Talisman Gate

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Want a Slice of Saudi Pie?

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

October 14, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1282 words

HEADLINE: Want a Slice of Saudi Pie?

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Saudi Arabia was put together yesterday and can be unraveled tomorrow. Okay, I exaggerate, but only slightly. Some 80 years ago, the chieftains of an Arabian clan, who for a couple of centuries had been in the business of ruling others, picked off the remaining fiefdoms to their north, west and south and cobbled together a country and named it after one of their grand-papas. It is as if the Kennedys flanked out from Massachusetts and took over most of the New England states and fashioned a country called Kenneda. Of course, some enterprising Western intelligence officers (the Brits, who else?) were there acting as midwives to the new Arabian state, followed by the Americans, who nursed the infant through toddlerhood. And then, there was oil, followed by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Okay, I oversimplify, but only slightly.

Let's retrace some of these leaps. When one ponders the current affairs of the Arabian Peninsula, the bulk of which is called today the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one should go back to a point in time when a certain English gentleman physician, Charles M. Doughty, meandered about the land known as Nejd that lies at the heart of the aforementioned peninsula.

Doughty, deciding to do away with the usual dissembling of faith and identity employed by other European travelers into Arab lands, was a Western practitioner of medicine and a Christian wandering about in the heart of hearts of Wahhabi-Land. I would have advised against this back then (mid-part of the 18th century) and would advise against it now (check out the State Department report on world-wide religious freedoms). What Doughty encountered, and described in his "Arabia Deserta" masterpiece, was a bleak and ungenerous land inhabited by people who were xenophobic and mean-spirited, at least to European doctors. He had traveled the whole Middle East and never saw anything like it. Even the then Ottoman-controlled backwater of Hijaz with its Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, which he reached after his sojourn into Nejd, seemed in contrast like a shining beacon of humane and civilized society.

And he was very puzzled indeed. Those Nejdis, as the people of Nejd were called, were well traveled: trading horses in India, grain in Iraq, and textiles in Damascus. They had seen quite a bit of the world around them, and yet this is where the first seeds of Wahhabism took root and sprouted out into the Islamic world.

And Wahhabism itself was not much of an ideology. Its meager constructs of puritan wrath and militant xenophobia were a rough sketch of earlier and more sophisticated thoughts put forward centuries ago by the Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who is the ideological forefather of today's Salafists, who are not to be confused with the Wahhabis.

No, Wahhabism was the product of a preacher called Mohammed son of Abdul-Wahhab, whose father had disowned him. It came out from his own checkered and murky past. That son of Abdul-Wahhab was an angry man.

Can you blame him? There were no air-conditioners out there in the smoldering desert, and the locusts, those darn locusts, would show up whenever something, anything, green would thrust its way out of the caked sand and gravel. The Arabs, unlike the likes of Doughty and Colonel Lawrence, have no love of the desert. Whoever can get out of Arabia departs for the greener pastures of the nearby Levant and Mesopotamia.

And there was a man, in the early 19th century, who came to lead his clan, which was torn by problems of hereditary succession and past broken alliances. Ibn Saud was his name, or the Son of Saud. To overpower and rule, he needed muscle, and he saw that his best chance were the angry crazies still holding onto the legacy of the Son of Wahhab, who had been allied to the Son of Saud's forefathers. He struck east, and easily took over the Shiite oasis towns on the Persian Gulf. Then north against the Sultanate of the Son of Rashid and its capital of Ha'il, and then, exploiting the turmoil engulfing his part of the world after-World War I and the British grand experiments of ruling over the unruly, he struck west and captured the prizes of Mecca and Medina. Once in a while, the angry crazies got too angry and too crazy, and he had to bash them. Then oil, which the locusts can't digest, gushed from the ground and American companies were at hand to turn it into something green. And these new greener pastures made everyone very happy, except the angry crazies, who yearned for the adrenaline kick of Holy War.

But that was fixed too. The smart and well-groomed Sons of the Son of Saud found a formula that works: Afghanistan. Go East, Angry Crazy Young Man, for jihad, Stinger missiles, and martyrdom awaited you! And that worked for a while and everyone was also very, very happy.

Now, I keep hearing whispers that "North" is the new "East" for the current rulers of Saudi Arabia. Hushed plans were being circulated last spring in Washington by the Saudi prince/spook/diplomat who brought us the "Afghan Solution" in the first place and these plans entailed sending off the angry crazies to Iraq. This way, the pitch to the Americans went, the Saudis can plant infiltrators into the stream of jihadists heading north and uncover the workings of worldwide jihad. Hey, it worked in Afghanistan, right? No. Afghanistan gave us the Taliban and Iraq is yielding a tiny little Fallujah, so far.

Let us revisit the whole obscure Wahhabi-Salafist thing. The Wahhabis, being the angry crazies, are very good at smashing things, whereas the Salafists actually have plans for the Temple they seek to build upon the ruins. Osama is a Wahhabi, whereas Zawahiri is a Salafi. Before Al Qaeda and Taliban, those two didn't play well together, until the Salafists re alized what the Son of Saud did; they needed muscle to overpower and expand. And where do you find a Wahhabi when you need one? Well, incubating in the smoldering heat of Nejd, of course.

So, yes, we need to break up Saudi Arabia. The Sons of the Sons of the Son of Saud are not doing a good job containing or co-opting or combating the angry crazies. They still have some smart royal highnesses showing up to work, but they have yet to demonstrate that they are up to the task of confronting a serious challenge to Western civilization and not repeating the mistakes of their past.

Sooner or later, the Salafists will realize that it is easier to cut corners and set up their Taliban Plus in the Arabian Peninsula, propped up by the twin pillars of wealth (oil) and Islamic legitimacy (Mecca and Medina). And the world is running out of precious time. To deny them that would involve re-creating the five neat little states that preceded the conquests of the Son of Saud. First, Hijaz - the descendants of the Hashemites are plentiful, with plenty of experience managing Mecca. Second, Ha'il; the descendants of the Son of Rashid are also plentiful. Third, a 250-mile by 50-mile rectangle called the State of Eastern Arabia. This is where all the oil and the Shiites can be found. Fourth, Nejd. No problem there, almost 7,000 princely descendants of the Son of Saud. Fifth, 'Aseer, which is the topic for another column.

In an area of the world where identities need several centuries to take hold, the 80-year-old experiment of Saudi Arabia is a trifle. It is an idea that did not pan out, and there is little reason to avoid returning to the drawing board.

Thinking afresh about the Saudi mess is important because the frontline of the war on terror runs from Iraq's Fallujah to Buraida, which was the site of many of Doughty's unpleasant memories and is the current home to many of Osama bin Ladin's Nejdy ideological mentors, to Al-Baha, 'Aseer's main city.