Key pillars of the Saudi state — oil, Wahhabism (a conservative form of Sunni Islam) and the strength of tribal norms — were instrumental in facilitating the rise of Islamist extremism and terrorism around the world prior to 9/11.
These same pillars allowed
During a visit to the kingdom last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Saudi rehabilitation program for former militants impressed him, prompting him to consider sending Yemeni detainees at
The Saudis probably have done “as good, if not a better, job of that than almost anybody,” Gates said of the Saudi program.
In separate comments, Gates called on Riyadh to assist Pakistan in the latter`s efforts to combat its rapidly expanding Taliban insurgency — and Saudi Arabia in fact has been playing a role in efforts to contain the Taliban insurgency in both Pakistan and Afghanistan for some time.
Saudi Domestic Counterjihadist Successes
The Saudis have had ample experience in dealing with religious extremists and militants since long before their struggle with al Qaeda in the
The kingdom`s founder, King Abdel-Aziz, faced a situation similar to that now faced by
Whereas the Pakistanis have nurtured jihadist groups as tools of foreign policy in their dealings with
While Abdel-Aziz was not interested in conquering additional territories, the Ikhwan had larger regional ambitions.
The group wanted to expand its jihad into places like
Exigencies forced Abdel-Aziz to choose the British, and he put down a subsequent Ikhwan rebellion.
Notably, this all occurred before the discovery of oil and
While the Saudis did not have their present financial resources, they did have one very important tool they wielded successfully against the Ikhwan threat.
That tool was religion, which had become a key part of the fabric of the Saudi state since its first incarnation in the mid-1700s.
Religion mixed in with a culture based on strong elements of tribalism and familism provided for a strong social contract involving the Saudi royal family, the family of Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab (founder of the Wahhabi school of thought) and the masses.
This historic Saudi-Wahhabi alliance has long provided the state with religious legitimacy, which the royal family has used to put down religious dissent on a number of occasions since the Ikhwan uprising.
Key among them were the 1979 incident in which a group of Wahhabi militants took over the Kaaba, the dissent within the religious establishment in the aftermath of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and the 2003-2004 al Qaeda insurgency.
The use of religion to consolidate national power has led to a significant blowback, as evident from the global emergence of violent Islamism. But unlike other states,
Religion and Tribalism
The secret to the Saudis` success was turning the rebels` strongest weapon, religion, back against them. This was possible because the state enjoyed a monopoly over religious discourse thanks to the vast religious establishment that
Paradoxically, while this religious establishment has been the source of much radicalism in
The tribal nature of Saudi society, with its norms of obedience to those in authority, complemented the state`s religious tools. The Saudi ulema supported by the tribes have laid great emphasis on Quranic notions of obedience to rulers as long as the rulers do not clearly defy Islam.
Another important tribal and religious concept is abhorrence of social chaos, which also helped the Saudis isolate the Islamist rebels from the rest of society by arguing that jihadist activity would lead to anarchy.
Tribal social structure imposes a hierarchy that forms a strong bulwark against rebellions by forcing conformity upon the tribes, clans and families. This limits the social space available for rebels to operate in. Tribes cooperate with the authorities in taking action against belligerents, and then they also take responsibility for the “good behavior” of repentant militants.
The power of the tribal norm is such that it is very unlikely that militants could influence enough tribes to mount a successful uprising. The Saudis have had some two-and-a-half centuries` worth of experience at skillfully managing tribal politics.
The rise and fall of the first (1744-1818) and second (1824-1891) Saudi states and the establishment of the modern kingdom in the early 1900s were to a great degree a function of the ruling al-Saud family`s ability to forge tribal alliances.
Prior to 9/11, one Saudi strategy for dealing with products of the Wahhabi establishment who exhibited levels of extremism deemed intolerable involved directing the radicals to fight in war zones like Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus.
This maintained order and security while the rebels were away (and in many cases the radicals died in the fighting). Even after 9/11 — and particularly in the wake of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq — the Saudis employed this approach to defuse domestic tensions and to try to contain increasing Iranian influence in Iraq and the rise of Tehran`s Iraqi Shiite allies.
But US-Saudi tensions in the aftermath of 9/11 reached a point where
Consequently, under the guidance of King Abdullah, the kingdom embarked upon a strategy of permanently dealing with the issue through reforms at the governmental and societal levels, a process that is still very much a work in progress. The aim was to curb further extremism, as well as to address existing radicalism.
High oil prices, which lasted until July 2008, gave the country the financial wherewithal to invest in such a major anti-jihadist initiative. But without a powerful religious establishment at its side, the money alone would not have permitted the Saudis to succeed.
This religious establishment has played a key role in the country`s rehabilitation program, which is designed to integrate militants who have surrendered or been captured back into society.
While financial resources have played a critical role in efforts to bring previously radicalized youths back into the mainstream, the scholars have provided the theological gravitas to counter the jihadist ideology and wean the youths from jihadism.
As mentioned, the process is still in its infancy, and incidents of recidivism have occurred.
For example, Said Ali al-Shihri emerged in
Still, the Saudis` ability to put a major dent in the capabilities of jihadists in the kingdom and to avoid major backlash to the reform process highlights
The jihadist threat within the kingdom remains, but a combination of unique circumstances enabled
Fears still exist that because of the ultraconservative religious nature of the state, the monarchy might fall and be replaced by a radical regime — especially as the kingdom enters an extended period of transition. But for now, the Saudi situation is stable to the point where the Saudis can look beyond their borders and offer help to other jihadist trouble spots.
Replicating Saudi Counterjihadist Successes
The first such place to do so is just south of the Saudi border. Yemen has become a jihadist hub where Saudi jihadists have regrouped along with their counterparts from
The country also faces other forms of unrest and insecurity that are weakening the state and raising fears of regional instability among
As a result, Sanaa and
Engendering a mainstream national religious identity takes a long time even for those states endowed with resources, which means there are serious limitations on how far
Moreover, the Yemeni state is dependent upon the tribes for support — explaining why Saana`s bid to win tribal assistance in dealing with militants has not attained the desired results.
The huge differences in economic conditions, religious hierarchy and tribal structures between
For example, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin has recently been involved in efforts to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban.
Likewise, the Pakistani interior minister and the two most senior generals of the Pakistani military have made trips in recent months to the kingdom — most likely not just for monetary assistance, but also to benefit from the Saudi experience in dealing with the Taliban problem.
Ground realities in
The security situations in
Both South Asian neighbors face full-blown insurgencies, making it difficult for the respective states to maintain their writ in the affected areas. This is quite different from anything
On the religious front,
Instead, they both have highly fragmented religious landscapes consisting of rival Islamist groups, competing Sunni sects and networks of madrassas.
Even the two countries` more mainstream ulema are divided into various groups. Unlike in
Even so, the Deobandis (the sect of the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups) are a growing movement, posing a challenge to the Shia and the majority Barelvis (a South Asian form of Sufi Islam).
On the social level, while tribes exist in both South Asian states, they are very weak compared to the Arab states in question. In
These factors place significant limits on how much the Saudis can assist
For these reasons, the Saudis have focused on trying to broker talks between the Taliban and the Western-backed Karzai regime in
Even on this issue, Riyadh is not having much luck, because the Taliban elements it has been dealing with thus far have been former leaders of the movement, while current Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar and his associates have rejected the idea of talks because they feel they have the upper hand in the insurgency and do not see the West as “staying the course” in their country.
As a result, the Saudis may be able to use their financial and energy clout to get the religiously and socially conservative forces in
But in sharp contrast to the way
Therefore, given the social fragmentation and complexities of the two South Asian states, the Saudis will not be able to help either
It can, however, assist in curbing religious extremism by undermining jihadists, given the ideological proximity of the Deobandis and the Wahhabis. But since the Saudis are still working on the ideological front through rehabilitation at home, it will be awhile before they can help others.
The Saudi example thus offers few lessons for Sanaa,
Ultimately, while the Saudis will be able to play an important role in providing financial assistance and some help in ideologically undermining Islamist extremism and radicalism, they will be able to do less on the physical battlefield.
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