Santa Clara University


Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia

1. Brief Introduction
2. A Few Books or Articles
3. Other Resource Materials
4. Recent Articles

1. Brief Introduction to Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia

The CIA Factbook lists Saudi Arabia, site of Islam’s two holiest shrines, as 100% Muslim. The Kingdom has a population of 26.5 million, with a growth rate of 1.52% (2012 est). The 2009 HDI ranking was #59 The 2012 CPI rating is 44 (66th globally). In contrast with its Arab rivals Egypt and Iraq, the nation of Saudi Arabia has a short history. During the Ottoman Empire, which protected the Holy Places, there arose a mid-eighteenth-century alliance between ‘Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi Islamic revival, and Muhammad ibn Saud, a minor shaykh in central Arabia. This alliance provided the long term impetus for expansion of what became Saudi Arabia. In the nineteenth century, the puritanical Wahhabism fueled Arab nationalism against the more tolerant Ottoman Empire. In the early twentieth century, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, known in the West as Ibn Saud, employed the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance during the fall of the Ottoman and the expansion of British power. Ibn Saud, who ruled his family from 1902-53, employed the Ikhwan, a religious military force, to defeat his enemies, both Turks and Arabs. In 1925 his forces destroyed most of the sacred tombs, graveyards, and decorated mosques in Mecca and Madina. The two Holy Places came under his control and have since provided international religious-political legitimacy to his family. Then, with British support, he destroyed the Ikhwan. The discovery of immense oil reserves added to the Kingdom’s global significance, and when British power began to wane, the Saudis established ties with the new global political and economic power, the United States, to fend off competitors like Shiite Iran and Arab-led Iraq. It has been a complicated balancing act, but the Saud family-Wahhabi alliance has remained. Saudi oil money supported Wahhabi missionary activity throughout the world, and the struggle of the mujahideen to throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Because of the theological affinities of the Taliban and Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia became one of the two major supports for that regime until Riyadh broke diplomatic relations two weeks after 9/11.

The Islamic resurgence has complicated Saudi domestic and foreign policy. For example, two hundred Saudis captured Islam’s holiest mosque in 1979 when a dissident National Guardsman, grandson of a Wahhabi killed in 1929, denounced the Saudi state for its impiety and proclaimed that his brother-in-law was the long-awaited messianic mahdi. The state, armed with the legitimating fatwas, crushed the rebellion. When Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, the Saudis judged that they needed U.S. military support to turn back the Iraqis. But stationing American troops in Saudi Arabia inflamed conservative religious opinion until their nearly total withdrawal to Qatar in 2003. Political opinion had been further roiled by the Saudi Osama bin Laden who had denounced both the Saudi domestic government and the U.S. foreign policy. Bin Laden returned from victory in Afghanistan looking for new missions. In November 1995, a Riyadh bombing killed five Americans and wounded thirty-seven. In June 1996, the bombing at the Al Khobar American air base killed nineteen and wounded hundreds. That year bin Laden formally declared war on the United States and two years later proclaimed his “Coalition Against Crusaders, Christians and Jews.” The Saudi government finally sought his arrest in June 1998. Following 9/11, major terrorist attacks occurred in the country in May and November 2003, leading to renewed efforts to counter terrorism, especially among the clergy. At the same time the government allowed more media freedom and the municipal elections of 2005. King Abdulllah, who succeed that year and whose reputation as a pious Muslim helps his legitimacy, also carried out a sweeping cabinet reshuffle in February 2009 (see below).

Saudi society faces significant challenges amongst all the tensions over religious and political policies. The government bans drinking, dating, movies, concert halls, female drivers, and theatres. Some of its very young population is attracted to Osama bin Laden and some, through satellite television and travel, to a more Western lifestyle. In addition to Islamist groups, the government is concerned about a growing population, the depletion of water reserves, and an economy too dependent on oil. Although the population is growing, the country is still too sparsely populated to defend itself against much big power rivals. The kingdom has therefore become more welcoming of Chinese military and trade ties, hedging its bets in the post-Iraq War world.

Hanson (2006) discusses “The Arab Islamic Heartland: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt” (pp. 235-42); and “The Politics of Islam as a World Civilization” (pp. 252-59).

2. A Short Introductory Course to Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia

Fraser and Albright sketch the international context. El  Fadl treats Saudi missionary Wahhabism. Vogel brings the story up-to-date with an excellent analysis of the Saudi debate over shari'a in the context of the Arab Spring.

Fraser, Cary, “In Defense of Allah’s Realm: Religion and Statecraft in Saudi Foreign Policy Strategy,” Transnational Religion and Fading States (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1997), 212-42. Read “Saudi Foreign Policy: An Overview,” (pp. 216-26) and “The Saudi Dilemma: Surviving the Challenge of Islamic Resurgence,” (pp. 226-35). These articles cover the period to the First Gulf War.

Albright, Madeleine, “The Saudi Dilemma,” in The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 203-16. Ex-Secretary of State discusses the tensions in Saudi policy. For most recent events, see recent articles.

El Fadl, Khaled Abou, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005). Chapters Two-Four narrative the rise of Wahhabism and Salafism, backed by Saudi largesse.

Vogel, Frank E., "Shari'a in the Politics of Saudi Arabia," The Review of Faith and International Affairs (Winter 2012): 18-27.

3. Other Key Resource Materials for Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia

Boroumand, Ladan, and Boroumand, Roya, “Terror, Islam, and Democracy,” World Religions and Democracy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2005), 228-44.

Eickelman, Dale F. and Piscatori, James. Muslim Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996). Concise and comprehensive introduction to the complicated relationships of doctrine and practice. Often provides the Arabic term. Best answer to “Who speaks for Islam?” from data to that time.

Eickelman, Dale F., “Islam and Ethical Pluralism,” Madsen, Richard, and Strong, Tracy B., eds. The Many and the One: Religious and Secular Perspectives on Ethical Pluralism in the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 161-79.

Eickelman, Dale F., “Trans-state Islam and Security,” Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber, and Piscatori, James, Transnational Religion and Fading States (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1997), 27-46.

El Fadl, Khaled Abou, “Conflict Resolution as a Normative Value in Islamic Law: Handling Disputes with Non-Muslims,” in Johnston, Douglas, Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 178-209.

Gilsenan, Michael. Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Middle East (London: I.B. Taurus, 1990). Anthropological introduction of Arab Islam, comparing “what Islam comes to mean in quite different economic, political, and social structures and relations.” Section on Egyptian Sufi brotherhood.

Huband, Mark. Warriors of the Prophet: The Struggle for Islam (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999).

Kepel, Gilles. The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Cambridge: Belnap, 2004).

Kubba, Laith, “Faith and Modernity,” World Religions and Democracy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2005), 223-7.

Lawrence, Bruce B. Shattering the Myth: Islam Beyond Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. (New York: Touchstone, 1995). From before Christianity to present.

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). 
Mamdani, Mahmood., “Whither Political Islam?” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2005).

Masmoudi, Radwan A., “The Silenced Majority,” World Religions and Democracy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2005), 218-22.

Masud, Muhammad Khalid, “The Scope of Pluralism in Islamic Moral Traditions,” Madsen, Richard, and Strong, Tracy B., eds. The Many and the One: Religious and Secular Perspectives on Ethical Pluralism in the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 180-94.

Tibi, Bassam. The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder, updated edition. (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 2002).

Zubaida, Sami. Islam, The People and the State: Essays on Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (London and New York: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1993).

The BBC’s site on Islam.

4. Recent Articles on Saudi Arabia

“Saudi Leader Seeks to Rein In Clergy,” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2002. In the aftermath of 9/11, Crown Prince Abdullah and debate on religious reform.

“A Movement in Saudi Arabia Pushes Toward an Islamic Ideal, and Frowns on U.S.,” New York Times, December 9, 2002. Interview with ultraconservative Saleh al-Rashodi.

“At Friday prayers, imams decry terror,” San Jose Mercury News, May 17, 2003. At services following Riyadh residential bombing, clerics denounce terror, and some denounce U.S. as well.

"Saudis Fire Clerics Who Preached Intolerance,” New York Times, June 13, 2003. Government reports that it fired several hundred clerics and suspended more than one thousand more for preaching intolerance.

“U.S. cites Saudi Arabia for religious intolerance,” San Jose Mercury News, September 16, 2004. For the first time Saudi Arabia makes State Department list of those who severely violate religious freedom.

“Islamists win sweeping victory in first Saudi elections in years,” San Jose Mercury News, April 24, 2005. Religious leaders endorse “Golden List” for first elections, half of kingdom’s municipal city councils.

“Good Jihad, Bad Jihad,” New York Times, October 27, 2005. Struggle for minds and hearts in Saudi programming for Ramadan.

“Saudi Women Vote, and Run, in Business Chamber Elections,” New York Times, November 28, 2005. Women, barred from municipal elections, encouraged to vote and run in Business Chamber.

“Avoiding Political Talk, Saudis and Chinese Build Trade,” New York Times, April 23, 2006. President Hu makes first state visit. After purchasing Chinese intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the 1980s, civilian trade, especially around oil, growing.

“Daring to Use the Silver Screen to Reflect Saudi Society,” New York Times, April 28, 2006. Saudi movie, “How’s It Going?” reflects tensions in Saudi society.

“Don’t Be Friends With Christians or Jews, Saudi Texts Say,” New York Times, May 24, 2006. Center for Religious Freedom report on Saudi texts and discussion. Saudi texts are more tolerant than five years ago, but still show some intolerance. And tough to change versus conservatives in current world environment.

"Saudi Shiites Fear Gains Could Be Lost," New York Times, February 5, 2007. Rising regional sectarian tensions could harm Sunni tolerance for Shiites in Eastern Saudi Arabia.

"After First Steps, Saudi Reformers See Efforts Stall," New York Times, April 26, 2007. Two years previous, at the urging of the Bush Administration, the first elections for municipal councils were held in a number of cities. Only men voted, and only half were elected, but not much movement or meaning since.

"As Saudi Steps Surprise U.S., A Prince Is Sounding Off-Key," New York Times, April 29, 2007. Prince Bandar bin Sultan has traditionally been very close to President Bush, family, and administration. Calls U.S. in Iraq "an illegal foreign occupation," and other distancing steps.

"King Tries to Grow Modern Ideas In Desert, Free of Saudi Taboos," New York Times, October 26, 2007. King Abdullah breaks ground for new graduate research university, to be built up by Saudi Aramco near Jidda, with huge endowment of ten billion. Like oil compounds, social rules will be much more relaxed than in rest of country.

"Saudi Arabia, Missing Pluralism at Home, Seeks U.N. Platform to Promote It Abroad," New York Times, November 12, 2008. Report on U.N. discussion of high-ranking figures, including President Bush, Prime Ministers Brown and Peres, the heads of seven Arab states, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on religious tolerance, officially "the culture of peace." This follows an interfaith dialogue sponsored by the kingdom in Madrid in July. Controversies surrounding meetings.

"For Saudi Liberals, A Ripple of Hope In a Sea of Tradition," New York Times, March 3, 2009. Analysis of cabinet reshuffle by 84-year-old King Abdullah. Losing positions were chief of religious police and country's senior judge. King also installed more moderate and diverse members of the Council of Senior Ulema, which is influential in setting parameters for the interpretation of Islamic law. Problems with Saudi education.

"A Saudi Gamble to See if Seeds of Change Will Grow," New York Times, new 12.5-billion King Abudllah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal near Jidda. Behind security the university allows men and women to work, study, and socialize together and women do not have wear the baggy black gown, the abaya, mandatory in the rest of the country. Recruiting of foreign students. Conservative criticism and debate about whether change comes from within or without, e.g., the university, two pan-Arab newspapers in London, and satellite television Al Arabiya in Dubai.

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March 5, 2013.