This book project on Saudi public diplomacy using primarily the kingdom’s financial muscle has had a long gestation. It focuses on the impact of various policies of the kingdom on Muslim communities and nations across the globe.
In doing so, I will concentrate on Saudi government policy and actions as well as those of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family rather than wealthy individuals who may or may not be associated with them. As a result, theological and ideological differences between various expressions of Muslim ultra-conservatism fall beyond the parameters of what I am looking at.
My thinking on this has evolved in the past year despite having covered the Saudi efforts for many years from very different angles and multiple geographies. The evolution of my thinking is reflected in the fact that were I looking today for a title for these remarks, I’d call it Saudi export of ultra-conservatism rather than Wahhabism. The reason is simple: Saudi export and global support for religiously driven groups goes far beyond Wahhabism. It is not simply a product of the Faustian bargain that the Al Sauds made with the Wahhabis. It is central to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to position itself internationally and flex its muscles regionally as well as on the international stage and has been crucial to the Al Sauds’ survival strategy for at least the last four decades.
There is a lot of talk about Saudi funding of Wahhabism, yet in the mushrooming of Islamic ultra-conservatism in the last half century, Wahhabis as a group form a minority in the ultra-conservative Muslim world. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: For the Saudi government, support of puritan, intolerant, non-pluralistic and discriminatory forms of ultra-conservatism – primarily Wahhabism, Salafism in its various stripes, and Deobandism in South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora – is about soft power and countering Iran in what is for the Al Sauds an existential battle, rather than religious proselytization. One other important aspect is that South Asia has been an important contributor to ultra-conservative thinking for more than a century. Another significant element is the fact that while the Saudi campaign focuses predominantly on the Muslim world, it also at times involved ties to other, non-Muslim ultra-conservative faith groups and right-wing political groups.
Saudi Arabia’s focus on ultra-conservatism rather than only Wahhabism or quietist forms of Salafism allowed the kingdom to not simply rely on export of its specific interpretation of Islam but also to capitalize on existing, long-standing similar worldviews, particularly in South Asia. South Asia is also where the Saudi effort that amounts to the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in post-World War Two history, bigger than anything that the Soviet Union or the United States attempted, had its most devastating effect.
The campaign is an issue that I have looked at since I first visited the kingdom in the mid-1970s, during numerous subsequent visits, when I lived in Saudi Arabia in the wake of 9/11, and during a 4.5-year court battle that I won in 2006 in the British House of Lords, a landmark case that contributed to changes in English libel law.
The scope of the Saudi campaign goes far beyond religious groups because it is about soft power and geopolitics and not just proselytization. It involved the funding of construction of mosques and cultural institutions; networks of schools, universities and book and media outlets, and distribution of not only Wahhabi literature in multiple languages but also of works of ultra-conservative scholars of other stripes. It also involved forging close ties, particularly in Muslim majority countries, with various branches of government, including militaries, intelligence agencies and ministries of education, interior and religious affairs to ensure that especially when it came to Iran as well as Muslim minority communities like the Ahmadis and Shiites, Saudi Arabia’s worldview was well represented.
An example of this is Indonesia where Asad Ali, the recently retired deputy head of Indonesian intelligence and former deputy head of Nahdlatul Ulema (NU), one of the world’s largest Islamic movements that prides itself on its anti-Wahhabism, professes in the same breath his dislike of the Wahhabis and warns that Shiites are one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security. Shiites constitute 1.2 percent of the Indonesian population, including the estimated 2 million Sunni converts over the last 40 years. A fluent Arabic speaker who spent years in Saudi Arabia as the representative of Indonesian intelligence, this intelligence and religious official is not instinctively anti-Shiite, but sees Shiites as an Iranian fifth wheel. In other words, the impact of Saudi funding and ultra-conservatism is such that even NU is forced to adopt ultra-conservative language and concepts when it comes to perceptions of the threat posed by Iran and Shiites.
In waging its campaign, Saudi Arabia was not alone. It benefitted from governments eager to benefit from Saudi largesse and willing to use religion opportunistically to further their own interests that cooperated with the kingdom wholeheartedly to the ultimate detriment of their societies.
Much of Saudi funding in the last half century, despite the more recent new assertiveness in the kingdom’s foreign and defense policy, was directed at non-violent, ultra-conservative groups and institutions as well as governments. It created environments that did not breed violence in and of themselves but in given circumstances greater militancy and radicalism. Pakistan is probably the one exception, the one where a more direct comparison to Russian and Communist support of liberation movements and insurgencies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is most relevant.
In many ways, the chicken is coming home to roost. The structure of the Saudi funding campaign was such that the Saudis ultimately unleashed a genie they did not and were not able to control, that has since often turned against them, particularly with a host albeit not all militant Islamist and jihadist groups, and that no longer can be put back into the bottle.
The government, to bolster its campaign created various institutions including the Muslim World League and its multiple subsidiaries, Al Haramain, another charity that ultimately pos-9/11 was disbanded because of its militant links, and the likes of the Islamic universities in Medina, Pakistan and Malaysia. In virtually all of these instances, the Saudis were the funders. The executors were others often with agendas of their own such as the Brotherhood with the Muslim World League or in the case of Al Haramain, more militant Islamists, if not jihadists. Saudi oversight was non-existent and the laissez-faire attitude started at the top. Saudis seldom figure in the management or oversight of institutions they fund outside of the kingdom, the International Islamic University of Islamabad being one of the exceptions.
This lack of oversight was evident in the National Commercial Bank (NCB) when it was Saudi Arabia’s largest financial institution. NCB had a department of numbered accounts. These were all accounts belonging to members of the ruling family. Only three people had access to those accounts, one of them was the majority owner of the bank, Khaled Bin Mahfouz. Bin Mahfouz would get a phone call from a senior member of the family who would instruct him to transfer money to a specific country, leaving it up to Bin Mahfouz where precisely that money would go.
In one instance, Bin Mahfouz was instructed by Prince Sultan, the then Defence Minister, to wire US $5 million to Bosnia Herzegovina. Sultan did not indicate the beneficiary. Bin Mahfouz sent the money to a charity in Bosnia, that in the wake of 9/11 was raided by US law enforcement and Bosnian security agents. The hard disks of the foundation revealed the degree to which the institution was controlled by jihadists.
At one point, the Saudis suspected one of the foundation’s operatives of being a member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad. They sent someone to Sarajevo to investigate. The investigator confronted the man saying: “We hear that you have these connections and if that is true we need to part ways.” The man put his hand on his heart and denied the allegation. As far as the Saudis were concerned the issue was settled until the man later in court testimony described how easy it had been to fool the Saudis.
The impact and fallout of the Saudi campaign is greater intolerance towards ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, increased sectarianism and a pushback against traditional as well as modern cultural expressions in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali and Bosnia Herzegovina.
It creates a wasteland that Saadat Hasan Manto, a Muslim journalist, Indian film screenwriter and South Asia’s foremost author of short stories, envisioned as early as 1954 in an essay, ‘By the Grace of Allah.’ Manto described a Pakistan in which everything – music and art, literature and poetry – was censored. “There were clubs where people gambled and drank. There were dance houses, cinema houses, art galleries and God knows what other places full of sin … But now by the grace of God, gentlemen, one neither sees a poet or a musician… Thank God we are now rid of these satanic people. The people had been led astray. They were demanding their undue rights. Under the aegis of an atheist flag they wanted to topple the government. By the grace of God, not a single one of those people is amongst us today. Thank goodness a million times that we are ruled by mullahs and we present sweets to them every Thursday…. By the grace of God, our world is now cleansed of this chaos. People eat, pray and sleep,” Manto wrote.
The fallout of Saudi- and government-backed ultra-conservatism has been perhaps the most devastating in Pakistan. There are a variety of reasons for this including,
the fact that Pakistan was founded as a Muslim state rather than a state populated by a majority of Muslims,
the resulting longstanding intimate relationship; between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that long before the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s led to constitutional amendments against the Ahmadis and every Pakistani applying for a passport being forced to effectively sign an anti-Ahmadi oath;
the devastating impact of the jihad itself on Pakistan; and
Pakistan’s use of militant Islamist and jihadist groups to further its geopolitical objectives.
To be sure, the Saudi campaign neatly aligned itself with the manipulation of religiously-inspired groups by governments as well as the United States to counter left-wing, communist and nationalist forces over the decades.
Pakistan had however from the Saudi perspective additional significance. It borders on Iran and is home to the world’s largest Shiite minority that accounts for roughly a quarter of Pakistan’s 200 million people.
The result is that with the exception today of Syria and Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990s, Pakistan is the only country where Saudi funding strayed beyond support for non-violent groups. In Pakistan, the Saudis were at the birth of violent groups that served their geopolitical purposes, many of which are theoretically banned but continue to operate openly with Saudi and government support, groups whose impact is felt far and wide, including here in Britain as was evident with the recent murder of an Ahmadi in Glasgow. These groups often have senior members resident in Mecca for many years who raise funds and coordinate with branches of the Saudi government.
These groups as well as Pakistani officials have little hesitation in discussing Saudi Arabia’s role as I found out recently during a month of lengthy interviews with leaders and various activists of groups like Sipaha-e-Sabaha, Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat, the remnants of Lashkar-e-Janghvi whose senior leadership was killed in a series of encounters with Pakistani security forces, Lashkar-e-Taibe and Harakat al Mujahedeen as well as visits to their madrassas.
I want to conclude by suggesting that the Saudi campaign may be coming to the end of its usefulness even if its sectarian aspects remain crucial in the current environment. Nonetheless, I would argue that the cost/benefit analysis from a Saudi government perspective is beginning to shift. Not only because of the consequences of ultra-conservatism having been woven into the fabric of Pakistani society and government to a degree that would take at least a generation to reverse and that threatens to destabilize the country and the region.
But also because identification of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism with jihadists like the Islamic State has made the very ideology that legitimizes the rule of the Al Sauds a target witness debates in countries like the Netherlands and France about the banning of Salafism. Bans will obviously not solve the jihadist problem but as Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism increasingly is in the crosshairs, efforts to enhance Saudi soft power will increasingly be undermined.
Remarks at 2016 Exeter Gulf Conference