Collapsing pillars of the Bedouin kingdom

Developing Just Leadership

Tahir Mustafa

Rajab 24, 1437 2016-05-01

News & Analysis

by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 3, Rajab, 1437)

The rotten kingdom of ‘Saudi’ Arabia is collapsing. Deep internal divisions have come to the fore as the unholy alliance between Bani Saud and Bani Abd al-Wahhab unravels.

The Najdi Bedouins’ kingdom is like a three-legged stool. One leg consists of Bani Saud, the other of the Wahhabi zealots and the third, perhaps the most important, the external sponsor. Initially, the British served as the third leg of support. After the Second World War, the US took over responsibility but if recent developments are any indication, the Americans have soured on the Najdi Bedouins. Thus, the three-legged stool has suddenly lost one leg and has become quite wobbly. But even the two legs, instead of providing whatever little support to each other, are coming unhinged. There is a distinct possibility that the humpty dumpty of the Najdi Bedouins’ kingdom may soon come crashing down.

Here is why. Last month, security forces arrested a well-known Saudi preacher, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Tarifi on charges of mocking the regime. He was arrested in the middle of the night from his home following a comment he wrote on Twitter on April 21, describing the regime as apostate. “There are rulers who think that if they renounce their religion to satisfy apostates, the pressures on them will be stopped. Each time you renounce a bit, they push you to renounce more to make you follow their way,” al-Tarifi’s comment read.

Al-Tarifi’s arrest signals the regime’s declaration of war on its hitherto religious allies and enablers. It occurred in the context of a prohibition (announced on April 12) on the religious police to arrest people for moral or drug related offences and US President Barack Obama’s visit to the Kingdom (April 20–21).

The social media went viral with condemnations of the Saudi regime. Al-Tarifi’s arrest was not an isolated case nor was his Twitter comment. He had made a series of comments in the wake of the regime’s decision to strip the muttawwi‘un (religious police) of their authority to arrest people for moral infractions. Since the founding of the Saudi kingdom, the muttawwi‘un, calling themselves the “Committee to enjoin virtue and forbid evil” (taking the title from an ayah in the noble Qur’an: al-amr bi-al-ma‘ruf wa-al-nahy ‘an al-munkar [3:104]), were tasked with imposing strict “moral” laws.

The club-wielding zealots went about beating up people if they failed to close shop and hurry up for prayers. If a few strands of a woman’s hair were exposed or any woman was found driving a car, these muttawwi‘un would immediately spring into action to prevent them from “spreading vice in society.” The women would not only be beaten up on the spot — nothing like instant justice! — but also arrested and perhaps fined with a jail term, depending on the judge’s whim.

This arrangement was instituted in 1744 when an obscurantist preacher, one Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was driven out of his native ‘Uyaynah and arrived in Dari‘yah, the home base of a local bully named Muhammad ibn Saud. Sheltered by Ibn Saud, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab provided him a religious crutch, thus the thug from Dari‘yah got a leg up on other bullies in the neighborhood. While Ibn Saud assumed temporal authority, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab took over religious responsibilities.

This toxic alliance agreeing to a division of labor did not last long at least in terms of worldly success initially but would reappear a century later with a vengeance. In the early part of the 20th century, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud emerged as a British agent and soon occupied the entire Arabian Peninsula, thanks in large measure to the support he received from the British. Once in physical control, he declared himself king and the Wahhabi preachers provided religious justification for his criminal enterprise.

Ibn Saud’s progeny took control of worldly affairs while the descendants of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, taking the title “Al al-Shaykh,” assumed religious responsibilities. In return for giving the religious zealots a free hand in matters religious, the latter rubberstamped the rulers’ decisions in temporal affairs. They issued fatwas stating that obedience to the ruler was mandatory even if he violated Islamic injunctions. What should the Muslims do if the ruler indulged in un-Islamic behaviour? The religious preachers ordained nasihah (advice); that’s it. Rebellion was haram.

Since the founding of the Bedouin kingdom in 1932, Bani Saud have been free to indulge in every kind of vice — drinking, gambling, fornicating, adultery, extortion, murder, and of course worshipping taghut — while the religious police beat up ordinary people for minor infringements.

Things however have changed. Bani Saud are under increasing pressure from many sides. Their policies are unraveling both at home and abroad. With plunging oil prices, the Najdi Bedouins can no longer buy people’s loyalty or silence them into acquiescence. Further, an entire generation of young Saudis educated abroad has emerged that is no longer willing to accept the obscurantist ideas of the religious zealots or their secular cohorts ruling the Kingdom. Last February, when the ruling family announced the withdrawal of subsidies on gasoline and talked about imposing taxes, it immediately led to vigorous debate among the people. “No taxation without representation” became a popular slogan. While this has not become a full fledge rebellion, Bani Saud want to take measures before things get out of control completely.

In order to mollify the people, Bani Saud announced new regulations curtailing the powers of the religious police. They should notify the police or the Anti-Drug Authority of drug use crimes, instead of arresting people, as was hitherto the case. “Neither the members nor the heads of the religious police are allowed to arrest and persecute citizens for such crimes, or even to ask suspected people for their IDs. Only the police and the Anti-Drug Authority are allowed to take these measures.”

At a stroke, nearly a century-old arrangement has been reversed. While restrictions on the religious police are welcome, including prohibition on people with criminal record from joining the force (this is an admission that criminal elements were previously part of the religious police force!), there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. Reports of serious differences between Bani Saud and the muttawwi‘un have emerged.

Social media networks have also exploded with comments. Those opposed to the oppressive tactics of the religious police have welcomed the move but there is also a push back through social media. A campaign under the hashtag, “The people against abolishing the role of the religious police” is trending widely indicating that the religious police are not without supporters.

The regime’s controversial decision seems to have come after pressure from the Americans demanding that it bring these religious zealots under control. This is especially acute given that they have been rampaging through parts of the Muslim East (aka the Middle East) chopping heads and eating organs. Justification for such barbarism has come from the Saudi religious establishment. Two weeks ago, the Saudi chief priest, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Shaykh issued a statement against women drivers saying this would lead to moral degradation in society. How and why this would happen, the blind shaykh did not explain.

Reaction against the regime’s move has also exposed what has been going on for years. Most of the cannibals are Saudi-inspired and supported. Not surprisingly, they have reacted violently against the regime’s move. Al-Tarifi is not alone. Al-Qaeda-affiliated elements have been equally scathing in their condemnation. For instance, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi preacher based in Syria and affiliated with al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, expressed his rage over al-Tarifi’s arrest in a series of remarks on Twitter.

“Al-Tarifi’s arrest opens a door to annul the religious police. It signals the beginning of a new era that aims at weakening religious preachers,” Muhaysini stated. He urged fellow preachers who avoided denouncing al- Tarifi’s arrest, fearing the government’s reaction, not to “sit idly by, but to push for his release.”

In other comments on social media, people condemned King Salman for what they described as a “witch hunt” against Saudi preachers, owing to the fact that al-Tarifi’s detention followed the arrest of two other preachers, Mohammad Khadif and Sliman Duwaish.

Sincere Muslims everywhere should welcome the internal war between Ibn Saud and Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. If they are at each other’s throats, their energies will be dissipated in internal warfare. What these developments indicate is that there are deep internal divisions in the Kingdom and that the regime is about to announce other controversial decisions that the religious police are bound to oppose. Al-Tarifi’s arrest may have less to do with what he said on social media and more on how he might react to future policy pronouncements of the regime.

The beginning of the end of the Najdi Bedouin kingdom may well be nigh.

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