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.
Religion and World Politics course information