Friday, November 2, 2007

Saudi Arabia's power play

As King Abdullah prepared for his state visit to the United Kingdom, he took a moment to criticize the British for not doing enough against terrorism. When you consider that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, the King's accusation looks almost humorous. It was, however, momentous in that it came from the usually quiescent Saudi Kingdom. King Abdullah did not just spend his visit in accusations, he also called for the creation of a global 'intelligence clearinghouse' for the processing of terrorism intelligence.

King Abdullah's call for a centralized international hub for terrorism intelligence marked the latest in a series of moves by the kingdom to assert itself as a leader in international politics. Saudi Arabia's image has for decades suffered from a negative image among Westerners for its medieval views on individual rights, and among Muslims for its alleged pandering to Western interests. This was not always the case. For many years, Saudi Arabia had been the moral center of the Muslim world, and its oil supply made it an influential member of the international community.

Saudi dominance in the Islamic world suffered a serious blow during the first Gulf War. The presence of soldiers from the morally bankrupt West was widely derided by Arab nations and from Saudi Arabia's own clerics. The continuing presence of U.S. military personnel in the country has been a thorn in the Monarchy's side. It serves as the main ammunition for the various radical Islamist groups and for Iran who criticize the royal family for being Muslims in word alone.

For its part, the West erupted in fury towards Saudi Arabia when its most notorious son Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network committed the atrocities of 9/11. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals and critics of Saudi Arabia's ultra-orthodox Wahabbist Islam gained unprecedented attention.

Saudi Arabia was caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Its brand of Islam which gave the royal family its authority among Muslims now threatened its ties with the countries whose oil consumers were responsible for its vast wealth. On the other hand, its dominant position as the defender of Islam was being seriously challenged by Osama bin Laden and his jihadist fighters.

Saudi Arabia has made a series of recent maneuvers aimed to regain a position of dominance among Muslims and the West. Recently the country launched the website whose goal is to centralize the issuance of fatwas in Saudi Arabia. Fatwas, religious rulings, cover every aspect of muslim life. The rulings vary depending on the cleric issuing them and are often contradictory because of that. Recently the issuance of the 'breastfeeding fatwa' from a lecturer at the prestigious, thousand year old Al-Azhar Islamic University in Egypt led to a popular outcry among Muslims and mockery from the West. The lecturer alleged that the strict requirement of the veil for women when in the company of men could be surmounted through a series of symbolic breastfeedings to establish a family relationship. The call for a central authority for fatwas is not new nor limited to the Saudi monarchy, and neither is the use of the internet for seekers of religious guidance. The use of the web to obtain fatwa rulings has been gaining popularity especially among Muslims living in Western nations. Saudi Arabia is seeking to monopolize on this new use of the internet with the launch of its own fatwa website. Should this endeavor succeed, the monarchy could reestablish its religious validity and give its brand of Islam a new platform.

While it is no secret that King Abdullah is furious over the war in Iraq, it is only recently that he has began to voice his criticism in the press. In an effort to defuse the rising tension in the Middle East, the Saudis have even reached out to its Shiite enemy Iran. Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Prince Saud recently reported that the conglomerate of Persian Gulf oil states, the Gulf Cooperation Council, were willing to provide Iran with uranium for its nuclear energy program. While the move is aimed to end warmongering between Washington and Tehran, it places Saudi Arabia in role of peacemaker in the region. That is not the usual position for the Saudis who financed the the mujahideen Afghan war against the Soviets, Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, as well as numerous other militant movements in Egypt, Lebanon, and Algeria. Saudia Arabia's big brother policy towards to the Arab world has also included reconciliation talks between the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah factions.

The impact of Riyadh's all-out offensive remains to be seen. The much-touted talks between Fatah and Hamas failed to lead to a successful Palestinian unity government and the fall of Gaza was highly embarrassing for the Saudi monarchy.

For the Saudi fatwa website to succeed it will need to surmount difficulties presented by the decentralized nature of the post-Ottoman Empire Muslim world. Muslims are currently more likely to seek advice from their local imam or sheikh than from a Saudi website. And so far noone takes seriously the idea of Saudi Arabia providing Iran with uranium. In fact, despite all Saudi Arabia's best efforts, their multitude of moral and political projects have received a lukewarm reception at best. Despite this, Saudi Arabia's initiatives could potentially lead to peace in the Middle East. In a region with a history for conflict that stretches for milennia, any realistic potential for peace ought not be scoffed at.

The King is a legitimate ally of the West whose weaponry and oil consumption is principally responsible for his position of power, but he walks a dangerous tight-rope. Wahabbist Islam gives the monarchy its mandate for rule, but many of its adherents are rabid in their anti-Western sentiments. Saudi Arabia which straddles the battle lines in the war on terror may be uniquely capable of brokering peace in the region. It remains to be seen if they are up to the task.