The Middle East Channel

Kings, clerics and the paradox of Saudi society

Visitors to Saudi Arabia this September bore witness to a rare spectacle, as thousands of young men spilled onto gridlocked arteries from Riyadh to Khobar to commemorate National Day. Similar displays of patriotic fervor pass without notice in many countries around the world. But in a kingdom renowned for the austerity of its conservative religious ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Visitors to Saudi Arabia this September bore witness to a rare spectacle, as thousands of young men spilled onto gridlocked arteries from Riyadh to Khobar to commemorate National Day.

Similar displays of patriotic fervor pass without notice in many countries around the world. But in a kingdom renowned for the austerity of its conservative religious movement, even a simple festival can be symptomatic of dramatic changes in the structure of society.

For decades, any celebration of the 1932 unification of the kingdom was widely interpreted as an affront to Islam. Powerful Saudi clerics conspired to treat tributary holidays, outside the two religious festivals of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, as heresy. For this same conservative clergy to ignore elaborate, state-sponsored celebrations and National Day-themed theater (in a country that does not allow cinemas) suggests that the balance of power between the House of al-Sa’ud and the House of Ibn Wahhab may be tipping in favor of the monarchy.

The current socio-political system in Saudi Arabia dates to the establishment of the kingdom by Abdul Aziz al-Sa’ud (Ibn Sa’ud). The expansion of al-Sa’ud’s power base beyond the central portion of the kingdom in Najd depended heavily on a group of desert warriors known as the Ikhwan, who had embraced the call to arms of al-Sa’ud’s then-ally and puritanical religious revivalist Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The same 1744 pact governing this alliance between religious and temporal power persists to this day through the clerical legitimization of the rule of the House of al-Sa’ud, and the reciprocal guarantee of the Islamic character of the state.

Under this arrangement, the descendants of al-Wahhab — the al-Shaikh family — exercise ultimate control over the judiciary, education and religious hierarchy through key positions including that of Justice Minister and Grand Mufti. Dynastic succession in the 5,000-man strong royal family is similarly restricted to the direct descendants of Ibn Sa’ud, who dominate political life in the country to an extent that is virtually unparalleled in the contemporary world.

The alliance provides the royal family with leverage to perfect the practice of co-option through intermarriage, the allocation of oil wealth and appointments to positions of power. As a result, the kingdom’s senior Wahhabi clergy, including the top cleric and highest religious authority, have been subordinated to the political order and are expected to ratify and justify regime policies.

The impact of this arrangement on the legitimacy of the official religious establishment has fluctuated over time, but state-appointed clerics continue to enjoy tremendous power in schools, universities, mosques and state-controlled radio and television. 

This is perhaps doubly true of the kingdom’s "unofficial" clerics and religious figures aligned with the fragmented Islamic awakening movement (sahwa). Members of this disparate group — made up of both moderates close to the reformist lobby and hardliners who provide moral succor to violent dissidents — share the social conservatism of their official counterparts, but derive their influence from their popular following and their willingness to openly challenge the regime.

The most prominent among them rose to power in the 1990’s by channeling popular anger toward official clerics who had legitimized the presence of American troops on Saudi soil.

Many of these same independent and politically motivated conservative clerics today oppose King Abdullah’s education and justice reform agenda, issuing hundreds of internet fatwas to derail modernization efforts. A royal response issued in August 2010, by way of decree, limited the authority to issue religious edicts to approved members of a 20-cleric Senior Scholars Authority and an affiliated committee.

The seemingly long-delayed decision to insulate the citizenry — and the royal agenda — from the influence of more extreme elements within the independent clergy, can actually be traced back to the early part of this decade. Following al Qaeda’s attacks on the kingdom in 2003 and 2004, the king encouraged nationalist sentiment by promoting patriotism (watania) as a stand-alone subject in the academic curriculum.

With the exception of a joint statement issued by 156 scholars expressing outrage at the perceived replacement of religious based loyalty with Saudi nationalism, the clerical establishment remained surprisingly quiet. Their acquiescence paved the way for King Abdullah to sanction National Day as an official holiday in one of the first decrees he issued upon coming to power in 2005. In every year since, preparations have been more elaborate, and celebrations more colorful, than the year before.

These incremental steps toward an opening of the social sphere in Saudi Arabia require time to become institutionalized. Unfortunately, the king’s advanced age and shrinking windows of lucidity suggest that time may be running out. With only an ailing 85-year-old crown prince standing between the reputedly conservative Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud and the throne, the people of Saudi Arabia have every reason to celebrate the next National Day as though it were the last. A brief patriotic opening may soon be drawing to a close. 

Ian Siperco is the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program for a global operational and political risk consulting firm.

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