Saturday, May 21, 2011

House of Saud

Review of two books on Saudi Arabia, springboard of Wahhabism, Al Qaeda, and peak oil.

[Note to readers- the blogspot overlord (pbuh) offers several new presentation formats, which you may be interested in, though "sidebar" seems the only remotely appropriate one.]

The Dune trilogy is one of the great science fiction works, with exotic setting, stirring drama, and fascinating ideas. But I hadn't been aware how much, consciously or unconsciously, it drew from reality, in the form of Islamic, and especially Arabian, history. Action centers on a desert planet, which produces a special substance to which the rest of the human-inhabited galaxy is addicted. Planet Arrakis is inhabited by wild tribal nomads, who eventually adopt a savior, and through a religiously zealous jihad (riding on sandworms, indeed) overturn the reigning aristocratic system and become rulers of the known universe, only to (fore)see the jihad run amok once the religious genie is out of the bottle.

With apologies to the Dune franchise ...

Unfortunately, it has been a long time since I read it, so I will beg off making more detailed parallels. But the unifying theme, as usual, is power and its nexus with religion. There is no more socially motivating force than religion. Yet there is also no more idiosyncratic, emotion-laden, and irrational force. What will people die for? Rarely for anything that makes sense, rather typically for an archetypal construct that expresses their deepest feelings and stirs essential meanings, especially if it offers the bonus of eternal life in heaven. Such things as ethnic, religious, and national identity typically fit the bill.

So what could be more appropriate, in this season of royal pageantry, killing of enemy #1, Jasmine revolutions, and our dawning recognition of peak oil, than to delve into the history of the world's last remaining real monarchy & country named after a family, and origin and home of the most uncompromising form of that most volatile religion-  Saudi Arabia?
"I am not Queen Elizabeth!"- King Saud ibn Abdul Aziz al Saud, upon being asked to be a figurehead. He was then deposed by his brothers, in 1964. (Lacey)

My local library stocks two excellent books on Saudi Arabia- The Kingdom, by Robert Lacey (1981), who apparently is royalty-besotted, having just come off a biography of QE2, and The Siege of Mecca, by Yaroslav Trofimov (2007). The latter is particularly good and focuses on the little-remembered yet highly influential takeover of the Kaaba in Mecca by a well-led and well-equipped band of proto-Al Qaeda millenarians in 1979. The former offers a more conventional, sweeping, and mostly sympathetic history of the Sa'ud since the late 1800's. Both tell the essentials of how the Saudi family nurtures and relies on religious fundamentalism for their internal power as well as external influence.

Power in traditional societies tends to be personal rather than institutional. Empires raised by charismatic personalities crumble just as quickly after their deaths. The terrorist landscape of Al Qaeda and the Taliban is an endless scroll of "commanders" with small groups having friendly, but not fully integrated, relations. This is one reason why the death of OBL is more promising than Westerners typically assume.

Arabia is exemplary in this respect, with tribes traditionally competing for power, and men competing for leadership within their families / tribes. Respect for elders is intense in this conservative society, but not to the point of primogeniture. Leaders have to earn their followings. This led, for instance, to substantial difficulties after the prophet Muhammad died, since many tribes that had converted to Islam regarded this as purely personal allegiance to him rather than an irreversible fall down some abstract theological rabbit hole. The ensuing wars led to a major crisis, whose resolution (i.e. reconquering the Arabian peninsula) led the Islamic warriors far afield and towards world domination.

Likewise with the founder of the modern Saudi state, Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Saud. Through a bold stroke of guerrilla warfare, he took over the capital of central Arabia, Riyadh, from the competing tribe of the Rasheeds at the young age of 26 in 1902. His father (Abdul Rahman) was still alive and head of the family, but let Abdul Aziz have all the glory and power he had earned, after which Abdul Aziz systematically turned surrounding tribes with his generosity, personality, and when necessary, force of arms.
"There were two types of desert warfare, Abdul Aziz's grandfather Faisal had told Colonel Pelley in 1865: religious war and political war. Political warfare involved compromise. But 'when the question is one of religion,' the old man had explained, 'we kill everybody.'" - Lacey

His key to gaining the vast area of today's Saudi Arabia was another inheritance from Muhammad, in the form of Islamic fundamentalist warriors. The Sa'ud family had since 1744 been allied with the ultra-conservative Wahhabi movement, whose main aim was to convert Arabs (especially the nomadic bedouin) from various lax semi-islamic and semi-animistic practices to pure & stringent Islam. The Wahhabis had plundered and massacred as far afield as Mecca and Karbala, Iraq in 1802. This alliance was revived and extended by Abdul Aziz after learning that a new fever of puritanism had swept some bedouin in the wastes to the north of Riyadh into a pious settled existence, calling themselves the brotherhood (Ikhwan).

The Ikhwan were not good farmers, and however devout, the oasis life wasn't economically successful. Abdul Aziz offered them a sympathetic ear, and pointed them towards Jihad, conveniently directed at various of his enemies in turn (between 1912, and the final battle in 1929 when the Saudis turned and emasculated the Ikhwan). The climax came in 1924 when the Ikhwan captured and massacred the inhabitants of Taif, the gateway to Mecca from the interior. The relatively cosmopolitan coastal residents quickly agreed to accept Abdul Aziz as their new overlord if he would (as he did) spare them a similar fate.

The original Wahhabis had massacred Taif previously in 1802, taken over Mecca, and instituted a Taliban-like rule that was far from forgotten. So the Saudis have been proud, but also quite nervous, stewards of the holy precincts of Mecca and Medina. They were looked down upon by the rest of the Islamic world as country bumkins and fundies. The Wahhabis had a tendency to kill other Muslims whom they labeled as apostates. Were Shiah going to be welcome in Mecca? The Saudis didn't want to end up like the Taliban in Afghanistan, reviled by most of the Islamic world for their fanatical puritanism. Abdul Aziz kept the Wahhabi clerics, not to mention the Ikhwan, on a short leash.

Meanwhile, in 1913, Abdul Aziz exploited Turkish weakness and distraction during World War 1 to take Hofuf, the capital of Eastern Arabia (the Al Hasa). Using the same minimalist guerrilla tactics of his Riyadh coup, the site of Saudi Arabia's current oil riches (and a heavily Shiah-populated area) was his virtually without a fight.
"It was Westerners who discovered and developed the Kingdom's fabulous treasure chest. Western economic theories and techniques are the basis of the Kingdom's present development plans. Without the ongoing development of the Western economies there would little market fro the commodity on which the Kingdom's good life is based - and almost every detail of that good life depends on imported foreign labour [and technology and goods] for its smooth running: in a Sa'udi hotel the receptionist is Moroccan, the waiters Filipinos, the room attendants Pakistanis, the cleaners Thais, the management Lebanese, European or American- and the Saudi guests feel superior to all of tehm. Does a duke feel inferior to his tailor because he can not make a pair of trousers? Sa'udis know that God gave them all the wealth and power that they currently enjoy, and they feel neither lucky, nor surprised, nor grateful to anyone except themselves - and God." -Lacey

The Ikhwan went so far as to infiltrate and invade Kuwait in the 1920's. But with the help of the British, Abdul Aziz started boxing them in, and with no more scope for plunder and no farming skills, they became more of a problem than a solution, rebelled, and were put down definitively in 1929.

The outsize personality, wealth, and success of Abdul Aziz bought his family some time after his death in 1953, and his oldest son Saud was installed on the throne. (Of some 43 sons ... and we worry about cloning! How many royal weddings could they stage for world consumption?) But it was only with the accession of Faisal, after extensive family unhappiness and discussion, that the Saudi royal system was more or less institutionalized as a state system.

For instance, Abdul Aziz was what we might call a tea partier. He couldn't conceive of useful government services or a role in general economic development, but just gave money away as it came in, as political patronage and alms. Only under his sons (still in office, in the form of Abdullah) did Saudi Arabia engage in serious public goods development.
"Saudi Arabia has a constitution inspired by God and not drawn up by man ... True socialism is the Arab socialism laid down by the Koran." - Prince Abdullah, in Lacey

As both books describe it, the modern (more or less) Saudi royals are sincerely undemocratic, religious and sympathetic to their Wahhabi ulema (the ruling body of clerics). Yet there is constant tension between these ultra conservative clerics and the needs of governing a somewhat diverse population (including the downtodden Shia- see recent protests in Bahrain) along with economic imperatives such as hosting foreigners and introducing such modern contrivances as TV and radio.

The Saudi regime is clearly the most stringently puritan Islamic state on earth (other than the ill-fated Afghan Taliban), not to mention incredibly rich, so the ulema know that they have it relatively good and support the royals without too much grumbling. For example, back in the 50's and 60's, the Saudis welcomed radical Muslim Brotherhood members, including the brother of Sayyid Qutb, after they were suppressed in Egypt by Gamal Nasser, who disparaged Saudi Arabia as a medieval backwater. Muhammad Qutb was even made a professor in Jeddah. But ...



Here we get to the fascinating book about the Siege of Mecca, which took place in 1979. As the royal family was sitting pretty, having used the oil "weapon" to both enhance their prestige across the Islamic world and multiply their income, they were blindsided by, of all things, Islamic fundamentalism. The first expression was the rapid evaporation of the Persian royal family at the hands of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Trofimov portrays the Saudis as horrified by US weakness in the face of this coup and the ensuing hostage crisis. (Lacey sniffs, disparagingly, that the Persian royal family numbered only a few dozen, while the Saudi royal family numbered easily over 4000. Point Saudis!)

Then while the Iran crisis was at a full boil, a band of several hundred Ikhwan-like fundamentalists led by the charismatic Juhayman al Uteybi [name note- "ibn" and "al" both mean "son of.."] took over the grand mosque of Mecca and proclaimed the savior of Islam (the Mahdi) to have arrived: Juhayman's friend Abdullah al Qahtani. These revolutionaries came prepared with food, with national guard training, and plenty of weapons & ammo. They set up lethally effective sniper nests in the manarets, and held the entire Saudi army at bay for over a week. They also broadcast their messages through released pilgrims and pamphlets, convincing many outside (through a viral marketing campaign, no less!) that just perhaps, at this new century of the Islamic calendar, (year 1400), the Mahdi had indeed arrived.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government was lying through its teeth- first cutting phone and media lines to prevent any news from getting out, and then, when the US shockingly leaked the story, falsely claiming at three separate stages that the mosque had been reclaimed. Rumors swirled. Iran and the US were both blamed. US embassies all over the Muslim world were attacked (most severely in Pakistan, of course). And back in Riyadh, the royal rulers were haggling with the ulema for a fatwa allowing them to barge into the holy of holies with guns blazing.

And here is the interesting part. The ulema was fundamentally in agreement with Juhayman's radicals. Its head was, in fact, one of Juhayman's professors at the university in Medina. Horrified, yes, that they had desecrated the Kaaba, but sympathetic to the vast majority of Juhayman's manifesto that he had read out to the startled pilgrims on their hajj. This manifesto ranged from lack of democracy to a lack of jihad by the ruling Saudis. From the pollution of television to the debauchery of Saudi princes. The worship of mamon and the introduction of women to the workplace ... all the fundamentalist grievances came pouring out.

Horse-trading commenced, and the desperate Saudi princes paid a steep price for theological cooperation in purifying Islam's own shrines: a rollback of social modernization, more Wahhabi influence in the schools, and more money for the ulema to evangelize in and out of the country for its puritanical views ... the very views that had occasioned the crisis in the first place. Incidentally, in a parodic bow to modernity, the Saudi governmental department in charge of religion was at this time called the "Department of Scientific Research and Guidance". So Saudi society sank deeper into the cycle of brainwashing, ignorance, bigotry, jihadism, and extremism, which, through the providence of endless oil money, it keeps exporting assiduously to all corners of the earth. We are now familiar with the double game played by Pakistan versus its neighbors and the West. But that of Saudi Arabia has been more profound, more global, and more damaging.

Trofimov suggests that Al Qaeda was inspired by Juhayman's actions and tracts. Ayman al Zawahiri was certainly a fan. OBL was an impressionable 22 at the time of the takover, and eventually took up many of Juhayman's issues, especially the presence of infidels in Arabia. Infidels (i.e. the rest of us) were already absolutely barred from Mecca, but the fundamentalists were scandalized by any presence in the country. Especially by a military presence, which was such a sign of Arabian impotence, and which subsequently grew as the Saudis took on deeper alliance with the US to keep the Persian gulf (and their own necks) free of Iranian and Soviet influence.

Trofimov points out that the fatwa authorizing government military force to clear out the Grand Mosque justified killing Muslims in the mosque (i.e. the rebels) by declaring that, by their actions, the Juhayman group had merited rebranding as infidels. This was quite a theological summersault, since the rebels, whatever else they were and had done wrong, were pious and fundamentalist in the extreme. (We love too much, and all that!) This casual reclassification of Muslim opponents as infidels was to be redeployed by many extremists & terrorists against the very institutions the ulema was protecting- the Saudi royal family and other corrupt or modernizing rulers across the Muslim world.

It brings to mind the mutual excommunication of numerous popes and other theologians in the more dramatic phases of Christian history. This kind of essential dispute can only be resolved in three ways. The community may squelch independent thought at some level and put itself under a unitary and unquestioned authority (the Catholic solution). Or the competing communities, while retaining their individual theologies, adopt a civil, even secular, space for discourse and renounce violence / power as the arbiter of truth (the Protestant solution). Or it is possible that a community reconsiders those questions to which it had given so much thought and energy and realizes that their framework is largely imaginary, turns away from them, and concentrates on those questions that yield, or can in principle yield, to good-faith investigation (the science/atheism solution).

While one wants to pay respect to the high points of the history of Islam and its peoples, they have clearly lost ground (or returned to their martial roots) when it comes to these various mechanisms to "tame" the essential and irreconcilable conflicts of religion. A convenient solution has been to let these differences flower, but deflect their violent energies towards hapless outsiders by the convenient and practical doctrine of jihad. Darwin would have been proud!

So the Saudis sowed the seeds of the whirlwind we are reaping today, allying themselves ever deeper with their Wahhabi clerics and at the same time with those cleric's worst enemies, the US. Luckily, they were at first able to export the combustible mixture to the killing fields of Afghanistan, where a more immediate threat to the umma than TV and women's rights materialized in the form of the Soviet Union. But of course they then also inspired the horrors of the Taliban government, and exported most of the hijackers of 9/11.

The long game for Muslim hearts and minds has come back to focus on the US for the last decade. With the Jasmine revolutions, we may have turned a corner among the relatively cosmopolitan portions of the Muslim world, which reject fundamentalism in favor of liberalism and democracy. Yet the subtext remains power and legitimacy, and religion remains central. As long as the primary allegiance of Muslims is to their totalitarian religion, then legitimacy and power will flow from religion as well, empowering those who claim to speak its most fundamental truths.

From Muhammad himself through to the Wahhabis, the Ikhwan, the Juhayman-ists and Al Qaeda of today, God favors and gives power to those on his side. Success in war directly implies spiritual righteousness. It is hard to overestimate the damage that this instinctive philosophy, expressed most succinclty through the doctrine of jihad, unleashes upon the world. Most religions, including Islam and Christianity, have tried to temper this atavistic instinct with rules of engagement that restrict what brutality one can inflict in its name, but each seeks and adulates power (King of kings, the Family, the Pope, the Crusades, God bless the USA, etc..).

Muslim extremists have labored (with our help) to portray the various US invasions as crusades, which then constitute a direct clash of religions and gods, victory going to the most righteous, and the most righteous justified by their victory, whatever the abhorrent tactics employed. Yet the other side of the coin rarely shines as cogently. Has the last century of weakness and degradation led Muslims to question their religion? Has the strength and victory of Israel reconciled, even converted, its opponents to its theology? Has Islam's inability to grapple with modernity and the consequent new forms of power led to doubt and atheism? For a few, yes. But for most, no. Religious narcissism doesn't let itself become so depressed, since its fundamental purpose is to provide hope and meaning in a confusing world. Self-pitying, other-blaming narratives and conspiracy theories typically fill the gap.

"'It's all part of a great plot, a grand conspiricy, ' King Faisal replied with confidence. 'Communism, as I told you, is a Zionist creation designed to fulfil the aims of Zionism. They are only pretending to work against each other.'" - Lacey
"Fahd: 'Our enemy is ... the world Zionism, which is seeking to harm the Saudi Arabian Kingdom and to distort its role in every way possible. ... A media war was in the full sense of the word waged against us ... Psychological rape- this is the right expression.' The Saudi royals  would use precisely the same language to complain about Western reporting on Saudi affairs after September 11, 2001." -Trofimov

After they crushed the Siege of Mecca, the Saudis frantically searched for the body of the purported Mahdi, which had not turned up and was feared to have supernaturally disappeared. Finally, a mutilated half-corpse was identified, allowing the royal family to exult that the whole affair had been fundamentally illegitimate. Since as the Mahdi's own mother bluntly said:
"If my son is the Mahdi, he will kill you, if he is not, you will kill him."



What of the future? There are several interacting trends: China is the major rising power that is looking for friends in resource-rich areas of the world, while the US is, in relative terms at least, declining in dominance. Peak oil is here, so all economies will be increasingly constrained by energy scarcity. And jihadism and liberalism will continue to battle for the soul of the Muslim world.

The Saudis, despite their huge reserves of oil, seem to be having difficulty raising production. Their domestic consumption is ever-increasing, making for what looks like a plateau or peak in marketable world oil production.



It goes without saying that they will continue to export oil for decades to come, and will continue to reap the riches of ever-increasing prices.

But what of their political and social system? The gerontocracy of Abdul Aziz's sons is coming to an end, and they will have to transfer power to a new generation of princes. Saudi Arabia was not untouched by the Arab spring, coming instinctively to Mubarak's defense, feeling immediately pressed to spread an extra $36 billion, and send their army to assist their fellow Sunni rulers of Bahrain to brutally suppress protests by their Shiah majority.

On the long term, one can see that Saudi Arabia and China have a convergence of interests. Both run autocratic yet relatively stable regimes that chafe under US domination. China has the money, and Saudi Arabia has the oil. The only missing ingredients are the military power and extensive relationships the US has in the Muslim world. (Though China has cultivated the friendship of Pakistan, which offers little but hatred of India and the US.)

But now, with the Arab spring, we are at a turning point, as the US backs democracy over autocracy (though Obama in his recent speech didn't breathe a word about Saudi Arabia- the royal elephant in the room). The US wants to encourage and be friends with the future democracies of Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and whoever else wants to join the party. Will Pakistan be on that list? Will Syria? Will Iran? Will Saudi Arabia? It is like the dissolution of the Soviet empire, played out in very slow motion, after its quasi-religious ideology, like that of Islamism, expired from direct and painful empirical disproof.

The question is whether and how long autocracies like China, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba can hold out against the Western model of legitimate and liberal bottom-up politics. As long as they can, we will have high drama and ideological tension in world affairs, indeed great danger if China turns jingistically nationalistic and sues for hegemony over its region and over other resource-rich areas of the world.

The US has played a long and generally consistent game, encouraging country after country from autocracy to democracy, by our example and actions. The list is long, from Japan and Germany to South Korea to the Philippines and Russia. Exceptions are glaring, such as Iran, Chile, and others. Numerous countries hang in the balance. But the liberal democratic model is attractive and durable, indeed essentially irreversible once established. China is truly the outlier, as a uniquely successful authoritarian system- will it undergo a spiritual turn towards Buddhism? Will it turn fascist? Or will its government oh-so gradually transform into a lawful, democratic system, now that the primary task of economic development is well under way and its middle class is growing?

Saudi Arabia has a more conservative culture than China's, even more deferential to authority, tradition, and ideological orthodoxy. I anticipate that their transition to the next generation of princes will go smoothly within the decade. But the tide of liberalizing sentiment and media across the Muslim world is lapping at their door. Even an alliance with China can not insulate them from their own people's basic desires and the moderation or collapse of their supporting ideology.


Their export of Wahhabism increasingly falls on deaf and resentful ears. The capacity of jihadis to terrorize their enemies and gain ground against the infidel has been nullified in the face of massive and persistent opposition from the West, particularly the US. Their tactics have been repulsive. The Saudis can see the jihadi blowback happening in Pakistan, as carefully tended militants feel worthy of more than just being used in geopolitical games. The export of bigotry and jihad can only go on so long before the market is saturated and foreign attention falls back on its source.

The Saudi government runs extensive theological retraining operations (along with brutal prisons) to mitigate internal dissent/extremism, (defined in relative terms!). But at some point, they will surely put two and two together and address the problem at its internal source- the Wahhabi ulema and its ideology. Perhaps the Saudis will invite Richard Dawkins to set them straight on how improbable Allah really is. [That is a joke!]  Extremism won't go away entirely, but as in the days of Adbul Aziz, if it no longer is useful to its sponsors, it tends to wear out its welcome and be defunded and deflated. It is hard to believe that the legitimacy of the Saudi state will not over time become more dependent on the desires of its people than on Wahhabi fundamentalism, with or without the royals at the helm.

... And then a new savior will arise, leading a ragtag but fierce band of bedouin|fremen out of the sandy dunes to cleanse the licentious rot of a modernized and fallen Arabia|Arrakis ...


"This is what Keynes had always claimed: the market system lacked a thermostat and its temperature was likely to oscillate wildly unless controlled by the government."
...
"Rich countries should be making preparations for life beyond capitalism."
"It is clear that the Japanese economy is dual in nature. Their export-oriented manufacturing sector is highly productive because it competes in world markets. Its domestic service sector does not have to 'compete' in this way and can focus on other objectives that are of benefit to the Japanese people.
Like – maintaining high levels of secure employment with comcomitant income security.
Like – being nice to each other when transactions are required.
Like – being nice to tourists who bring them income.
The result from the conservative perspective – low productivity and waste."

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