Boiling Out of Arabia
“By the brightness of the noonday sun, and in the night when all is still, your Lord has not forsaken you, nor is He displeased. Soon your Lord will be bountiful to you and you be satisfied.”—Qur’an 93:1
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it is less than a month since the West’s resulting long military involvement in Afghanistan ended abruptly as a car crash. There is a school of thought that, as the original goal of preventing the country being used as a base for terrorism had been achieved by 2002, troops could all have been withdrawn This would have avoided two decades of casualties on all sides as well as a failed “nation-building” programme.
What was never properly discussed—certainly not in public—was the background to that conflict, nor the likely consequences in a region that holds 55% of the world’s oil reserves and supplies one in three litres of its daily consumption. By far the bulk of this is supplied by Saudi Arabia, whose history, development and politics are never brought under scrutiny. This underlies the deeper story of 9/11.
From being essentially a British protectorate a century ago, this new country passed under American influence as Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) began wholesale exploitation of its riches. It being in no-one’s interest to rock the rich boat of wealth that ensued, the serious culture clash between the materialistic West in a country that officially adheres to the strict Wahabi strain of Islam was studiously ignored by all concerned.
The origins of this unusual and unusually influential country lie two centuries ago in a small tribe led by Ibn Saud, who set up a successful trading post deep in the Nefud. The tribe developed a strong religious bent when it adopted the Wahabi faith of Sunni Islam, which granted successive Saud rulers with absolute authority, in exchange for adhere to Wahabi tenets and to spread them abroad. After a chequered century or so fighting the Ottoman Empire, the Saudis, by siding with the Allies, emerged victorious after WW1 and proceeded to extend their power across Arabia during the 1920s. This was accelerated by the expedient method of King Ibn Saud marrying daughters of rival tribal leaders and so securing control over most of the peninsula. Today’s extensive Saudi royal family numbers some 15,000 members, around 1,500 of whom are regarded as “senior”, and therefore influential.
The extent of the kingdom now meant that they controlled the holiest shrines of their religion in Mecca and Medina, The Saudis were therefore seen as curators of the heart of the muslim religion. For decades, the disruptive intrusion of Western culture in the shape of oil engineers and technicians was accommodated by strict segregation, especially socially. The import of unskilled labour from other muslim countries released Saudis from menial tasks. To date, a swollen population of 34 million includes 2 million Bangladeshis, 1.5 million Filipinos, 1 million Pakistanis, 250,000 Lebanese and large contingents from many other muslim countries.
Several events, such as the storming of the holy mosque by dissidents in 1979 resulted in ever stricter practice of Islam, reinforced by recruitment of clerics into the education system. Strict interpretation of the Qur’an and application of Sharia law sat increasingly badly with Western ideas of democracy, personal freedoms and emancipation. But because business was so profitable to both cultures, Western workers obeyed the rules as required, yet younger Saudis grew resentful of their presence and their status.
“Ibn al-Wahhab was not the godfather of contemporary terrorist movements. Rather, he was a voice of reform, reflecting mainstream eighteenth-century Islamic thought. His vision of Islamic society was based upon monotheism in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews were to enjoy peaceful co-existence and cooperative commercial treaty relations.”— Natana Delong-Bas, Wahabi Islam
(to be continued)