The House of Saud’s crisis of legitimacy

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The aftermath of September 11 has focused attention once more on the House of Saud and its ability to survive. There are growing indications that the genie of waning popularity, which the Saudi dynasty has long feared and tried to control by a legion of gimmicks, has again escaped. True, the Saudi clan is still established in the corridors of power, but an important pillar of its position seems to be seriously eroded.

The crisis has taken the form of a storm of criticism from a number of Saudi ulama, warning the government not to side with the US against a Muslim country. At least seven ulama have reportedly issued fatawa (juristic rulings) condemning the US and Britain for their attacks on Afghanistan. In a series of rulings in September and October, Shaykh Hammoud bin ‘Uqla al-Shu’aybi declared that “whoever supports and backs the infidels against Muslims is considered an infidel.” Shu’aybi, a former head of the department of theology at Imam Muhammad bin Saud University, is one of the most prominent and learned ulama in the kingdom. He comes from Najd, the traditional power base of the royal family, and lives in Buraydah, a town north of Riyadh. Buraydah has been a centre of religious opposition to the royal family for a decade; Shu’aybi was imprisoned in the mid-1990s for publicly criticising the ruling family’s policies during and after the Gulf war. He has recently been called in for questioning by the authorities on at least two occasions, but has consistently refused to be silenced.

Similar fatawa issued by Shaykhs Sulayman ‘Alwan and Ali Khudayr, two young ulama with links to Shu’aybi, rule that those supporting the US war against Afghanistan “by hand, by tongue, or by money” are automatically excommunicated from Islam. Other fatawa refer specifically to the country’s rulers as “infidels.”

These rulings demonstrate the growing rift between the House of Saud and elements of the Wahhabi establishment. They indicate that cracks are emerging in the 256-year pact between the House of Saud and the followers of Shaykh Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1793). The deal of 1744 between Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad bin Saud, then chieftain of the town of Dar’iyyah in Wadi Hanifah, produced a double-headed political entity that challenged the Ottoman state. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and the ulama exercised religious authority while the Saudi rulers exerted political authority.

Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab got most of his inspiration from the distinctive political views of Taqiy al-Din Ahmad bin ‘Abd al-Halim bin Taymiyyah al-Harrani (1263-1328), who denied the necessity of the khilafah, arguing that the true khilafah ceased to exist after the four rightly-guided khulafa. Instead of the political unity of the khilafah, he accepted plurality of Muslim states. Ibn Taymiyyah emphasised the importance of cooperation between the de facto rulers and the religious establishment for the implementation of the Shari’ah. He interpreted the Qur’anic phrase “those of you who are in authority” (uli al-amr minkum, 4:59) to mean the ulama and the amirs. The ulama interpret the Shari’ah and have the authority to administer it, mainly as judges, working in conjunction with the amirs.

It can be argued that Ibn Taymiyyah tried to increase the influence of the ulama. His theory was a departure from the classical Sunni view exemplified by Abu al-Hassan ‘Ali bin Muhammad bin Habib al-Mawardi (974-1058), which accepts the legitimacy of de facto rulers, provided that their authority is recognized by the khalifah. Instead, for Ibn Taymiyyah governance and religious learning are combined into a whole whereby shawkah (force, might) becomes dependent on carrying out the objectives of the Shari’ah under the supervision of the ulama. However, in practice the division of power and authority into spiritual and temporal, religious and political, succumbs to an irremediable dualism whereby Shari’ah and deen are subordinated to the exigencies of raison d’etat and politics.

It was through Wahhabism that the political theory of Ibn Taymiyyah found its practical expression. Unlike other reformist movements in the history of Islam, where the ultimate authorities were vested in the leaders of these groups, the duality and bifurcation of religious and political leadership figure prominently in Wahhabism. After the alliance between Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Ibn Saud, the conquests of the Saudi-Wahhabi forces spread the Saudis’ dominion and the Wahhabi doctrine simultaneously. As such, Wahhabism provided the Saudi state with legitimation, an acceptance of the House of Saud’s right to rule and their subjects’ obligation to obey them. The Wahhabi ulama became an ideological elite, helping to maintain and legitimize the political system and government.

But Ibn Taymiyyah’s division of authority results in political contradiction. The absolute monopoly of shawkah is bound to clash eventually with the supervisory role of the ulama. Suspended between these two poles, the political system is prone to instability. The arrangement is a double-edged sword. It fosters political dissent on religious grounds. The relative openness of the religious institutions enables them to play a leading role in voicing political grievances.

The main impression that transpires from a cursory examination of Saudi history is that it is the shawkah of the House of Saud, rather than the theological and juristic epistemology of the ulama, that has been setting most of their agenda. The crushing of the Ikhwan fighters, the Wahhabi political force that helped king Abd al-‘Aziz to extend his sway throughout the Arabian peninsula in the first quarter of the twentieth century, demonstrated this primacy of the shawkah of the Saudi royal family over the religious institutions in the country’s political life. Oil wealth, which enabled the state to provide the ulama with handsome salaries, social status and positions of importance, supported the royal family’s efforts to absorb the religious institutions of Islam, such as mosques, schools, courts and awqaf (religious endowments), into the state apparatus. By and large, the role of the ulama was reduced to providing institutional support and legitimation for the regime, and engineering the people’s consent.

Yet the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and subsequent war brought this extended honeymoon to an end, as Islamic radicals and ulama began to voice their opposition to the presence of American troops on the Arabian peninsula, and also their dissatisfaction with the royal family’s corrupt and dictatorial rule. A number of prominent ulama, notably Safar al-Hawali, dean of the department of Islamic studies at Umm al-Qura University, Makkah, and Sulayman al-‘Udah were quick to denounce the decision of king Fahd bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz to seek western help to confront Saddam Hussein.

The distrust between religious circles and the government over the presence of foreign forces in the kingdom continued after the war. The government’s efforts to obtain religious sanction for its policies through fatawa from the kingdom’s highest religious authorities were in vain. A number of university lecturers and ulama have since castigated the government for adopting policies that they deem to be unIslamic. Audiotapes of many critical lectures circulated around the country; memoranda of advice (naseehah), calling for an independent consultative assembly, an independent judiciary, government accountability and a crackdown on corrupt officials, were addressed to the king.

On the heels of these developments came the establishment of organized opposition groups such as the Committee to Defend Legitimate Rights and the Movement for Islamic Reform. These movements added renewed vigour to non-violent political opposition. They embarked on wide-ranging campaigns using fax, email and toll-free numbers. Unlike earlier episodes, in which dissent erupted into public confrontation, such as the takeover in 1979 of al-Haram al-Shareef in Makkah by Juhayman al-‘Utaybi and his followers, this time dissent seems to have wide support. The demonstrations in Buraydah demanding the release of jailed ulama (1994) underline the popularity of the movement.

There has also reportedly been increasing support for Usama bin Ladin. A tape distributed last summer, showing fighters performing urban and guerrilla-warfare games in their camps while bin Ladin criticised the US and Israel, shook the authorities. The tape’s great popularity prompted the police to round up dozens of people suspected of distributing it, and to interrogate them about their links with bin Ladin and his network. The rate of arrests increased dramatically after September 11.

The Saudi government’s reluctance to allow the US to use the Prince Sultan Air Base in Dhahran in its bombing campaign against Afghanistan shows the increasingly difficult predicament it faces: a strong alliance with the US under the present conditions could foment even more serious trouble at home. In fact, internal pressures are more important in explaining the muted Saudi support for the US’s “war on terrorism” than Washington’s pro-Israel bias.

The escalating tension between the Wahhabi ulama and the House of Saud could be explosive. It effectively undermines the religious aspect of the Saudis’ dynastic legitimacy. The claim of legitimacy is an important part of a government’s ability to sustain the consent of the majority of the population, that is their acceptance of that government’s authority over them. No government can long operate without inspiring in its populace an emotional faith in its legitimacy in this sense. Without this it will be increasingly compelled to function by coercion and inducements. Combined with other weaknesses, such as deepening socioeconomic distress, the intensifying crisis of legitimacy could make the cumbersome apparatus of the Saudi state a political Titanic, a ship headed straight for icebergs.

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