The Imperialist Origins of Saudi Arabia
Why is Saudi Arabia, a Sunni absolute monarchy, enthusiastically supported by the West, considered a global promoter of ‘democracy’? This question is rarely asked. The apparent mismatch between liberal democracy and religious fundamentalism is hastily airbrushed when the matter is about oil trade and arms deals. This attitude is not an expression of mere hypocrisy on the part of the West; it is deeply rooted in a historical process whereby Saudi Arabia was propped up by major powers as an outpost of imperialist interests and a bulwark against revolutionary ideologies.
Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703 – 1792), the founder of Wahhabism, was an 18th century peasant who left date palm cultivation and cattle grazing to preach locally, calling for a return to the pure beliefs of the seventh century. He denounced the worship of holy places and stressed the “unity of one God.” He insisted singularly on beatings, leading to inhumane practices: thieves should be amputated and criminals executed in public. Religious leaders in the region objected when he began to perform what he preached and the local chief in Uyayna asked him to leave.
Creating the Kingdom
Wahhab fled to Deraiya in 1744, where he made a pact with Mohammed Ibn Saud, the leader of the Najd tribes and the founder of the dynasty that rules Saudi Arabia today. Wahhab’s daughter became one of Ibn Saud’s wives. Ibn Saud utilized Wahhab’s spiritual fervor to ideologically discipline the tribes before hurling them into a battle against the Ottoman Empire. Wahhab considered the Sultan in Istanbul as undeserving of any right to be the Caliph of Islam and preached the virtues of a permanent jihad against Islamic modernizers and infidels.
Lamenting the demise of the former greatness of Islamic civilization, he wished to remove all bidah (innovations), which he regarded as heretical to the original meaning of Islam. Basing himself on the Sunnah (customary practices of the Prophet Muhammad) and the Hadiths (accounts, collections of reports, sayings and deeds of the Prophet), he wished to purge the Islamic world of what he viewed as the degenerative practices introduced into the Islamic world by the Ottoman Turks and their associates.
In 1801, Ibn Saud’s army attacked the Shia holy city of Karbala, massacring thousands and destroying revered Shiite shrines. They also razed shrines in Mecca and Medina, erasing centuries of Islamic architecture because of the Wahhabist belief that these treasures represented idol worship. The Ottomans retaliated, occupied Hijaz and took charge of Mecca and Medina. The Ibn Saud-Wahhab alliance remained in the interior until the Ottomans collapsed after World War I. By 1926, the al-Saud clan – led by their new patriarch Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud – and their fanatical Wahhabi allies – the Ikhwan, or “Brotherhood” – once again seized control of the holiest cities in Islam, as well as important trading ports on the western coast of the peninsula..
Like the initial advances of the 1700s, it was a campaign defined by bloodshed, forced conversions, enslavement, and the enforcement of the strict and eccentric laws of Wahhabism. It was also a campaign that was grounded in an alliance between Abdul Aziz and the British Empire; a 1915 treaty turned the lands under Abdul Aziz’s control into a British protectorate, ensuring military support against rival warlords and uniting the two against the Ottomans. The intimate relationship between British imperialists and Abdul Aziz continued even after the dismantlement of the Ottoman empire, reflected in their close cooperation in the war against Sharif Hussein of Mecca, the Guardian of the Holy Cities, the chief of the clan of Hashem and directly descended from the Prophet.
Hussein had contributed the most to the Ottoman Empire’s defeat by switching allegiances and leading the “Arab Revolt” in June 1916 which removed the Turkish presence from Arabia. He was convinced to alter his position after Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, made him believe that a unified Arab country from Gaza to the Persian Gulf would be established with the defeat of the Turks. The letters exchanged between Hussain and McMahon are known as the McMahon-Hussain Correspondence. As soon as the war ended, Hussein wanted the British to fulfill their war-time promises. The latter, however, wanted Sharif Hussein to accept the division of the Arab world between the British and the French (Sykes-Picot agreement) and the implementation of the Balfour Declaration, which guaranteed “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine through a process of colonization done by European Jews. These demands were laid out in the Anglo-Hijaz Treaty – written by the British – which Hussein refused to sign. In 1924, the British unleashed Ibn Saud against Hussein. Lord Curzon hailed this as the “final kick” against Hussein.
Meanwhile, the Ikhwan grew increasingly angry about Abdul Aziz’s accommodation with the imperial powers that financed him. They disliked his lavish lifestyle, his family’s relations with the West, the relative lenience toward Shia (while they were being savagely repressed, they weren’t being forcibly converted, deported, or executed at a desired rate), and the introduction of new technologies (the telegraph, for example, was viewed as being of satanic origin). Consequently, the Ikhwan began to openly rebel in 1927, shortly after Abdul Aziz signed another treaty with the British which recognized his “complete and absolute” rule of the twin kingdoms of Hijaz and of Najd and their dependencies.
The Ikhwani insurgents, after conquering the various regions of Arabia, began to attack the British and French protectorates of Transjordan, Syria and Iraq in order to subject them to Wahhabi doctrines. They came into direct conflict with imperialist interests in the Middle East. After some three years of fighting, Abdul Aziz – with military assistance from the British Empire – defeated the rebellion and executed the leaders. Then, in 1932, he confirmed his conquests by crowning himself as king of a new state, named after himself and his family: Saudi Arabia. The suppression of the Ikhwan revolt did not in any way signify the weakening of Wahhabi fundamentalism. Threatened by Islamic radicalism, the royal family co-opted the Ikhwan movement by incorporating its local leaders into the Saudi state apparatuses. This laid the foundations for the backward ideology of the state: unity of religion and loyalty to one family, making Saudi Arabia the only state in the world that was titled as the property of a single dynasty.
Cozying Up to the USA
In 1933, Abdul Aziz had to face a severe financial crisis because his main source of income, taxation of the hajj (Muslim pilgrimage), had been undermined by the world slump; for £50,000 in gold he gave an oil concession to Standard Oil of California (SOCAL). The deal between Abdul Aziz and SOCAL provided crucial funds for the fledgling king to consolidate his precarious rule; indeed, at the time, his rule was so tenuous that Britain had more control over the House of Saud than the House of Saud had over their own recently conquered dependencies. SOCAL gave Abdul Aziz a $28-million dollar loan, and paid an annual payment of $2.8-million in exchange for oil exploration rights throughout the 1930s.
SOCAL later merged with three other US firms (Esso, Texaco, Mobil) to form the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). This began exploration in eastern Arabia and in 1938 production of Saudi Arabian oil commenced. The developing political economy of Saudi Arabia quickly became linked to ARAMCO and its American backers, as the company built labour camps, corporate towns, roads, railways, ports, and other infrastructure necessary for the production and export of oil. These infrastructural projects tapped into subsidies from the US government that ran into the tens of millions of dollars.
During the Second World War, the role of Saudi Arabia as a reliable partner of a nascent American empire was strengthened. In 1943, Washington decided that “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States” and lend-lease aid was provided: a US military mission arrived to train Abdul Aziz’s army and the United States Air Force (USAF) began construction of an airfield at Dhahran, near the oil wells, which was to give the US a position independent of the British bases at Cairo and Abadan; this base became the largest US air position between Germany and Japan, and the one nearest Soviet industrial plants. Washington managed to retain the base only until 1962, when anti-imperialist resistance forced the Saudi monarchy to ask the Americans to leave. Not until three decades later, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, were the Americans provided with an opportunity to reoccupy the base.
The relationship between the US and Saudi Kingdom was famously sealed in a 1945 meeting on the Suez Canal between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abdul-Aziz. The two leaders agreed that the kingdom would supply the US with oil, and the US government would provide the kingdom with security and military assistance. Over the years, US presidents reiterated their commitments to Saudi Arabia’s security. The 1947 Truman Doctrine, which stated that the United States would send military aid to countries threatened by Soviet communism, was used to strengthen US – Saudi military ties. In 1950, President Harry S. Truman told Abdul-Aziz, “No threat to your Kingdom could occur which would not be a matter of immediate concern to the United States.” This assurance was repeated in the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine.
The 1969 Nixon Doctrine included aid to three strategic American allies in the region – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. After the US-supported ruler in Iran was overthrown and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter issued his Doctrine as a direct threat to the Soviets, essentially asserting USA’s monopoly over Middle East’s oil. Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, extended this policy in October 1981 with the “Reagan Corollary to the Carter Doctrine,” which proclaimed that the USA would intervene to protect the Saudi rulers. While the Carter Doctrine focused on threats posed by external forces, the Reagan Corollary promised to secure the kingdom’s internal stability.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of Saudi petro-nationalism, based upon the rapidly expanding oil industry and the growth of transnational energy corporations. The petrol bonanza – driven by the western economies’ steady consumption of oil – not only filled the coffers of the Saudi state, but also provided the Saudi state the ability to spread Wahhabi ideology not as a minor creed of militant jihad, but as a cultural export to influence the direction of Islam. Oil wealth enabled the Saudi royal family to counter the rival interpretations and denominations of the Islamic world, and spread its influence over the Ummah (the community of the faithful). In other words, the Saudi ruling elite attempted to project itself as the ultimate definer and protector of the Ummah.
The export of Wahhabism to other countries was a part of the post-World War II US-Saudi strategy, wherein the two countries were allies in their opposition to Soviet “godless communism,” with USA focused on communism while the Saudis were more concerned about the “godless” side of the equation. Wahhabism also served as a counter-revolutionary instrument against Nasserism, Ba’athism, and the Shia radicalism of the Iranian revolution. Saudi Arabia started an organization called the World Muslim League in 1962 to “combat the serious plots by which the enemies of Islam are trying to draw Muslims away from their religion and to destroy their unity and brotherhood.” The main targets were republicanism (Nasserite influence) and communism. The objective was to push the idea that these anti-monarchical ideologies were shu’ubi (anti-Arab).
Saudi Arabia was also a central member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), created in 1969 as a counter-balance to the socialist-oriented Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Apart from this geo-political function, OIC was used by Saudi Arabia to undermine its regional adversary, namely Nasserite Egypt.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought shudders into the palaces of the Saudi royal family, and into the US higher establishment. The overthrow of the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi announced the creation of an Islamic form of republicanism. Iranian Islamic leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said that Islam and hereditary monarchies were incompatible and he characterized Saudi Arabia as a US agent in the Persian Gulf. Saudi rulers felt threatened. They denounced Iran’s revolution as an upheaval of heretical Shiites, but to no avail as Islamic republicanism swept the region, from Pakistan to Morocco.
Ultimately, the Saudis and the West egged on Saddam Hussein to send in the Iraqi army against Iran in 1980; that war went on till 1988, with both Iran and Iraq bled for the sake of Riyadh and Washington. Iraq, weakened by the lengthy war, turned against its Gulf Arab benefactors for insufficient support and invaded Kuwait in 1990, threatening Saudi Arabia as well. The US entered the picture with its full spectrum warfare – bombing Iraq to smithereens and providing Saudi Arabia with the confirmation that the US military would protect it till the end of time.
Once the history of Saudi Arabia is understood, it can be easily concluded that the monarchs of the kingdom willingly entered into a relationship of geo-political servitude to the West. The kingdom would have had marginal or limited importance in the world if it was not supported wholeheartedly by the British and American empires. Thanks to the significant backing it received by them, Saudi Arabia became an international political player. With the help of their enormous oil wealth, the decadent kings and princes of Saudi Arabia have been perpetrating massacres and wars in various countries, such as the bombing of Yemen, the indirect attacks in Syria and Libya. All this has been allowed to happen by the West, which provides both tacit and explicit support to the House of Saud in its myriad crimes. As Che Guevara said, “The bestiality of imperialism knows no limits, has no national frontiers.” •
Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.