By Jonathan Power
On Sunday the German vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, publicly accused Saudi Arabia of promoting Islamic terrorism in the West by financing mosques and communities that threaten public security, and warned that “it must stop.” Gabriel said in an interview for the newspaper, Bild am Sonntag: “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over.”
At last some Western leaders are grasping the Saudi Arabian nettle. The country has been given a clean pass for too long. Saudi Arabia’s oil and massive arms purchases have muted Western politicians for decades but now, with clear evidence that the Saudi state has allowed rich Saudis to fund first al-Qaida and more recently the Islamic State (IS), Western leaders are waking up to what their expediency has tolerated and allowed.
Thanks to Wikileaks we know that Hillary Clinton, when Secretary of State, wrote in a cable in December 2009 that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan.” Lately, running for president, she has been explicit in her warnings.
Why has it taken so long for eyes to begin to open? In his autobiography Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service (home of James Bond), wrote that some time before 9/11 Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the powerful Saudi ambassador in Washington, told him that “the time is not far off in the Middle East when it will be literally ‘God Help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”
Dearlove, speaking last week, said he has no doubt that substantial and sustained funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with their governments turning a blind eye, have played a central role in IS’ surge. “Such things simply do not happen spontaneously,” he said.
Over the next few years, Saudi Arabia may well come to regret its support for these extreme militant movements and its support for the Sunni revolts in Syria and Iraq. Jihadi social media is already beginning to talk about the House of Saud as its next target. But Saudi Arabia, Nelson-like, still puts the telescope to its blind eye when observing what Saudi supporters of IS are doing.
Should we be surprised? The Saudi regime is Wahhabist, the puritanical and orthodox interpretation and practice of Islam that condemns Shia and other Islamic branches as non-Muslim apostates and polytheists. Saudis believe that they possess a monopoly of Islamic truth which leads them to be deeply attracted towards any militancy which can effectively challenge Shia-dom. 15 out of the 19 plane hijackers of the September 11 attacks were Saudis, as were Osama bin-Laden and most of the private donors who funded the operation.
Wahhabism was founded as an Islamic movement in the 14th Century by Abd al-Wahhab. Besides his puritanical views on alcohol and the role of women, al-Wahhab demanded absolute conformity – all believers must pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader. Those who don’t should be killed and their wives and daughters should be violated. Shiites, Sufis and other Muslim denominations were apostates who merited death. In the 16th century when John Calvin founded his church in Geneva similar attitudes were prevalent and Calvinist opponents and witches were sometimes executed.
At first al-Wahhab was not popular. In fact, he was expelled from his home town. But in 1741 he found refuge under the protection of Ibn Saud, an up and coming tribal monarch who saw in al-Wahhab’s teaching the means of overturning Arab tradition and convention. It was a path to seizing power. Jihad came into being as did its corollary, martyrdom, with its concept of being rewarded with entry to paradise. By 1790 this alliance controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula and repeatedly raided Medina, Syria and Iraq.
There were many setbacks but after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War 1 the movement took on new life, expanded fast, while remaining loyal to the Saudi royal family.
The end of the Great War and the discovery of huge amounts oil brought the West into the life of Saudi Arabia. As Alistair Crooke has written, “in the collaborative management of the region by the Saudis and the West in pursuit of the many Western projects- countering socialism, Baathism, Nasserism and Soviet and Iranian influence- Western politicians have highlighted their chosen reading of Saudi Arabian achievements (wealth, modernization and influence) but they have chosen to ignore the Wahhabist impulse.”
Now the penny is beginning to drop in Western capitals. Why could the West have ever imagined that a doctrine of “one leader, one authority, one mosque – submit to it or be killed,” could ever lead to moderation or tolerance?” It did not and now the chickens are coming home to roost.
Jonathan Power is is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums Of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions Of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia]