Al-Saud: the west's custodians of the Haramain

Developing Just Leadership

Naeem-ul Haq

Dhu al-Hijjah 04, 1418 1998-04-01

Special Reports

by Naeem-ul Haq (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 3, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1418)

The control and administration of the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah by the Saudi family has long been the subject of debate and criticism. Much is made of the Saudis' mismanagement, and the tragedies which result from them, such as the fire at Mina last year. Their personal immorality is also often noted. However, there are far more serious issues to be considered than merely inefficiency and debauchery.

The importance and centrality of the Haramain and the Hajj to the Muslim Ummah and the Islamic movement are frequently emphasized. This is no mere symbolism. The Hajj has always been a meeting place at which Muslims from all over the world come together to discuss the state of the Ummah. In recent centuries, as the Muslim world came under attack from the west, the Hajj was a centre for Muslims from all over the world to meet, discuss their similar situations, and draw strength and inspiration from doing so. Thus, the tragically short-lived jihad movement of Sayyid Ahmed of Rae Bareli against the British in India was initiated shortly after he returned from Hajj in 1822-23. Five years later, Imam Shamil of Daghestan and Shaikh Abdul Qadir al-Jaziri met at the Hajj, discussed their respective struggles against the Russians in the Caucasus and the French in north Africa, and appealed to fellow Muslims for support. Such episodes are commonplace in the history of the period. For a modern equivalent, one might look to the experience of Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), who returned to the US from Hajj in 1963 with a better understanding of the state of the Muslim world and a determination to do something about it.

This significance of Hajj was realised by the western enemies of Islam in the last century. In the early 1850s, Captain R F (later Sir Richard) Burton visited Makkah and Madinah and reported on their potential as a focus for anti-British sentiment and activities. A few years later, the British Consul in Jeddah spelt it out:

'The point of real importance to England politically, I believe, is the Hejaz as the focus of Muslim thought and the nucleus from which radiate ideas, advice, instructions, and dogmatical implications... Certain persons proceed to Hajj for political reasons. Mecca, being free from European intrusion, is safe ground on which meetings can be held, ideas exchanged... Up to the present time we have kept no watch on those who come and go... thus meetings may be convened at Mecca at which combinations hostile to us may form without our knowing anything until the shell bursts in our midst... If this consulate could have a trusty Mussalman agent at Mecca, I believe a great deal of valuable information could be obtained.'

This early western insight is central to understanding every political development in the region ever since. If the British reached this understanding of the importance of the Haramain and Hajj well over a 100 years ago, there can be no doubt that western decision-makers - be they in London, Paris, Washington, New York, Moscow or Tel Aviv - have been aware of it ever since.

Early this century, the British started cultivating Sharif Hussain ibn Ali of Makkah. The Hijaz had been a wilayet (province) of the declining Uthmaniyyah State since 1840, and Sharif Hussain was appointed Amir of Makkah by Istanbul in November 1908. Sharif Hussain dreamt of ruling the whole of Arabia, free of Turkish control, and was encouraged and supported with money and arms by the British. The treachery of the Sharif Hussain and other Arab leaders, among them one Abdul Aziz ibn Saud of Najd, was crucial to the Uthmaniyyahs' defeat in the First World War.

After the war, however, Sharif Hussain's ambitions clashed with British plans, and he found that the British could be as treacherous as he himself was. Determined to have pliable, weak and co-operative rulers of Islam's holiest places, the British transferred their support to Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, a relatively obscure Najdi tribal leader who had nonetheless proved useful during the war.

The Saudis had already made their mark on the history of the Haramain. In 1802, newly charged with Wahhabi religious zeal, they had sacked the holy cities and plundered the caravans of hujjaj. They had been evicted from the Hijaz by forces sent by the khalifah in Istanbul some 10 years later, and returned to the relative backwaters of Najd. But their traditions of attacking and plundering the hujjaj had not changed; as recently as 1923, Abdul Aziz's forces had massacred nearly 5,000 pilgrims from the Yemen. Now, in 1924, supported by the British, they marched on the Haramain again. As in 1802, they started by massacring the inhabitants of Taif, killing up to 1,000 people, including many who had sought refuge in mosques. News of the Taif slaughter terrified the residents of Makkah and shocked the 70,000 pilgrims gathered for Hajj. When the Saudis arrived there, they inflicted massive cruelty on innocent people and pillaged the city, destroying many more tombs, shrines, mosques and historic sites. In December 1925, Madinah was occupied, and the next month Abdul Aziz ibn Saud declared himself king of the Hijaz.

Thus did the British realize their dream of a 'Mussalman agent' through which to control the holy cities. Abdul Aziz had repeatedly met with British political agents and had received large annual 'subsidies' since 1916 (originally 20,000 pounds, later raised to 60,000 - then over US$300,000). In the event, the British have received a massive and on-going return on this relatively modest initial investment.

Abdul Aziz ibn Saud had been carried to power by Ikhwan troops motivated by genuine (if misguided) Islamic fervour, who were unaware of his British links. But they quickly became disillusioned by his actions, and first withdrew to their own areas of Najd, then rose in rebellion against him. In a series of battles in 1928-29, they were defeated by Abdul Aziz's troops supplied with vehicles and heavy weapons by the British. In 1932, Abdul Aziz, previously ruler of Hijaz and Najd separately, declared himself King of the newly united 'Saudi Arabia'.

The 1930s saw the arrival, together, of two new factors which have dominated local affairs ever since: oil and Americans. Oil wealth was slow to arrive, delayed by economic depression and the second world war. Nonetheless, the limited benefits of oil exploration and the support of the British were sufficient to keep the Saudis in place and serving western interests. It is a measure of the importance the British placed in their Saudi agents that they sent money, food and supplies to Abdul Aziz even in 1940, when Britain's own population was going hungry. In 1943, the Americans took over looking after the Saudis, supplying some $33 million in just two years, and the basis of the present relationship was laid.

By this time, the political power of Islam having apparently been defeated, the Saudis' importance to the west changed. Through the 1960s to 1970s, it was mainly as a way of controlling the supplies of oil to western countries. However, the Saudis also served to monitor and control the development of Islamic thought and work through such institutions as Rabitah al-Alam al-Islami (the Muslim World League) and the Islamic Secretariat. Seen against this background, there can be no doubting the malevolence of the Saudis' role since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, when the west realized that the political power of Islam was again a threat. Again, the Saudis became a major tool in the west's anti-Islam campaign. Now their role included subverting Islamic activists in other countries through financial help, to ensure they did not support the Revolution; promoting anti-Iran and anti-Shi'a propaganda throughout the world; promoting a non-political and pro-western version of Islam to counter the Islamic movement; supporting and financing western efforts to re-define Islam through the works of orientalists and orientalist 'centres for Islamic studies'; crashing the price of oil (from US$36 per barrel in 1980 to $10 in 1987) to try to destroy Iran's foreign exchange income; giving Iraq over $100 billion to finance its war on Iran; and allowing the US military to use Saudi bases to support Iraq in the war.

But a major aspect of their efforts has been their exploitation and manipulation of their control of the Haramain. The key to this has been their claim to maintain the Hajj's 'purity' as a religious and spiritual occasion, 'unsullied' by politics. The Iranians, quite rightly, saw the Hajj as an occasion for meeting other Muslims, informing them of current affairs, and, in accordance the Qur'anic command (9:03), denouncing the enemies of Islam. This they did through the annual 'Bara'at min al-Mushrikeen' (disassociation from the mushrikeen) marches, which the Saudis steadfastly opposed, culminating in the pre-meditated massacre of over 500 Irani and other hujjaj in 1987, in an operation planned and overseen by western intelligence agencies. This massacre, designed to prevent the Iranians' Islamic message spreading to other hujjaj and to give the Iranians a bad name as a result of a massive subsequent propaganda campaign, was the greatest possible desecration of the holy places, and yet its true circumstances were quickly buried by the Saudis' subsequent re-writing of history.

The blame for these events was quickly turned on the Iranians by the Saudis and their allies, who accused the Iranians of trying to politicise the Hajj. The hypocrisy of this is self-evident. While all public discussion of the affairs of the global Islamic movement is strictly controlled, Yasser Arafat was invited to speak before the khutbah at Mina during the Hajj of 1994, after he had surrendered to the zionists. The same year, hujjaj from Kashmir requested that the Imam at Mina make du'a for the shuhadah of Kashmir and the liberation of Kashmir from India, only to be told that this would require official permission. This latter is a commonplace occurrence. The fact that the world of Islam has this century been totally infiltrated and controlled by the west, and that the Ummah is now engaged in a global struggle to defeat this control and re-establish Islam as a collective moral code rather than simply an individual one, is now generally recognised. But the fact that western control even extends now to the Haramain and Hajj, and the full implications of this are often missed.

The Saudis' control of the Haramain and the Hajj on behalf of their western sponsors and overlords prevents the Hajj from serving a crucial function for the global Ummah. Seen in the context of the west's long recognition of the political importance of the Haramain and Hajj, and the Saudis' history and record, this can only be a deliberate policy of the west. The Haramain are not only in the hands of inefficient and illegitimate Muslim rulers; Islam's holiest places and most sacred rituals are now in the hands of rulers deliberately established in power by, and w

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