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Saudi Arabia’s Future: Will Al Saud’s Partnership With Wahhabism Hold? – Analysis


Saudi Arabia may be heading into a perfect storm of economic problems, social challenges and foreign policy crises. Tumbling commodity and energy prices are forcing the Saudi government to reform, diversify, streamline and rationalise the kingdom’s economy. The government is cutting subsidies, raising prices for services, searching for alternative sources of revenue, and moving towards a greater role for the private sector and women.


Cost cutting occurs at a time that Saudi Arabia is spending effusively on efforts to counter winds of political change in the region with its stalled military intervention in Yemen, its support for anti-Bashar al Assad rebels in Syria, and massive financial injections into an increasingly troubled regime in Egypt that has yet to perform. Traditional autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa is being challenged like never before.

Reform bumps into Wahhabism

Despite renewed doomsday prediction about the viability of the Saudi regime, its future however depends less on how it solves any one of these issues individually. Instead, it will be determined by how the kingdom’s rulers restructure their Faustian bargain with Wahhabism, the puritan interpretation of Islam in which the Al Saud cloak themselves but which increasingly looms as a prime obstacle to resolving their problems.

Founded on an alliance between the Al Saud family and descendants of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, modern Saudi Arabia adopted an interpretation of Islam that is in many respects not dissimilar from that of the self-styled Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group that controls a chunk of Syria and Iraq. The Wahhabis’ jihadist and expansionist instincts have since dulled and its strict ulama or religious scholars class, has progressively compromised to accommodate the needs of the state and its rulers.

The question arises whether clerical accommodation of Saudi Arabia’s rulers will give the government sufficient leeway to tackle the multiple challenges it confronts or whether the Faustian bargain needs to be restructured to a degree that the very legitimacy of the Al Saud is called into question.

The Saudi rulers repeatedly bump into Wahhabism as they move to reform the economy, seek to differentiate Saud Arabia from IS, repair a tarnished international image, and ensure that the kingdom is not penalised for its four-decade old global funding of intolerant, anti-pluralistic Muslim communities in a bid to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran. Moreover, the more the Saudi establishment ulama accommodates the state, the more it sparks militant critics who accuse it of deviating from the true path of Islam.


An Unaffordable Risk

In its attempt to differentiate itself from IS, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as a victim of jihadist violence, taking a tough stance in confronting jihadists at home and abroad with its commitment to introduce ground troops in Syria, and painting Iran as the source of violence and instability in the Middle East. The Saudi effort has been only partially successful.

The risk the kingdom runs is becoming evident in ever greater scrutiny of Wahhabi and Salafi communities across the globe as a result of jihadist attacks like the ones in Paris in November. For example two major Dutch political parties have asked the government whether there was a legal basis for the banning of Wahhabi and Salafi groups.

If enacted, such a ban would lead to the prohibition of funding such groups and could prompt the Dutch government to ask the kingdom to remove its attaché for religious affairs from the Saudi embassy in The Hague. Over the years, other countries, including the United States, have moved to curtail inroads made by Saudi-funded religious groups. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to be penalised for the communities it funds and that lend the Al Saud their legitimacy. “Saudi Arabia’s strategic vision is, to put it bluntly, whatever is best for the ruling House of Saud,” said Saudi Arabia watcher Simon Henderson.

No Immediate Alternative

Similarly, the government will have to free itself from the social restrictions imposed by Wahhabism to rationalise the Saudi economy, bring women fully into the workforce, shift the economy’s emphasis from the public to the private sector, and diversify away from a 90 percent reliance on oil revenues.

Restructuring the economy inevitably will involve renegotiation of the Al Saud’s bargain with the Wahhabis and the kingdom’s social contract in which the population surrendered political rights for cradle-to-grave economic benefits.

With an unemployment rate of 29 percent among Saudis aged 16 to 29 who account for two thirds of the population, the government faces daunting challenges at home and abroad at a time of imposed financial austerity. Indulging puritan Islam is a luxury it increasingly cannot afford. Perhaps, the greatest challenge the Al Saud face is what alternative there is to Wahhabism that will legitimise their continued absolute rule. No immediate alternative presents itself.

This article was published by RSIS.

James M. Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog.

One thought on “Saudi Arabia’s Future: Will Al Saud’s Partnership With Wahhabism Hold? – Analysis

  • February 26, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    how is that Mr. Dorsey is not a spokesperson for CIA endorsed/funded views? In any case, his analysis is pretty good considering it’s a pretty simplistic bind Saudi Arabia finds itself in. However, the final sentence of the article may not be true. The fact is that something has got to give. As the strings are tightened and the tension mounts, there comes a point when the seams will burst – the seams of Islam itself! It appears that Islam is tearing apart. This multi-faceted rupture is occurring world-wide within the academic scene, while showing up on political radar screens mostly in the Middle East due, of course, to the manifest violence and concomitant breakdown of the social structure of nation states. But, Mr. Dorsey’s final sentence may not be the final word. Through a very complex process that involves all of the Islamic world – wherever there are Muslims! – what I expect to see come out of this convulsion is an abandoning of Islam, or rather the abandoning of strict Islamic practices by those who see the futility, the hypocrisy, the absurdity of the “pure” or “literalist” approach to the Quran, and its interpretative traditions. Al Saud will remove its robes! And put on suits. The women will remove their veils. And a new humanity will emerge out of the old Islam. What will it take to bring this about? First, the absolute END OF OIL as a fuel and income source caused by a powerful new innovative ENERGY source. (This will also either force the USA to sue for Peace world-wide, or blow the whole world up in self-immolation.) Second, social chaos of a kind equal to the Bubonic Plague, complete breakdown of the social order such that The People will have no use for Islam, and sense “Allah” has cursed them. This is my diagnosis of what is happening within Islam. It’s not exactly as short-term affair, but the dominos are already falling.


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