by James M. Dorsey
Edited remarks at The Middle East and the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University and the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC 18-19 April 2018
There has long been debate about the longevity of the Saudi ruling family. One major reason for doubts about the Al Sauds’ viability was the Faustian bargain they made with the Wahhabis, proponents of a puritan, intolerant, discriminatory, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam.
It was a bargain that has produced the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history. Estimates of Saudi spending on the funding of ultra-conservative Muslim cultural institutions across the globe and the forging of close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations that have bought into significant, geopolitical elements of the Wahhabi worldview are ballpark. With no accurate date available, they range from $75 to $100 billion.
It was a campaign that frequently tallied nicely with the kingdom’s deep-seated anti-communism, its hostility to post-1979 Iran, and the West’s Cold War view of Islam as a useful tool against Arab nationalism and the left – a perception that at times was shared by Arab autocrats other than the Saudis.
The campaign was not simply a product of the marriage between the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis. It was long central to Saudi soft power policy and the Al Saud’s survival strategy. One reason, certainly not the only one, that the longevity of the Al Sauds was a matter of debate was the fact that the propagation of Wahhabism was having a backlash at home and in countries across the globe. More than ever before theological or ideological similarities between Wahhabism or for that matter Salafism and jihadism were since 9/11 under the spotlight.
The problem for the Al Sauds was not just that their legitimacy seemed to be wholly dependent on their identification with Wahhabism. It was that the Al Sauds since the launch of the campaign were often only nominally in control of it. They had let a genie out of the bottle that now leads an independent life and that can’t be put back into the bottle.
That is one major reason why some have argued in the past decade that the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis were nearing a crunch point. One that would not necessarily offer solutions but could make things worse by sparking ever more militant splits that would make themselves felt across the Muslim world and in minority Muslim communities elsewhere in multiple ways including increasing sectarian and intolerant attitudes in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The rise of Mohammed bin Salman clearly challenges these assumptions. For one, it raises the question to what degree the rule of the Al Sauds remains dependent on religious legitimization as Mohammed moves de facto from consensual family to one-man rule in which he anchors his legitimacy in his role as a reformer.
It also begs the question of what would ideologically replace ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam as Saudi Arabia’s answer to perceived Iranian revolutionary zeal. The jury on all of this is out. They key lies in the degree to which Mohammed is successful in implementing social and economic reform, his yet to be clarified definition of what he envisions as moderate Islam, and what resistance to his religious redefinition and social reforms will emerge among members of the religious establishment and segments of the population.
Mohammed has so far dropped tantalizing clues, but neither said nor done anything that could be considered conclusive. In fact, what he has not done or said may be more telling, even if it would be premature to draw from that conclusions of the potential limits of change that he envisions. On the plus side, he introduced social reforms that enhance women’s opportunities and relaxed restrictions on cultural expression.
At the same time, he has whipped the religious establishment into subservience and positioned them, including key vehicles like the World Muslim League that the government used to fund and propagate ultra-conservatism, as forces against extremism and militancy and in favour of religious tolerance and dialogue. In February, Saudi Arabia agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels after its efforts to install a more moderate administration failed to counter mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism propagated by mosque executives.
Saudi officials have spoken of a possible halt to the funding internationally of religious institutions although an apparent agreement to pump $1 billion into the building of hundreds of mosques and religious centres in Bangladesh would suggest otherwise. The failure in Brussels and the fact that there is little reason to believe that the religious establishment has experienced a true change of heart or that Saudi Arabia has satisfactorily completed a revision of its text and religious books suggests that the kingdom is ill-prepared to propagate a truly moderate form of Islam in Bangladesh or anywhere else.
In some ways, the question is whether this matters as much outside the kingdom as it does domestically. The parameters have changed with Mohammed’s grip on power but the fact that the religious establishment was willing to ultimately compromise on its theological principles to accommodate the political and geopolitical needs of the Al Sauds has been a long-standing fixture of Saudi policy making.
For the Wahhabi and Salafi ulema, the public diplomacy campaign was about proselytization, the spreading of their specific interpretation of the faith. For the government, it was about soft power. At times the interests of the government and the ulema coincided, and at times they diverged.
Yet, more often than not the requirements of the government and the family took precedence. While contacts between Wahhabi and Deobandi scholars from the Indian sub-continent go back to the 1930s, if not earlier, Saudi scholars were willing to put their differences aside as Deobandis emerged as a powerful force among the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in the 1980s and subsequent anti-Shiite strife in Pakistan.
The problem in mapping the financial flows of the campaign is that the sources were multiple and the lines between the funding streams often blurred. No doubt, the government was the major funding source but even than the picture is messy. For one, who constitutes the government? Were senior princes who occupied powerful government positions officials or private persons when they donated from their personal accounts in a country in which it was long difficult to distinguish between the budget of the government and of the family?
On top of that, the government had multiple funding streams that included the foreign ministry using its network of diplomatic missions abroad, the multiple well-endowed governmental non-governmental organizations such as the Muslim World League that often were run with little if any oversight by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood with their own agenda, institutions in the kingdom like the Islamic University of Medina and its counterparts in Pakistan and Malaysia, as well as funds distributed by Islamic scholars and wealthy individuals.
Adding to the complexity was the fact that there was no overview of what private donors were doing and who was a private donor and who wasn’t. This pertains not only to the blurred lines between the government and the ruling family but also to Saudis of specific ethnic heritage, for example Pakistanis or Baloch, as well as Saudi intelligence. At times members of ethnic communities potentially served as government proxies for relationships with militant anti-Shiite groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Taiba and their successors and offshoots in Pakistan.
Further complicating a financial assessment is the lack of transparency on the receiver’s end. In some cases, like Malaysia the flow of funds was controlled by authorities and/or a political party in government. In others like Indonesia, money often came in suitcases. Customs officials at airports were instructed to take their cut and allow the money in with no registration.
In other words, while the Saudis donated they seldom prior to 9/11 and the 2003/2004 Al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom exercised control over what was done with the funds. The National Commercial Bank when it was Saudi Arabia’s largest financial institution had a department of numbered accounts. These were largely 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. Khaled 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 Khaled where precisely that money would go.
In one instance, Khaled was instructed by Prince Sultan, the then defense minister, to wire $5 million to Bosnia. Sultan did not indicate the beneficiary. Khaled sent the money to a charity in Sarajevo 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 measure of success of the Saudi campaign is not exclusively the degree to which it was able to embed religious ultra-conservatism in communities across the globe. From the perspective of the government and the family, far more important was ultra-conservatism’s geopolitical component, its anti-Shiite and resulting anti-Iranian attitude.
The man who was until a couple of years ago deputy head of Indonesian intelligence and deputy head of Nahdlatul Ulema, one of the world’s largest Islamic movements that professes to be anti-Wahhabi, symbolizes the campaign’s success in those terms. He is a fluent Arabic speaker. He spent 12 years in the Middle East representing Indonesian intelligence, eight of those in Saudi Arabia. He professes in the same breath his dislike of the Wahhabis and at the same time warns that Shiites, who constitute 1.2 percent of the Indonesian population and that includes the estimated 2 million Sunni converts over the last 40 years, are one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security. This man is not instinctively anti-Shiite but sees Shiites as an Iranian fifth wheel.
The result of all of this is that four decades of funding has created an ultra-conservative world that lives its own life, in many ways is independent of Saudi Arabia, and parts of which have turned on its original benefactor. A study of Pakistani madrassas published earlier this year concluded that foreign funding accounted for only seven percent of the finances of the country’s thousands of religious seminaries.
The fact that ultra-conservatives are no longer wholly dependent on Saudi funding is a testimony to the campaign’s success. This realization comes at a crucial moment. Post 9/11 and even more so in the wake of Al Qaeda attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia in 2003/2004, Saudi Arabia has introduced strict controls on charitable donations to ensure that funds do not flow to jihadist groups.
There is moreover no doubt that Saudi funding in the era of Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely to revert to what it once was. The Saudi-funded Bangladeshi plan to build moderate mosques, the relinquishing of control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, and the World Muslim League’s newly found propagation of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue as well as its effort to reach out to Jewish communities would suggest that Saudi money may be invested in attempting to curb the impact of the kingdom’s decades-long funding of ultra-conservatism.
Yet, there are also indications that Mohammed bin Salman is not averse to funding militants when it suits his geopolitical purpose. The US Treasury last year designated Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab as a specially designated terrorist on the very day that he was in the kingdom to raise funds. Abu Turab is a prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan descent who serves on a government-appointed religious board, maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, runs a string of madrassas attended by thousands of students along Balochistan’s border with Iran and Afghanistan and is a major fund raiser for militant groups.
Abu Turab’s visit to the kingdom came at a time that Saudi and UAE nationals of Baloch heritage were funnelling large amounts to militant anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian Islamic scholars in Balochistan. It is unclear whether the funds were being donated with Mohammed bin Salman’s tacit blessing.
What is clear, however, is that the funding and Abu Turab’s visit coincided with the drafting of plans to destabilize Iran by exploiting grievances and stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities, including the Baloch. Those plans have not left the drawing board and may never do so. The funding nevertheless raises the question how clean a break with support of ultra-conservatism Mohammed bin Salman is contemplating.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom