It’s somewhat shocking to realize that most people do not know the modern history of Saudi Arabia. Even though it’s a major ally of the US, a key player in the global economy and one of the most oppressive regimes in world history, most Americans (and Europeans for that matter) simply have no idea how that came to be. In all the anger directed towards injustices in the Kingdom does anybody ever stop to wonder just why Saudi Arabia is like that in the first place? Neighboring countries that share a religion are relatively open with female ministers and social leaders. So what went wrong in Arabia? The history of the Peninsula is one riddled with chance meetings, fanatic destruction, and spectacular coincidence. So settle in, dear reader, and let me tell you a story.
First I want you to imagine 18th century Arabia. A land of harsh desert interspersed with oasis. Technically under control of the Ottoman Empire, most of this inhospitable land was divided into different tribal regions. These groups were loyal to themselves and, for the most part, worked within a sovereign system of self governance. It was during this time that the Saud tribe, which mainly inhabited the Al Dir’riyyah region (near moder day Riyadh) was looking to expand their power. The Shaikh (or leader) of this tribe’s name was Muhammad ibn Saud. While in control of a number of assets in the area, he was by no means a wealthy man nor did his power extend beyond tribal boarders. Yet ibn Saud was a tenacious and ambitious ruler. It was, just his luck then that nearby a man named Abd al-Wahhab, was looking for a tribe that would help him bring his particular brand of Islam to the world. This union would change history in the most brutal of ways, but before we get to that, let’s first get a bit of background on this al-Wahhab character.
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born to an incredibly devout Muslim family in the harsh climate of eastern Arabia. As a boy, he was sent to Medina to study an incredibly puritanical version of Islam. This religious interpretation was dead set on being the only interpretation that heralded the truth. When al Wahhab later set out for Basra and saw Islam in all of its many incantations (including Sufi and Shi’sm practices), he became enraged. Like a swarthier and more murderous version of Fred Phelps, al Wahhab began his personal crusade to rid these adulterations from the pure faith.
What better way to do that then tearing a destructive war path through the holy land? So al Wahhab and his disciples (yes, he actually had some) went about the business of burning down religious sites (idolatry), murdering any Muslim who didn’t live up to their piety (apostates), and were actually thrown out of an oasis after stoning a woman to death. It was then he found himself wandering into the Saudi territory.
Now here’s where things get really interesting. So ibn Saud strikes up the most unholy of agreements with al Wahhab. In exchange for helping Saud ascend to power, Wahhabism (named after guess who) would be the only acceptable religion.
So al Wahhab and his warriors overtook Mecca and Medina, ousting the ruling party. Mecca and Medina, being the lands of the Prophet, were rife with tombs, treasuries, and holy sites. These were promptly set on fire and destroyed. Meanwhile all the nice things in life (flowers, coffee, tobacco and music) were banned. Men and women were put under strict controls in regards to dress and custom and to top things off, every book that wasn’t the Qur’an was promptly incinerated. The gang of thugs continued on from there, massacring minor differences wherever they could find them.
Then in a move of pure hubris the Wahhabists decided to take down the Ottoman Empire, because screw those guys, right? It was then that the rulers finally noticed. The army strolled on in and with their decent funding and adequate training they easily put down the Wahhabis. Mecca and Medina were lost and given back to the former rulers, and it was back to Eastern Arabia with heads hung low.
Now this could have all been a passing trend. There was no way for the Saud-Wahhab alliance to take on the Ottoman Empire alone. But as fortune would have it the British (naturally!) had their eye on the Persian Gulf. Eager to gain some access into the region they signed the Anglo-Saudi treaty of 1915. With a bit of a nudge in the form of weapons and funding, the tribe was convinced it was time to retake the Arabian Peninsula. As the First World War wound down around 1919 and the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate were dismantled, the Saud tribe seized their chance. Under the command of ibn Saud’s son, Abd al-Aziz, they retook Mecca and Medina, imposed Wahhabism onto society and then topped it off by publicly executing forty thousand men. No, that is not a typo. 40,000 men. Publicly. Then they crowned their achievement in 1932 by renaming the land The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Then as fate would have it, and because life is incredibly unfair, in 1938, oil was discovered in the region. Contracts were negotiated, monies were exchanged and by the mid 1940s, production had begun. Now the Saudi tribe, which had garnered many an eye-roll in the Arab world, had established direct control over the global economy.
So now we a have a country that is in control of Mecca (a place where most Muslims will try to make pilgrimage to before they die) and a large number of contracts with foreign countries and migrant workers. Care to guess what some of the prerequisites for getting in on the black gold and religious pilgrimages were? Well, if you guessed strict adherence to and the proselytizing of Wahhabism, you were correct. It was, quite frankly, one of the best outcomes imaginable for religious zealotry. In 1953 Abd al-Aziz died, but not before being knighted by the Queen of England. Yes. The man who had participated in public massacres, had upwards of 22 wives, and kept a firm and brutal totalitarian control over his people had won the favor of the crown.
The following kings in their respective order: Saud, Faisel, Khalid, Fahd and Abdullah (all sons of Aziz) have kept that same iron grip on the citizenry. There is no pluralism in Saudi Arabia. Every citizen is Wahhabi Muslim. Foreign workers (preferably Muslim, but sometimes American) are tolerated by the government but abhorred by many citizens. For instance, the American air bases and establishment of American communities in Saudi Arabia caused such a stir that it actually helped give rise to the writings and revolt of Osama bin Laden, who saw Saudi collusion with the West as a betrayal of Wahhabist values.
Saudi Arabia has also established a number of charities and “Muslim World Leagues” that were used to spread the message of al Wahhab far and wide. From Hamas in Gaza to the Muslim Brotherhood, almost every single extremist group in the region has been influenced ideologically and financially by the Saudis. Madrassas (religious schools) were set up in Central Asia to lure children who couldn’t afford school into the sect. After all, if you’re a poor parent, would you rather have your child learn proper Arabic and reading and writing in the free religious school? Or leave him an illiterate laborer his entire life? This exploitation proved to have very measurable consequences when the Taliban (taliban meaning “˜students’ in Arabic) emerged from these institutions. Direct from Saudi-funded Madrassas, and carrying with them many of the same gems as the original Wahhabist take over (banning music, burning books, forcing veiling) they forced their way into Afghanistan’s political tapestry.
Currently in Saudi Arabia, the royal family has become somewhat enormous. Princes and princesses dot the landscape and are often seen in European capitols buying designer brands and attending the best universities. Even within the country, where alcohol is illegal and Shariah law really only allows only four wives (and even then there are strict controls as to why and how this must happen), kings have been known to have vast whiskey collections and upwards of ten wives with a string of divorces. This has not gone unnoticed by Saudi society. However, revolts are quashed quickly and brutally within the Kingdom. In 1990, a number of women staged a protest on the Kingdom’s banning of female drivers by driving a convoy through Riyadh. Those women were denounced, lost their jobs, and were barred from international travel. Even years later they are still known, derisively, as “the drivers.” It is in this context then that we need to consider the lives of the many poor migrant workers. They enter the country on two year contracts as domestics and oilfield workers. Often they are treated with such contempt and disregard that withholding passports, abuse and indentured servitude are commonplace problems that go unaddressed by Saudi society.
While access to media and modern society has changed the culture of Saudi Arabia dramatically, the same old political controls are still firmly in place. Even minor technological advances are scorned and considered bid’a (which technically just means innovation but generally infers distrust, go figure). This is not to say that some changes haven’t occurred. “Snowballing” became popular in some of Saudi Arabia’s non-segregated shopping centers. It involves young girls writing down their number on a piece of paper, crumpling it up, and throwing it down to a group of boys. Later on, a text from whoever picked it up can start a woman down her own personal path to brimstone and hellfire. This is, of course, a fairly dangerous activity. But teenagers don’t stop being hormonal risk-takers just because it’s Saudi Arabia. Technology just makes connecting (and sinning) that much more efficient.
There has also been action on the part of many women to bring domestic violence and cultural disparities to the forefront of society. This has been met with some mixed results. In recent years Saudi Arabia saw its first female pilot and deputy minister. Still, women are segregated in almost every aspect of Saudi society, and almost all social messages and indigenous media encourages women to grow up to be silent, complacent, well-dressed housewives.
Saudi Arabia seems to be determined to remain one of the world’s most repressive countries. While the upper and middle class may be lulled into not caring by government incentives and a lack of taxation for services (yes really), it’s hard to say how the poorer groups in Saudi Arabia will fare. Recently the turn towards extremism has hurt the Kingdom through both domestic terrorist attacks and the embarrassing revelation that 18 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi Arabian.
Still, Saudi Arabia is one of the the U.S.’s strongest diplomatic ties in the region. They control a large percentage of the world’s oil, let the U.S. use their country as a military platform, and enter into 60 billion dollar arms deals. So it looks like, for now, Saudi Arabia is going to remain as it ever was. Had al Wahhab been born anywhere else, his off-putting brand of Islam would have faded into history with barely a peep. Tragically for the people of the Arabian peninsula, the weight of the holy land propelled him forward, and kept his ideology rooted firmly in the current system. From Jakarta to New York City his ideas of religious purity have helped destroy thousands of lives. One chance meeting in the desert. Who could have known?