal family but do not call clearly for its ousting through revolutionary action or for the Saudi masses to rise up against the regime. They may yet be too unsure of popular support and power to do so. In some major events, such as after the September 1994 arrests, the number of demonstrators may have reached several thousand (29) but in an unorganized, form. Rather they seem to be waiting for the Saudi rule’s collapse on its own. In the meantime, they would continue efforts to delegitimatize the regime and exacerbate the situation. 3) Despite their main preachers’ popular appeal, circulated via cassettes and faxed or printed publications, the opposition had not produced a religious authority of stature who could match the position of the leading ‘Ulama, notably ‘Abd al-’Aziz bin Baz. Thus, despite their audacious characterization of the Senior Council of Scholars as a rubber stamp for Saudi rule, they were unable to match its role through an opposition-led body.

In addition, the opposition movement of the 1990s was not reliant on an identified, institutionalized social, tribal, and/or a regionally-based group. The 1990s opposition was also without an established tradition of fighting and violence, typical of tribal groups, thus depriving it of the ability to cultivate an image of bravery and sedition. However, since 1995, a growing readiness to engage in violence has become noticeable. One source for this change might be the thousands of Saudi volunteers (4,000 Mujahidin from Medina alone), sent by the Saudi government to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet armies there. Although there is no clear evidence that Saudi Mujahidin had returned to become an armed opposition in Saudi Arabia, this did happen in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and elsewhere; the Saudi Mujahidin’s acquired skills and access to arms could turn them towards a violent course of action.(30)

Another source of Saudi opposition violence might have emanated from a group led by a Jidda-based businessman, Usama bin Ladin, originally from Hadramawt, who had contacts with the leaders of Sudan’s radical Islamist regime. He was expelled from Saudi Arabia and denied his Saudi citizenship in April 1994, due to his involvement in sabotage and anti-government activities in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Bin Ladin thereupon focused on publishing anti-Saudi booklets in London, in which his own, and other Saudi opposition factions, were presented as one main body.(31)

In addition, from his place of imprisonment, one of the main Saudi activists, Salman al-’Awda, called on his supporters on 30 April 1995, to stop “studying the law” and embark on an anti- government Jihad. ‘Awda did not call for a clear uprising but predicted “events, incidents and happenings” which would kindle clashes between the government and Saudi demonstrators,(32) and pave the way for a broadly-based Jihad against the government.

It is unclear whether these developments led to the car-bomb explosion in a US-staffed communications center of the Saudi internal militia, the National Guard, in November 1995, and the bombing of a US military compound in al-Khubar in June 1996. The perpetrators could also have been Iranian or Iraqi-despatched terrorists.(33)

Despite the gradual increase in violent incidents on the part of the Saudi Islamist opposition, terrorism did not develop into an organized, institutionalized activity. The lack of a violent, anti- government tradition, typical of Islamist opposition activists in other countries, and particularly their tendency to fight the government by religious discourse on the level of moral and religious principles, has so far limited the development of a major terrorist course of action.

The threat posed by the opposition movement will depend on: 1) Its ability to draw supporters from the educated, professional circles. 2) The credibility of its criticism of the government’s leadership and administrative incompetence and attack against it on moral and religious grounds. However, the opposition movements did not establish an alternative socio-political order, religious center or prominent ruling figures, to replace the incumbent government. The Authorities’ Response

The government’s responded to the opposition in several ways. The Saudi police had initiated arrest campaigns after each outburst of opposition activity, accompanied by restrictions of movement and the banning of preaching cassettes. The activists’ movements were also put under surveillance, and meetings dispersed and banned. This type of response reached its peak on 9 and 13 September 1994, with the arrest of two main preachers, Salman al-Awda and Safar al- Hawali together with, according to the CDLR, 1,300 of their followers, in the city of Burayda, Qasim region.(34)

The government also attempted to delegitimize the Opposition by denoting their activities as dissident (bid’a), and unlawful against Saudi leaders and by turning the chief, establishment ‘Ulama, against the Opposition. Thus, after the above-mentioned arrests, the Grand Mufti (chief religious authority), and head of the Council of leading ‘Ulama, ‘Abd al-’Aziz bin Baz, issued a fatwa, that unless the two leading preachers, ‘Awda and Hawali, repented their former conduct, they would be banned from lecturing, meetings and cassette-recording. Baz’s fatwa justified their arrests, and other leading ‘Ulama followed suit.(35) Fahd himself depicted the opposition as unlawfully calling themselves fundamentalists, but in fact being usurpers of the state system and acting against society.(36) However, as in several past cases, there were senior ‘Ulama who hesitated to condemn the Opposition, presumably identifying, at least partially, with their preaching.

In October 1994, the King announced the establishment of a Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (al-Majlis al-A’la lil-Shu’un al-Islamiyya), led by Minister of Defense Sultan, and a few days later the Council for Islamic Call and Guidance (al-Majlis lil- Da’wa wal-Irshad) led by the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Religious Guidance and Endowments, ‘Abdullah al-Turki. These two new bodies were made responsible for guidance for Saudis abroad, moral behavior and proper conduct of mosque functionaries, and mosque activities at home.(37) This was a clear attempt to regulate Mosques, over and above the incumbent ‘Ulama’s authority.

This official response also occured on a political level. The establishment of a sixty-member appointed Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), which began operating in Fall, 1992, was a way of placating the professionals who constituted 60% of the Council, with institutionalized advisory rights. However, the Consultative Council was merely a fig-leaf, part of a basic law stressing the King’s legislative and executive authority (the judicial bodies being subjected only to the Shari’a) and his responsibility for choosing his Crown Prince from among the Royal family. Another law underlined the position of regional governors, Umara, in the provinces. These laws’ main purpose was to reaffirm the Royal family’s authority and particularly that of the King, as paramount ruler (Wali al-Amr) over the entire country.(38) Conclusion

While in many ways the Saudi opposition resembles other such movements in the Middle East, its uniqueness liein roots going back to the Wahhabi opposition school, enabling the opposition to give its own anti-government interpretation to the Shari’a and to thus challenge as unlawful the senior ‘Ulama and Saudi government. Moreover, their religious arguments correspond to Western ideas of managerial and administrative misconduct which appeal to educated “middle-class” Saudi professionals and students. Hence, unlike the limited tribal nature of earlier opposition movements, the present movement focuses on a combination of Wahhabi and Western ideas.

Yet except for a few terrorist acts, this movement lacks a clear call for revolution and is not violent. The government has been able to use administrative means and its intelligence system to fight this opposition effectively and reduce the danger to itself.(39) But the opposition’s drive to discredit the government’s religious and tribal basis may have a long-term corrosive effect.


1. J. Kostiner, “On Instruments and their Designers”: The Ikhwan of Najd and the Formation of the Saudi State”, Middle Eastern Studies 21 (1985) pp. 298-323.

2. Compare with J. Piscatori, “The Role of Islam in Saudi Arabia’s Political Development”, in J.L. Esposito (ed.), Islam and Development: Religion and Sociopolitical Change (Syracuse University Press, 1980) pp. 123-138.

3. Kostiner, op. cit., H. St. John Philby, “Notes on Saudi Arabia for Dr. Hugh Scott,” from Philby’s papers, 29 August, 1944, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University.

4. See the theory of J. Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, )

5. H. Lackner, A House Built on Sand.

6. David Holden and Richard Johns, The House of Saud (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1981), pp. 198-222.

7. M. Abir, Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era (London: Cass, 1987) p. 159; J.A. Kechichian, “The Role of the ‘Ulama in the Politics of an Islamic State: The Case of Saudi Arabia”, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.18 (1986) pp. 53-71.

8. J.A. Kechichican, “Islamic Revivalism and Change in Saudi Arabia: Juhayman al-’Utaybi’s ‘Letters to the Saudi People’”, The Muslim World, Vol.50 (1990) pp. 1-16.

9. Ibid

10. Abir, p. 156.

11. The Economist, 18 March 1995; S. Henderson.

12. Financial Times (FT), Special Supplement on Saudi Arabia, 20 December 1995.

13. New York Times (NYT), 22 August 1993; Washington Post (WP) 28 October, 18 December 1994.

14. W. Ochsenwald, “Saudi Arabia” in S. Hunter (ed.) The Politics of Islamic Revivalism, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988) pp. 103-115.

15. M. al-Rifa’i, al-Mashru’al-Islahi fil Sa’udiyya: Qissat al Hawali wal-’Awda, (N.P.,1995) pp. 18-20.

16. R.H. Dekmejian, “The Rise of Political Islamism in Saudi Arabia”, The Middle East Journal 48 (1994) pp. 635-637.

17. Sa’d al-Faqih, “Which Way for the Kingdom?”, Middle East Dialogue No. 10, 10 May 1994.

18. Mudhakirat al-Nasiha (n.d.,n.p.) the September 1992 memorandum; Al-Muharrir, 14 September 1992; Mas’ari’s interview with Radio Tehran, 1 May, in by BBC World Broadcasts, 3 May 1995.

19. For instance, CDLR Monitor No. 66, 22 September 1995; M.S. Zein Al-Abdin, The Saudi Terror (Birmingham Centre of Islamic Studies, 1995) p. 5.

20. Rifa’i, pp. 21-25.

21. Mideast Mirror, 14 January 1996.

22. CDLR Monitor 65, 7 October 1995.

23. CDLR publication: Saudi Arabia, A Country Report, 3 January 1995;

24. Saudi Record of Human Rights 1994, a Report published by LIBERTY for the Muslim World, 6 February 1995.

25. Sa’ad al-Faqih, “Which Way for the Kingdom?”, Middle East Dialogue, No. 10, 19 May 1994.

26. CDLR publication: Saudi Arabia, A Country Report, 3 January 1995.

27. CDLR Monitor No. 65, 7 October 1995;

28. R. Schulze, Islamischer Nationalismus im 20 Jahr Hundert (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990), pp. 133-80.

29. Ehsan Ehsanullah, Siyasa Shar’iyya, The Anthropology of Injustice, The Case of the Saudi Kingdom (London, Hajrah Sanaullah Trust) 1994.

30. Financial Times (FT), 20 December 1995.

31. Al-Yamman al-Kubra, 19 November 1995; al-Kurbaj, November 1995. See also Bin Ladin’s interview Nida`al-Islam, October- November 1996.

32. Middle East Mirror, 30 April 1995.

33. FT, 20 December 1995; Gulf States Newsletter, 4 November 1996.

34. New York Times (NYT), 22 September 1994; CDLR Press Releases, 14, 18 and 23 September 1994. The discussion on the government responses, as well as on other issues of this article, derive from the chapters and resource material of Joshua Teitelbaum’s chapter on Saudi Arabia in A. Ayalon (ed.) The Middle East Contemporary Survey (MECS), Tel Aviv: The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. I am grateful for Josh’s cooperation and good advice.

35. Saudi Press Agency (SPA), 26 September – FBIS, 27 September, al-Hayat, 27 September 1994.

36. Al-Hayat, 21 October 1994.

37. Al-Hayat, 5 October and Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 9 October 1994; see Teitelbaum’s chapter in MECS 1994.

38. For the basic laws, see Teitelbaum in MECS 1992 and R. Aba-Namay, “The Recent Constitutional Reforms in Saudi Arabia”, The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 42 (1993) pp. 295-331. See also Fahd’s interview, al-Siyasa, 28 March 1992.

39. See Teitelbaum chapter, MECS 1994.

Joseph Kostiner is Associate Professor, Department of Middle Eastern and African History, Tel Aviv University and Senior Lecturer, Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.