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The night of the long knives in Saudi Arabia


Madawi Al-RasheedSunday 5 November 2017

The night of 4 November could truly be the Night of the Long Knives in Saudi Arabia.

The night started with the sacking Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, son of deceased King Abdullah and head of Saudi National Guard, a tribal force created to protect the royal family and key oil areas in the kingdom.

Controlling Saudi coercion machinery

Since its consolidation in the 1960s, with the help of Britain, the Saudi National Guard (SANG) shed its past as a tribal militia, created out of the ikhwan fighters who launched Jihad on Saudis in the early years of the kingdom, to become a modern para-military force, balancing the army and other security forces.

At the time, the regime preferred to have multiple coercive forces led by several princes for fear of army coups along those that dominated Egypt, Syria and Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s.

After foiling several coup attempts by army officers in the late 1960s, the regime under king Faisal decided that several military forces serve security better than a single unified and strong army.

SANG became King Abdullah’s power base and fiefdom in which patron-client relations with the tribes of Saudi Arabia were maintained.

His eldest son Mutaib (Mot3eb) inherited the position to command SANG during his father’s time as king but with Muhammad bin Salman’s fierce drive to control all Saudi coercive bodies, including the army, and security forces, SANG was the last unit to be targeted.

As no real challenge to Muhammad bin Salman can come from princes with no militia, he was keen to end his senior cousin’s control over the last security body that can potentially undermine his rule.

It was surprising that he waited for so long.

Most of the detained princes remained unnamed in the Saudi official announcement but billionaire private investor Prince Walid ibn Talal, owner of Kingdom Holding, was amongst them (REUTERS)

Unprecedented purge

Since Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2015, Mutaib was bound to be abruptly removed from office like his other senior cousin Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had been sacked and put under house arrest in July.

Mohammed bin Salman started an unprecedented purge within the royal household and among the most senior second-generation princes who might potentially threaten his takeover of the kingdom.

He is now de facto ruler and it won’t be long before he becomes de jure. This will depend on whether his father voluntarily abdicates or is forced to submit to his young son’s will.

With Mutaib now sinking into oblivion, Mohammed bin Salman turned his attention to those princes with money, lest their financial empires become handy in future power struggles.

A calculated and premeditated purge at the highest level shattered peace during the early hours of the night

Within hours of a royal decree establishing an anti-corruption committee headed by Mohammed bin Salman, 14 princes together with several ministers were rounded up and detained. A calculated and premeditated purge at the highest level shattered peace during the early hours of the night.

Most of the detained princes remained unnamed in the Saudi official announcement but billionaire private investor Prince Walid bin Talal, owner of Kingdom Holding, was amongst them. Wealthy princes may use their accumulated wealth to challenge Mohammed’s rule, sponsoring dissent abroad, and augmenting critical media coverage of bin Salman’s economic and social policies.

In the case of Walid bin Talal, his financial outreach and investment may stand in direct competition with those announced by Mohammed bin Salman’s economic Vision 2030. His Rotana media empire with its wide coverage of Saudi news can be turned against the aspiring prince at any time.

Ministers whom Mohammed bin Salman had appointed also lost their jobs under the pretext of fighting corruption. The ministry of economy lost Adil Fakih, its minister who was replaced by Mohammed al-Tuwaijri, who may facilitate further privatisation and Saudisation schemes in accordance with the prince’s economic plans.

The prince’s control

All this was not enough in one night.

Panic gripped Riyadh residents as they heard the sound of a massive explosion. It turned out to be a ballistic missiles launched from Yemen and was destined to reach Riyadh airport. The authorities announced that the  missile was intercepted and no casualties followed.

A three-year old war has failed to lead to the victory that Mohammed bin Salman as minister of defence and crown prince anticipated.

While Saudi air strikes on Yemen were launched in April 2015 under the pretext of protecting Saudi’s southern borders, Yemeni missiles are now capable of reaching the heart of the kingdom’s capital. The implications of the ballistic missile were lost after the expansive purge at the highest level.

Mohammed bin Salman may now feel secure after removing his rival cousins from office, banning others from travel, and detaining the rest in five-star hotels in Riyadh under heavy security.

However, feeling secure through such high risk moves may not be the ideal situation for a young autocrat, who proved to be intolerant of even silence. He requires everyone to publicly support his plans.

Saudi Arabia had always been ruled by multiple fiefdoms of senior princes but Muhammad bin Salman is truly making it now his own playground

Those who abstain from such banal public support and statements of applause face detention, exactly in the way he put in prison several clerics and professionals for simply remaining silence over his crisis with Qatar.

It is hard to see how a new hyper-modern, economically advanced kingdom is going to emerge out of backstabbing and purges, conducted at the highest level. There is no independent judiciary that can deal with corruption cases, no royal family council that can restrain the erratic young prince, and no credible organised opposition that can undermine the prince’s control over the country.

In this situation, violence looms large over the kingdom, with those capable of committing atrocities coming to occupy a vacuum created by bin Salman’s autocratic rule that silences even his own cousins, let alone humble commoners with no power whatsoever to challenge him.

Saudi Arabia had always been ruled by multiple fiefdoms of senior princes but Mohammed bin Salman is truly now making it his own playground.

– Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sits during an allegiance pledging ceremony in Mecca, Saudi Arabia June 21 2017 (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Note: A similar internal Royal coup was done in 1955 against the second monarch Saud who appointed his sons instead of brothers in key positions and initiated a liberal style.

Saudi Kingdom’s Modern Islamists

And Their Forgotten Campaign for Democracy?

And bombing a mourning ceremony in Yemen?

The Saudi regime watched the 2011 Arab Spring unfold across the Middle East with deep unease.

As the year progressed, the regime responded by rounding up moderate Islamists because of the potential threat they posed to it. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first Egyptian election alarmed the Saudis particularly since its own Islamists became more energized and vocal.

Salman al-Rushoudi, a veteran moderate Islamist, was convicted for possessing articles that I had written on Saudi history and current affairs that had been banned because they offer a critical interpretation of Saudi politics. He had been active since the 1990s in challenging the regime’s interpretations of Islam and, in 2009, helped found a civil and political rights organization called the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (better known by its Arabic acronym HASEM).

Since then, Saudi Arabia has used money and diplomacy to thwart the rise of Islamists who are committed to political reform and whose reinterpretation of Islamic texts support democracy, civil society, and human rights.

They are the product of an important intellectual movement in Saudi Arabia that began in 2009 after the country experienced a deadly wave of jihadist violence between 2003 and 2008.

These Islamists sprung out of the Islamic Awakening of the 1990s, but their line of thinking evolved into a theology that rejects violence and calls for civil society and even democracy to counter radicalism and Salafi-Wahhabi domination within Saudi Arabia. (Kind of trying to differentiate between Al Nusra and Daesh?)

The group initially consisted of Islamists but was later joined by others who had no affiliation to Islamism. Although it is difficult to estimate its size and influence, many young Saudis consider these Islamists a real alternative to Salafist dogma and Saudi royalty, particularly with its resistance to real political reform.

In 2009, al-Rushoudi and several of his colleagues put the movement’s theory into practice by establishing HASEM, one of Saudi Arabia’s first civic organizations, which grounded broad political reform in Islam.

One of HASEM’s founders, Abdullah al-Hamid, a professor of Arabic studies based in Riyadh, defined jihad not as a violent terrorist act but as a peaceful struggle against oppression through activism and demonstrations, all of which is banned in Saudi Arabia.

Reinterpreting the Koranic injunction to command good and forbid evil, he called for a constitutional monarchy, elected government, independent judiciary, and fair trials for political prisoners.

His colleague, professor Muhammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a non-Islamist activist, likewise rose to prominence for denouncing secret trials, the use of torture in prisons, and the abuses and excesses of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior.

(Several international human rights organizations have documented the use of torture in prisons and solitary confinement for prisoners of conscience, among other abuses that Qahtani documented and posted on the HASEM website.)

HASEM also argued that the regime did not represent a truly Islamic government because it simply used Islam to justify repression. It challenged the regime’s rigid enforcement of obedience to rulers, which is based on Koranic verses that instruct believers “to obey God, the Prophet, and those who rule over you.”

Loyal Wahhabis interpret this to mean total submission, but HASEM argued that obedience does not entail total submission. In fact, the ruler is beholden to his constituency, which can keep his power in check and scrutinize his policies.

This new discourse appealed to many activists, especially those who followed the regular social media postings of HASEM, the news about the trials of its members, and watched its members’ lectures on You Tube. HASEM became an important part of Saudi’s activism scene as it provided a new peaceful way to call for reform. It is difficult to estimate with accuracy how many followers it had, however.

By March 2013, Saudi Arabia had jailed nine of the 11 founders who signed the foundation statement, including several human right lawyers associated with the organization. The courts charged them with “planting the seeds of discord, accusing the regime of being a police state, inciting public opinion against security bodies and the ulema, and most importantly breaking allegiance to rulers.”

The Saudi regime gave HASEM activists lengthy prison sentences and banned them from traveling abroad. There are activists who are not associated with HASEM who have been charged similarly for exercising their right to free speech, such as tweeting about the Prophet.

Although HASEM was short-lived as an organization, its principles have endured. In recent years, a number of young modernists, many of whom were trained in traditional Islamic scholarship, have continued to challenge Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam.

One figure, Abdullah al-Maliki, 38, rose to prominence after angering the Salafists by publishing articles arguing that sharia cannot be imposed by force, a key component of both Saudi and jihadist rule. He is a researcher who specializes in Islamic studies and is active on Twitter. In Maliki’s opinion, practicing sharia law must be a choice.

If God asks believers to pray, he wrote, the prayer is meaningful only if the people do so of their own free will. Forced prayer is not actual prayer. Maliki’s position directly challenged the way the Saudi regime corrals people into mosques at prayer time and forces business owners to close their shops.

Maliki noted that this coercive behavior ultimately drives people away from religion rather than making them more pious. In his opinion, regimes that impose sharia do so only to maintain legitimacy.

Maliki also supported the separation of mosque and state in certain aspects. The Saudi regime uses the Koran as its constitution, but Maliki upholds the Koran as a sacred text, and as such, believes it has no place in the unholy day-to-day business of governance. That is why he advocates a separate constitution for regulating the government.

He envisioned that the constitution would protect the rights of people as well as their property and freedom. He also deconstructs Saudi claims that it practices shura, which involves consultation with the Muslim community over decisions affecting it.

For him, shura is a binding Islamic principle that can only be correctly practiced by a national council democratically elected by the community.

Shura also permits the removal of an incompetent ruler through referendum—but not through conquest or violence. Like many other young intellectuals, Maliki is not impressed by Islamic organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims that “Islam is the solution.” For Maliki, sovereignty of the people is the solution.

Hard-line Salafists reprimanded Maliki for his paper, accusing him of diluting Islam to please the West and pejoratively calling him a “bearded liberal.” So far, he remains free, so long as he does not venture into real activism.

Other Saudi Islamist modernist intellectuals are pushing directly for democracy. Muhammad al-Ahmari, 57, who currently runs a research institute in Qatar, is one of the most vocal advocates of democratic government. Ahmari considers democracy a shield against the “Islamization of repression,” that is, using religion to justify political repression.

Needless to say, his position collides head on with the Salafi-Wahhabi tradition, which insists that democracy is not Islamic but a foreign and Western-imposed idea. In his book, Democracy: The Roots and Problematics of Application, Ahmari highlights the Islamic principles behind democratic government and argues that it is the most suitable government for human society across cultures and religions. He even praised the election of U.S. President Barack Obama as an example of how democracy could overcome racial barriers. This angered Salafist scholar Nasir al-Omar, who accused him of glorifying the West.

Ahmari has also spoken of a commitment to religious freedom and pluralism, which Saudi Wahhabi clerics forbid. He recalls the expansion of the Wahhabiyya movement in the early twentieth century to Asir, the southwestern region of Saudi Arabia where he was born.

As the moment spread, the people there, many of them farmers, were forced to adopt a unified dress code that was unsuitable for their rural way of life. He argues that there is no Islamic justification for insisting on this type of homogeneity. Eradicating cultural differences and forcing people to look and worship in one way is truly un-Islamic, he says.

In many ways, these Islamist intellectuals offer a “third way” of thinking about Islamic governance, which lies somewhere between Salafi Wahhabism, in which clerics are loyal to Saudi monarchy, and the jihadist goal of using violence to overthrow regimes.

This third way represents an attempt to commit to Islam while combining it with democratic principles. It remains to be seen whether its advocates move toward adopting Western-style democracy.

Although it is difficult to quantify the appeal of this third way in Saudi Arabia, since many of its most outspoken members are now in jail, its followers have maintained HASEM’s presence online—keeping their Twitter accounts alive and regularly launching hashtag campaigns to remind others of the plight of HASEM’s imprisoned members. HASEM has also gained the support of those in Gulf countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates where many human rights activists have also faced the same fate as members of HASEM. One Gulf activist even proposed that Abdullah al-Hamid be nominated for the Nobel Prize for his perseverance in defending human rights.

The regime continues to carefully monitor these modern Islamist intellectuals and has even jailed some of their lawyers, such as Waleed Abu al-Khair and Fawzan al-Harbi. It certainly fears them more than jihadists, since they have shown how Islam and democracy are reconcilable. Furthermore, it is not difficult to denounce and crack down on violent jihadists, whereas the Saudi regime may find it difficult to justify the imprisonment of peaceful activists.

The regime worries about nonviolent activism in a country that has had limited experience in civil disobedience, sit-ins, and demonstrations. It certainly does not want society to learn about how peaceful activism can be justified from an Islamic point of view. That is why Western policymakers, interested in seeing Saudi regime change, should take the Saudi modernist project seriously, even if does not closely and fully correspond to Western notions of democracy.

Western allies of Saudi Arabia should put pressure on the regime to free those peaceful activists. After all, this modernist project, once begun, will be difficult to hold down in the long term, as suppressing it will only strengthen its appeal—and, possibly, push it toward more violent and destabilizing tactics in the future




May 2022

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