Stephen Chan: If the 1979 Iranian rev­o­lu­tion was a turn­ing point in late 20th cen­tu­ry his­to­ry, what fol­lowed set the scene for a series of betray­als and revivals of the sort that the Western world could not have envis­aged. The spon­sor­ing of Saddam Hussein using Saudi mon­ey to make war on the new Iranian regime, a war which took part in the 1980s, was some­thing which would come back to haunt both the Western for­eign pol­i­cy but also the poli­cies and the domes­tic sta­bil­i­ty of the entire Middle Eastern region.

But the Western world was dis­tract­ed from the pos­si­bil­i­ty of those con­se­quences, because of course in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. The end of com­mu­nism was declared. And peo­ple like Francis Fukuyama wrote lengthy, copi­ous tomes about the end of his­to­ry. History had ful­filled itself. History had reached its own apoth­e­o­sis. History had come to its end because of the tri­umph of the lib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, which was always the inten­tion of his­to­ry.

There was a tri­umphal­ism in the air that was added to by this kind of qua­si­philo­soph­i­cal maun­der­ing, which gave a sense of com­fort, a sense of sta­bil­i­ty, to for­eign pol­i­cy­mak­ers, who took their eye off what might hap­pen. And in fact the mis­take that Saddam Hussein made after hav­ing been used and mak­ing him­self think that he was an ally of the Americans—the mis­take he made in invad­ing Kuwait—and the vic­to­ry of the allied forces over Saddam Hussein, dri­ving him out of Kuwait (Desert Storm—one of the great mil­i­tary vic­to­ries as it was called at that point in time), that only added to the sense of tri­umphal­ism. Not only had com­mu­nism fall­en in Europe, but mil­i­tary might orga­nized around the United States and its own armored forces could over­come any obsta­cle any­where in the world, includ­ing in the Middle East.

Out of a desert, out of a bleak desert, we have roman­tic images of the bleak desert. And we think very very much these days of the desert being both bleak but also appalling­ly rich. The Saudis in par­tic­u­lar were anx­ious that Saddam Hussein be dri­ven out of Kuwait. They didn’t want to have a rival hege­mon­ic pow­er right next door exer­cis­ing such close con­trol over the bor­ders with Saudi Arabia and over the oil fields of Kuwait.

But what we tend to for­get is that when Saudi Arabia final­ly achieved some degree of inde­pen­dent sta­bil­i­ty of its own after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and after a very great deal of internecine strife with­in what we now call Saudi Arabia, it was one of the world’s five poor­est coun­tries. It was so poor that nobody thought it was going to be impor­tant in the future. The war that Lawrence of Arabia had hoped to fight for the Allies against the Ottomans in World War I was regard­ed as a sideshow. Oil was only dis­cov­ered in 1938. But when oil was dis­cov­ered, of course, as we’ve seen from his­to­ry since then, it trans­formed the for­tunes not only of Saudi Arabia but the House of Saud.

Now, the house of Saud did not always rule over the region. The his­to­ry of the House of Saud com­ing to pow­er is a vexed one of alliances, betray­als, bat­tles, and a final, very uneasy rec­on­cil­i­a­tion which is still felt in terms of its con­se­quences around the world today. In 1744, the ances­tors of the cur­rent House of Saud and a rad­i­cal preach­er from the desert called Wahhab formed an alliance against the gov­ern­ing pow­ers of the great cities of Mecca and Medina. And togeth­er the preacher—who was an ide­o­logue, some­one who spoke for a very strict form of Islam, and the house of Saud—one of the war­ring tribes of the desert, wish­ing to attain total pow­er in the region… It was as it were unholy alliance. But they drove all before them. And then for many years after­wards, this alliance became uneasy. They fought. They slaugh­tered each oth­er. Basically it was a his­to­ry of decep­tion and betray­al, and entire armies were put to the sword in the cause of the strug­gle for pow­er.

The tri­umph of the House of Saud, aid­ed and abet­ted by the lat­er dis­cov­ery of oil, and the enrich­ment of the House of Saud, then demar­cat­ed our mod­ern knowl­edge of Saudi Arabia. It made a spe­cial point of becom­ing an ally with the United States, using its new­found oil wealth as lever­age to ensure friend­ship. But in the process, the House of Saud also became close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with opu­lence, a prince­ly oli­garchy; some­thing which was far removed from its desert ori­gins.

And Wahhabism, despite all of the treach­eries and bat­tles and slaugh­ters of the years gone by had not died. And so what you had, curi­ous­ly in Saudi Arabia itself in 1972, was a back­lash. The back­lash was the begin­ning of the orga­ni­za­tion of Wahhabi resis­tance to the House of Saud, and it came to full vis­i­bil­i­ty in 1979 when Wahhabi mil­i­tants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. This was at the time of pil­grim­age. It was at the time when the world’s atten­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Islamic world’s atten­tion, was focused on Mecca under­neath the con­trol of the House of Saud, and sud­den­ly the holy place was seized and the site of great bat­tle.

A caliphate, a Mahdi, all of these things were declared by the insur­gents. The Saudi forces could not dis­lodge them, despite repeat­ed attempts. And what hap­pened after­wards is the site of great con­tro­ver­sy. Some accounts have the French Foreign Legion, spe­cial forces from the Legion brought in to clear the Grand Mosque. Whether that’s true or not is not clear. But leg­end has it that they were con­vert­ed to Islam in a for­mal sense, so they could set foot on the holy place and basi­cal­ly begin the act of cleans­ing the blood­shed.

Other reports have it that the Pakistanis sent their spe­cial forces, and they put the work of clear­ing out the insur­gents. Others, that final­ly the CIA had to be brought in to do the job. But there were hun­dreds of insur­gents. They fought very well. They knew the holy place. They knew the tun­nel com­plex­es under­neath the mosque. They had clear­ly been well trained, the plan­ning had been very very intri­cate, and they were extreme­ly well armed, and they were more than a match for the local Saudi elite forces.

There had been great sup­port from rich peo­ple, mem­bers off the House of Saud itself, for what was meant to be a spar­tan, desert-based, puri­tan­i­cal and fun­da­men­tal­ist approach to Islam, as if even with­in the body politic of Saudi Arabia there was the sense that it was time for a renew­al.

After the recap­ture of the mosque, after the clear­ing out of the insur­gents and their sub­se­quent exe­cu­tion, it is thought that an arrange­ment had to be made behind the scenes between the Saudi princes and those who were very much swayed by the ide­ol­o­gy of Wahhab. And that com­pro­mise was what saw put into place very very con­ser­v­a­tive domes­tic gov­er­nance. The extreme reluc­tance to give any mea­sure of free­dom to women, for instance. The con­tin­ued insis­tence on very very strict Islamic cus­tom in all walks of life. Even the wear­ing of tra­di­tion­al cos­tume by both men and women, despite opu­lent sur­round­ings. All of these are meant to be vis­i­ble signs of an affil­i­a­tion to some­thing which could be, even if remote­ly, iden­ti­fied as Wahhabist.

But part of the com­pro­mise was also meant to be an allowance in terms of for­eign pol­i­cy that the offi­cial Saudi state would turn a blind eye to rich Wahhabists financ­ing insur­rec­tion over­seas in the name of Islam, and a par­tic­u­lar form of strict Wahhabist Islam. What you’re look­ing at here is a Wahhabism which didn’t just come from the desert sands. It locat­ed itself there because of strug­gle over many hun­dreds of years in the Islamic com­mu­ni­ty. It was pre­served in the desert and sprang to life again to become a world force.

Exactly what this world force means we’ll dis­cuss in lat­er lec­tures. But what it means for the Western world, for the United States in treat­ing Saudi Arabia as an ally is that in terms of the Westphalian state, in terms of Western val­ues, the West is here play­ing with fire.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.