The age of petro-Islam

By Azfar Mohammad

“One man’s loss is another man’s gain”. There couldn’t be a proverb more apt to describe the crucial developments that took place in middle east after the in-famous Yom Kippur War of 1973 which replaced Egypt with Saudi Arabia as the regional hegemon. Egypt, a champion of pan-arabism and secular nationalism in the region up until then under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, along with Syria,attacked Israel not only to reclaim territories lost during the 1967 War, but also salvage some of its lost pride by avenging previous defeat. However, the outcome of this war did not go in Egypt’s favour and it finally “broke the camel’s back”. Egypt, which was considerably weakened and demoralized with the result of this war was not only forced to surrender its leadership position in the arab world but also led to the “sounding of death-knell” for the ideal of “Pan-Arabism” or “Arab Nationalism” or “Secularism” which it had successfully championed until then. The ideology and movement of Pan-Arabism which had already become a major force by then, faded away gradually after this event and has not been able to get back on its feet since in a more divided and fractured arab world. The vacuum left by demise of Pan Arabism was filled by a puritanical sunni islamic ideology of “Wahhabism” under the leadership of Saudi Arabia which has continued to dominate the regional and global events taking place to this day.

In what can be called a landmark event, Gulf Arab monarchies came together to express solidarity towards the Arab cause by imposing an indefinite embargo on the supply of oil to Israel and its Western allies after the defeat of Yom Kippur War in 1973. This oil-embargo led to major supply shortages of oil and gas in the west resulting in a quick escalation of oil-price from US $ 3 per barrel to US $ 12 per barrel i.e a 400% increase. This particular event has brought an era of consistently rising oil prices allowing gulf countries to reap rich windfalls with bloated sovereign wealth funds, ultimately leading to better power projection capability in the development of regional affairs politically, economically and socially..There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has been a major beneficiary in this entire saga which unfolded in 1972-73, taking the baton of middle east leadership from Egypt, which it continues to hold to this day. This new found power and recognition gave Saudi Arabia the opportunity, wherewithal and power to propagate and spread its puritanical version of Islam in the form of “Wahhabism” not only in the wider middle east but also beyond.

Wahhabism is the name given to a reform movement started by Muhammad Ibn Abd-al Wahhab (1703-1792) during the 18th century in the remote district of Nejd in Central Arabia. He went to study in Basra,Mecca and Medina before returning to his home town of “Uyayna” in central arabian district of Nejd in 1740 where he began preaching and spreading his ideology , which was restoration of true islamic faith of the Salafis (first three generations of muslims) in “Tawhid” (oneness of God) and doing away with innovative practices (also called bida’a) of veneration and intercession of saints along with practices of sufism. Ibn Abd-Al Wahhab was highly influenced by famous traditionalists such as Ahmad Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah of the 8th century and 13th century respectively who were strong proponents of going for the literalist interpretation of Quran and rejected esoteric interpretation of the same. He followed the Athari creed in aqidah which is highly traditionalist in nature. Although initially restricted to the central arabian region of Nejd, the movement started gaining traction during the early 20th century. With the fall of Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Wahhabism spread to the cities of Mecca and Medina under the patronage of the nascent Al Saud dynasty giving it further visibility and legitimacy due to its presence in two holiest islamic cities and after the discovery of Oil in the persian gulf it gained further prominence by the printing and distribution of free Qurans in multiple languages & other Wahhabi doctrinal literature along with construction of mosques and funding the establishment of fundamentalist madrasas in the wider Middle East, Asia and Africa giving rise to Islamic fundamentalism.

One of the primary reasons for the continued success of this traditionalist reform movement which took root in a remote area of Saudi Arabia is the approximately two-century old politico-religious alliance between Muhammad Ibn Abd-Al Wahhab’s and Muhammad Ibn Saud’s (House of Saud) family which has been consistently strengthened through generations of intermarriages between the two families with each side helping lend legitimacy to the authority of the other in religious and political matters respectively.So when the Grand Mufti of Mecca, who is generally from the Al Ash Sheikh (from the lineage of Muhammad Ibn Abd-Al Wahhab) family says “that only the ruler has the right to call for Jihad” he lends religious legitimacy to the political power of the Al Saud ruling family. Similarly, when the Al Saud family gives the Al Ash Sheikh family a free reign in religious and doctrinal matters in kingdom by making Sharia the official law of the state it lends legitimacy to the religious authority of the Al Ash Sheikh family.Both the authorities complement each other.The office of Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, which was created in 1953 by King Abdul Aziz,is the most influential religious and legal authority in Saudi Arabia and in the history of Saudi Arabia it has been only once when the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia was not from the powerful Al Ash Sheikh family.This gives us an idea as to how strongly intertwined and interconnected the two most powerful families in Saudi Arabia are.

Consistent generation of high petroleum revenues has enabled Saudi Arabia to export its brand of Wahhabism to various other parts of the world ranging from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Caucuses and even South East Asia. Estimates show that Saudi Arabia has already spent upwards of US$ 120 billion towards religious causes abroad with an average of US$ 2-3 Billion per annum from 1975 onwards which is massive compared to the Soviet Union propaganda budget of approximately US$ 1 Billion per annum during its heydays.More than 1500 mosques, 210 Islamic centres and many muslim academies have been started during this time period who have the sole aim to propagating the Wahhabi/Salafi version of islam.

From 1975 onwards, with the growth in GCC economies there has been very high demand for expat manpower to work on various high profile projects in a broad spectrum of industries in the region, either due to the small size of indigenous population which does not allow the demand to be met locally or at times lack of availability of relevant skill set in the local market which requires companies to hire from overseas. This has led to mass migration of nationals from asian and south asian countries such as India, Pakistan,Bangladesh, Philippines and Indonesia into Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.This work related migration brings the expatriates into contact with the Wahhabi form of Islam in the country of employment and exposes them to the details and nuances of the ideologies and practices of Wahhabism which they then carry with them to their home countries and propagating the same within their families and wider diaspora hence assisting in the indirect spread of Wahhabi ideology to different lands and cultures. Apart from this, Islamic University of Madinah which was established in Medina by a royal decree in 1961 has been a major proponent for the spreading of Saudi religious influence globally. It invites students from across the world to pursue scholarly studies under the Hanbali-Wahhabi orientation (with fully funded scholarships) who then return to their home countries as ambassadors of the Wahhabi doctrine to spread the influence abroad.Another prominent NGO established by the government of Saudi Arabia to promote Wahhabism is the Muslim World League (MWL) established in 1962. This organisation has been responsible for various da’wa activities including conversion of non-muslims to Wahhabi islam and is currently under international scanner for various counter-terrorism related activities.

Over the past few decades , the puritanical version of Islam propagated and practiced by Saudi Arabia has come under the scanner for propagation of violence and terrorism. A recent study shows that between 1981-2006 (which coincides with the rise of Saudi Arabia as a regional hegemony) more than 700 terror attacks were carried out by Sunni extremists which has led to over 7000 deaths. This is probably a result of more hardline and less tolerant version of sunni islam propagated by the Wahhabis which is not only against other beliefs and religions but also against other forms,practices or Madhhabs of Islam. To some extent the idea of “Takfirism” is responsible for this in modern times which was first propagated by Ibn Taymiyyah in the 13th century to rise against invading mongols and it has gained favour in modern times because of the growth of Wahhabism which follows the ideology of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. By definition,”a Takfiri is a muslim who looks at the world from the position of two extremities i.e either true believers or unbelievers with no possibility of taking a more moderate and inter-mediate position. The views of Takfiris on suicide is very different from orthodox islam. Takfiris believe that if a person commits suicide for the holy cause then he becomes a martyr and goes straight to heaven. Although this branch was always a minority in the history of islam, unfortunately this ideology of Takfirism has taken root in various Madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan specially since the advent of oil boom which has bred thousands of suicide bombers coming from poor families with very little education to make reasoned independent judgement and are enticed into laying down their lives for the bigger religious cause. The orthodox sunni islam which is identified under the madhhabs of hanafism, shafi’ism and malikism has historically been more tolerant of other faiths and practices but has lost influence in the modern world due to its presence in lands which are not geo-politically or economically very influential.The Hanbali madhhab (promulgated by Wahhabis), which is most traditionalist in nature and only had a minority following during medieval islam has become more visible and dominant thanks to the economic and political power of its patrons.

Although United States is well aware of the ideology being promulgated by the Saudi Arabian regime which is contrary to orthodox islam, the geopolitical and economic realities necessitate keeping warm and cordial relations with Saudi Arabia and overlooking some of its contrary policies such as propagation of an extremist / intolerant version of Islam, since it is a major bulwark against the strongly anti-american Shi’i Iran. However by broadly assessing the changing global conditions over the last couple of years such as signing of nuclear deal with Iran, depressed oil prices and United States shale oil discovery and end of the historic cold war in 1989 makes United States much less dependent on Saudi Arabia than it was in the past.Although a recent visit to Saudi Arabia by Donald Trump in May 2017 re-enforces the age old association but the currents of change are more visible than ever before. With the depletion of oil wealth and the need to finance wars against resurgent Shia force in the region such as Houthis in Yemen and rebels in Syria and Iraq is already burning big hole in the previously deep Saudi coffers.Sunni political islam movement of the Muslim Brotherhood which has long been suppressed by both secular and monarchical forces in the middle east apart from some success during the 21st century in countries such as Turkey,Tunisia, Libya and Iran would be looking to capitalize on any potential opportunity they can get to consolidate their power at the expense of the GCC monarchies. Iran currently exhibits complete affinity and support for sunni political islam movements such as Muslim Brotherhood against the sunni monarchical powers in order to counter the power of Saudi Arabia which it considers as its primary foe in the quest for regional hegemony. It may not be a surprise that current forces of political islam who have surpassed sectarian barriers of shia and sunni rivalry in order to counter the powerful sunni monarchical forces(except Qatar which patronizes Muslim Brotherhood)may go back to the the age old sectarian rivalry of Shi’i vs Sunni should political islam rise as a force of major reckoning by suppressing the monarchical powers in the future. It remains to be seen how the region is going to shape up going forward but one thing is certain economic indicators of a country along with its ethnic religious affiliation clubbed with the way succession or hand-over of power happens to younger generation in the ruling families will determine who loses and who gains in this very precarious phase the middle east is going through currently.

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Azfar Mohammad

Azfar Mohammad is an independent analyst & researcher on Middle Eastern affairs. He works in the private sector based in Dubai for the past 12 years. During the course of his professional career he has travelled extensively across GCC region which has given him the opportunity to get a first hand experience of the economic, social and political landscape. He has extensively studied the region from the foreign policy perspective and is now working on doing a PhD in the subject.

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