The Saudi regime is trying to do three, probably incompatible, things: crush its internal al Qaeda movement, embark on very limited liberalization, and remain essentially a Wahhabist kingdom under the tight rule of senior members of the Saudi family. But Wahhabism, crucial to the monarchy, is not monolithic. Saudi Arabia’s Islamist, or Salafi, movement has now split in ways that are entirely unprecedented in the kingdom. Many conservatives still support the regime. But the Saudi Islamist reform movement now stretches from the liberal professionals rolled out by the royal family for visiting western media to the men of violence who strive to overturn that same royal family.
This extraordinary pluralism may offer the regime the chance to divide and rule. But the very fact that Sunni Islamist discourse is reaching out in so many different, though often overlapping, directions, creates dangers of its own. The kingdom is now a jungle of “reformists”, arguing about once forbidden subjects, discussing the efficiency of violence, contradicting one another fiercely, but all operating against the dark background of a young population (three-quarters of Saudis are under 30) facing a sharp economic downturn.
Crown Prince Abdullah, the effective monarch since his half-brother King Fahd sank into ill health, and his closest allies in the royal house, Prince Talal and his son, a business entrepreneur called Walid ibn Talal, have been quietly encouraging and funding some of the reform-minded opposition factions. They are especially sympathetic to the movements for advancing the standing of women. These sentiments do not run to their public utterances. The Crown Prince and his circle dare not formally defy the religious taboos on exposing women’s faces in public or allowing them to mix with male company. At an economic-political forum that took place in Jeddah last month, Lubna al-Ulayan, the daughter of a well-known Saudi businessman, Suleiman al-Ulayan, delivered a speech to the assembled audience. Her face unveiled, she stood before the audience and addressed them directly, not through closed-circuit television. While the religious conservatives were scandalized, Abdullah dropped an oblique hint that he was not unhappy with her performance through Ahmad Jaralla, the highly influential editor of the Kuwaiti al-Siyasa.
Abdullah’s opponents in the royal house are today, as always, his Sudeiri half-brothers, six of whom hold the highest positions in the realm. Fahd, the king, Sultan, defense minister, Nayef, interior minister and Salman, Riyadh district governor. Two more Sudeiri princes are deputy ministers of defense and the interior.
Nayef, as the minister responsible for internal security, is also in charge of the drive against al Qaeda activists and terrorists. His is one of the loudest voices to be raised against the Crown Prince, for the purpose of winching himself up into line as crown prince, then king, after Abdullah – ahead of his older brother Sultan. Abdullah, who would prefer foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, one generation down, as his successor, has declared all-out war against al Qaeda ever since its suicide attacks in Riyadh last year. He disapproves of Nayef’s policy of engaging terrorist leaders and attempts to buy calm, and even more of his angry outbursts at reformist meetings.
Still more rigidly opposed to the liberal movement is the king’s son, Abdelaziz, a pampered millionaire by virtue of the money showered on him by his ailing father from an early age. Yet he assaults the royal treasury with endless demands for cash.
Abdelaziz is ambitious for influence in the military and security institutions ruled by Fahd before he fell ill and as his father’s son claims authority over the media and national policy-making.
His posture on the radical versus liberal issue would be described in Saudi terms as Salafiyun, i.e. fundamentalist Wahhabi (as distinct from the al Qaeda brand of fundamentalism).
He too goes around issuing threats against members of the reformist movement. But above all, Abdelaziz is intent on building himself a power base as a pretender to the throne, one generation removed, which means he does not contest uncle Prince Nayef’s claim but is grooming himself to come next.
Knowing what America expects of it, the Saudi regime is allowing an unprecedented amount of free speech. This includes the various petitions, sometimes signed by several hundred members of the diverse “liberal coalition” (western-educated businessmen and professionals, feminists, liberal-minded members of the Shia minority and moderate Islamists) that are handed over to the royal family, albeit they elicit little or no direct response.
Some of the petitions call for far-reaching reform, even such unSaudi things as a constitutional monarchy and a bill of rights.
Saudi Arabia’s Islamist reformists can be (very roughly) divided into three broad categories.
First, those who stick to purely religious matters of observance, dress etc. They call for reform but not political reform. They may criticize the government, but within the context of the Koran’s ruling that the sovereign must be obeyed, even though he breaks your back or steals your money.
Second, a large, diverse and often contradictory group that calls for the reform of society as well as religious reform. Crucially, some go so far as to challenge the Islamic legitimacy of the Saudi state. Though they are mostly against the use of violence inside Saudi Arabia, they are divided about the use of violence outside the kingdom: a vital distinction for Saudi Arabia’s rulers. They oppose US foreign policy, and some speak out in support of the attacks on the Americans and their allies in Iraq. Some argue that if the Islamists try to reform Saudi Arabia by non-violent means only, they could become marginalized, like the Muslim Brothers have been.
Third, those who support violence inside as well as outside Saudi Arabia, and may be affiliated to al Qaeda cells.
The regime has cracked down hard on this last group. 2003 was a year of unprecedented violence, both ways. In addition to the well-publicized suicide attacks on foreign compounds, Saudi notables have been assassinated in remote parts of the country, and plans have been discovered to assassinate members of the royal family. In return, the regime has arrested hundreds of radical Islamists and destroyed many armed cells. It has also tried to draw Saudis away from violence towards a more tolerant form of Islam.
Even so, al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to enjoy the support of sections of Saudi society, including several fatwa-issuing ulama.
Nowhere is the jungle denser than on the Internet. After last year’s suicide attacks on Riyadh, the government discovered the existence of an active Jihad-oriented network inside Saudi Arabia. This included the personal websites of two clerics, both arrested last year, Sheikh al-Khudayr and Sheikh al-Fahd. Both had used the websites to carry their articles and their fatwas. Even more important, Yusuf al-Ayyiri, who was shot dead trying to escape security forces last year, was revealed to be the secret webmaster of Alneda.com, a site believed to be closely affiliated with al Qaeda.
These sites have disappeared. But even without them, Internet chat-rooms are alive with subversive gossip. Operating anonymously, and therefore safely, under noms de plume, the Saudi chatterers exchange heated words about the regime, and their belief in the efficacy or otherwise of violence. In one way or another, Saudi Arabia’s low-intensity warfare looks set to continue.