Liang Xiang Forum| Bernard Haykel: Saudi Arabia and the Rise and Fall of Political Islam

On 13th November 2020, Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies and director of the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East at Princeton University, gives an online lecture to Chinese audience from many institutes. The lecture is the third lecture of “Liang Xiang Forum” Lecture Series, which is organized by Institute for International and Area Studies (IIAS), Tsinghua University. The Forum name “Liang Xiang” is borrowed from the Tang Dynasty poet, “Though separated by mountains, we’ll share the same clouds and rain. The bright moon belongs not to a single town.” Tingyi Wang, Assistant Professor at Tsinghua University and Senior Associate Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, hosts the lecture.

(Photo of the scene)

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is frequently accused by the western media, and in scholarly and foreign policy writings, of being uniquely responsible for the spread a radical form of political Islam, commonly labeled Salafism. This talk addresses the history of the Kingdom’s relationship with political Islam and with Salafism. It illustrates why this widely accepted claim is overly simplistic, and, more important, how it conceals a history of America’s involvement and patronage of Islamism during the Cold War in the fight against Communism and other leftist ideologies. The talk also traces the rise of political Islam as a phenomenon of the Cold War and explains some of the reasons for its seeming decline in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe in four main parts.

The first part revolves around the history of Saudi Arabia and the relationship between the Saudi royal family and Islam. Professor Haykel believes that Islam is an important tool and instrument for the Saudi royal family to expand its territory in the 1920s. Saudi Arabia’s first king Abdelaziz Ibn Saud, used “Salafism” and “Wahhabism” as a sharp tool when he was conquering the Bedouin tribes on the Arabian Peninsula and finally ended up with the stability and unity in the Peninsula with the founding of the Saudi state. Professor Haykel then introduces the history of Saudi conquering since the 1920s with a map, which enables the audience to grasp a clear and full image of the country and the region at the same time.

The Saudi family’s conquest of the Arabian Peninsula was based on a unique interpretation of Islam, namely Salafism, that advocates extreme austerity and adopts a relatively violent religious agenda. According to Salafism, any Muslim who disagrees with their beliefs should be regarded as infidels and Salafists therefore, have reasons for conquering their lands and property. Professor Haykel also compares several pictures of Muslim tombs before and after the Saudi conquest in Arabia to show the belief and ideology that dominated the Saudi family when they conquered the Arabia Peninsula. After Abdelaziz established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sheikhs of the Salafists were given political power to a certain degree, including setting the dress code for Saudi women and stipulating social and religious customs. At the same time, however, the most radical and violent part of Salafism was ordered to conceal by the king to perform in order to maintain social stability. Also, the Salafists must obey the pragmatic necessities of the state, and only the Saudi government has the right to decide when and where does the military power should be used. In return, the Salafi scholars were given patronage to fund their students and control several religious institutions inside the kingdom.

The second part of the lecture focuses on the new ideological challenge that Saudi Arabia faced after the death of King Abdelaziz. During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia and the United States formed an alliance to counter the threats from Arab Nationalism promoted by Egyptian President, Gamal Abdu Nasser, and Socialism, so that they tended to use Islam as an instrument to compete with the two foreign ideologies. While the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia was threatened by two ideologies, the US government also faced the threat from the USSR and therefore hoped to portray the Saudi King as the leader in the Muslim world, who was able to use Islam as a tool to combat Socialism. Accordingly, during the reign of King Faisal, Saudi Arabia formed a strategic alliance with the United States to fight Arab Nationalism and Socialism. During this period, the Saudi government launched several Islamic movements and established several transnational Islamic institutions, such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Muslim World League, being aimed at ensuring Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the Muslim world. In this section, Professor Haykel also touches upon the relationship between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (“Muslim Brotherhood”) and the Saudi regime. Muslim Brotherhood is a movement that began in the 1920s in Egypt and presented Islam as a political ideology. It has been regarded as a vanguard of Muslims and also combatted Western materialism ideologically. Professor Haykel believes that the Islamic political thought of Muslim Brotherhood has a profound influence on Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi traditional scholars held strong suspicion towards the political ideology of Muslim Brotherhood, thereby forbidding them to teach theological courses in Saudi universities. Nevertheless, Muslim Brotherhood was of great significance for Saudi Arabia, because they came with political ideas that did not exist among traditional Saudi scholars, especially when it comes to confrontation with foreign modern ideologies, whether Communism or Arab Nationalism adopted by Nasser.

The Mecca Mosque rebellion in 1979 (led by a Salafist extremist, Juhayman al-Utaybi), accompanied by the Islamic Revolution in Iran (the rising of Khomeinist ideology) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan shocked the Saudi regime so strongly that they began promoting the modernization and enhancing the Saudi-American alliance. By the end of the Afghanistan war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 had prompted Saudi Arabia to host American troops to protect the country from the potential threat from Iraq, leaving the Saudi-US alliance a historic peak.

The third part of the lecture examines the confrontation between the Saudi government and Islamist extremism, including the fight against Al Qaeda and its leader Bin Laden in particular. With the permission of the Saudi government, a large number of US troops have entered US military bases in Saudi Arabia. This has stimulated the rising voice of Islamic extremists and several religious entrepreneurs, who were critical of the government’s decision. The extremists led by Al-Qaeda founder Bin Laden, aimed at fighting against the Saudi dictatorship, U.S. hegemony, and restoring the Islamic order in the Arabian Peninsula. This group of people resorted mainly to violence in order to achieve political and social changes. Specifically, Professor Bernard Haykel believes that Bin Laden was a figure that the Saudi government failed to absorb and assimilate. He was excluded from the Saudi political system as he failed to integrate after his return from the Afghanistan war. This was also the source of his rage leading to the ultimate radicalization. In the face of threats from al Qaeda, the Saudi government used a variety of methods of repression, including force, rehabilitation, imprisonment, and co-optation.

In the last part of the lecture, Professor Haykel introduced the rule of the Saudi royal family and the dramatic changes the country has witnessed in recent decades. Thanks to the combination of oil affluence, a relatively stable political system and the protection of the United States, the Saudi royal family was able to achieve drastic changes in the country’s socio-economic outlook within several decades. However, Saudi Arabia’s “youth bulge” has hindered the country’s social development, employment rate and housing distribution, and the Saudi government is limited by the demographic factor in the process of wealth redistribution. At the same time, Professor Haykel pointed out that the imminent threat Saudi Arabia faces is the shortage of water and power resources, namely, that the basic resources cannot meet the increasing needs of the growing population. Nowadays, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to push Saudi society back to tracks of normalization and modernization by promoting the economic diversification reforms, or in other words, the 2030 Vision.

After the end of the lecture, Professor Haykel engages in active interaction with the audience, and the lecture ends with the Q&A session.

Bernard Haykel is a scholar of the Arabian Peninsula, focusing on the history, politics and economics of Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), and Yemen. Professor Haykel is the author of several books and is presently completing one on modern Saudi political history which will be published by Princeton University Press. He is considered an authority on Islamist political movements and Islamic law and is the author of numerous articles on the politics of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Salafism, al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Editor: Yuan Zhang
Photographer: Yao Cheng
Revisor: Tingyi Wang