Riyadh’s Role In Providing Theoretical Support For Extremism In Middle East – OpEd

By Hossein Kebriaeizadeh

Ideological conflicts have been always both customary and unavoidable. From this viewpoint, there are various forms of extremism, especially of the Takfiri type, which can be divided into different branches from ideological, political, tactical and other viewpoints. However, new instances of Takfiri extremism, which were seen in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and believed in conquering territory and even established a new form of government and rule known as the Islamic State, rang the alarms for those pioneering the idea of a world free of violence.

I personally believe that Daesh was the product of a special fertile ground in Islamic world, but nobody can be indifferent to major factors, which helped and accelerated spread of this phenomenon.

Ideological links between Daesh, as case study of this paper, and Saudi government’s official ideology led Saudi officials to the strategic error at the outset of this terrorist group that Riyadh would be able to form something similar to a modern army in the region by organizing members of this groups around the axis of fighting its ideological enemies. However, before long, as Daesh gained more power and formed the so-called Islamic State, and despite existence of shared values, differences in political views between the two sides caused the leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to introduce Saudi kingdom as usurper of the Two Holy Mosques. In doing this, Daesh announced that the only form of government acceptable for this group was the same violent government that they had already formed in Iraq and Syria.

This difference in viewpoints, which led to overt hostility between Daesh and Saudi Arabia, does not mean that Riyadh has stopped its direct and indirect support for the spread of extremism even under the present circumstances. Evidence to this claim is the hefty budget still allocated out of Saudi Arabia’s oil revenues to supporting those religious schools, speakers and media, which promote Wahhabism across the Islamic world. In doing this, Saudi Arabia is practically helping such notorious terrorist groups as Daesh or al-Qaeda to have access to abundant financial resources to recruit fighters and jihadist forces.

In fact, those factors, which Daesh considers as sources of legitimacy and popularity, are very similar to those factors, which the political system in Saudi Arabia considers as sources of its legitimacy. Wahhabism is currently being promoted in such a way both in Saudi society and across the Islamic world that it would pave the way for dictating blind obedience to the king as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques on the basis of the doctrine known as “one rule, one ruler, and one mosque.” This interpretation of Wahhabism is like a two-edged sword, because it can also enable Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to establish a similar government and require the entire Islamic world to bow before it. Anybody, who may be opposed to the ruler, could be then punished with the ruler’s sword of excommunication as was common at the time that the current government of Saudi Arabia was established in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Today, however, about one century has passed since the establishment of the Saudi kingdom and its rule has been strengthened. So, why primitive principles on which this political order has been based do not change in relation to democratic values? The reason behind survival of this way of thinking, which is known as the breeding ground for extremism, should be sought in the expediency-based approach adopted by the king himself and its regional functions.

Following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in the late 1970s, the Saudi government found itself faced with an ideological rival, which promoted a Shia government based on people’s votes, and in this way, pitted some form of Islamic democracy against the political thought of Wahhabism.

With Islamic democracy in place in Iran, Riyadh saw itself faced with the risk of losing legitimacy of its monarchial system as a result of which, it fostered an unhealthy model of ideological rivalry in the region. Organizing and supporting Takfiri groups in order to counter Islamic movements that had taken a democratic turn, was seen as being capable of both protecting the monarchial system’s interests and establishing the regional order, which would be desirable to Riyadh.

The emergence of Arab revolutions from 2011 onward faced Riyadh with difficult conditions. Now, Saudi Arabia had to choose between two options: either to accept changes in fundaments of its rule in line with those developments, or to resist those changes by taking advantage of the same tactic, that is, supporting extremist groups through a strategy that aimed to spread crisis to areas under control of its rival countries, Syria and Iraq.

The result of this decision was waging of a low-intensity war with Iran by taking advantage of ideological, identity-based and religious components present in the region. It was a full-fledged proxy war waged by taking advantage of unreliable armed forces.

Saudi Arabia had on its track records the past experience of supporting extremism in Afghanistan and Egypt in order to counter measures taken by the former Soviet Union and former Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, through the United States’ support during the Cold War era. In line with that experience, Riyadh decided to provide spiritual, financial, logistical, and intelligence support for these unruly troopers in order to makes its dreams about establishing the Wahhabi hegemony in the region and countering the so-called Shia Crescent come true. This decision, which was made even without due attention to domestic conditions in Saudi Arabia and the situation in the region, finally led to escalation of a widespread crisis and spread of terrorism over a short period of time and with an unprecedented degree of violence.

This path is not necessarily irreversible. Later establishment of an Arab coalition in order to fight terrorism by Saudi Arabia was an important, though inefficient, measure, because the first step in fighting extremism is to understand its root causes. Such understanding must first evolve among Saudi princes and other power circles in Riyadh, because these are places with the highest degree of division with regard to this phenomenon. Changing the content of educational curriculum in Saudi Arabia, revising the approach taken by such religious centers as the Muslim World League, and correcting performance of Wahhabi schools as well as the material taught by Saudi preachers, speakers and media are major steps to be taken in this regard. Such teachings, in addition to economic factors like poverty, unfair distribution of wealth and power, and absence of suitable channels for political, social and civil participation in the Middle East, have paved the way for extremist groups, which follow the same policy under different names, to pose a major threat to peace both at regional and global levels.


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Iran Review is a Tehran-based site that is independent, non-governmental and non-partisan and representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran’s political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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