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Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formally proclaimed in 1932 by ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz ibn ῾Abd al‐Raḥmān Āl Sa῾ūd and is ruled by his descendants under a monarchal form of government. The population holding Saudi citizenship, who are all Muslim, were estimated by the Saudi government in 1990 to be nearly 15 million, projected to reach 20 million by the year 2000. Unofficial sources, however, put the 1990 population at the significantly lower figure of 8 to 10 million. In 1990 approximately 5 million foreigners, primarily from other Arabic‐speaking countries, were living in the kingdom.

The kingdom occupies 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula and includes four distinct geographical and cultural regions that were united through conquest by ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The Eastern Province on the Gulf coast, also called al‐Ḥasā after the oasis of that name, is one of the kingdom's most fertile areas as well as the site of its oil industry and the home of Saudi Arabia's Shī῾ī minority (estimates of the Shī῾ī population range from 200,000 to 500,000). The ῾Asīr is an agricultural region in the southwest with cultural ties to Yemen, with which it shares a common border. The Hejaz (Ḥijāz) on the Red Sea contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the focus of pilgrimage for centuries. Its population is ethnically mixed and predominantly Sunnī, with a huge foreign population comprising as much as 70 percent of the people in the port city of Jeddah. Finally, the Najd in central Arabia is bounded on three sides by deserts. It is the homeland of the ruling Āl Sa῾ūd family and the fount of the Wahhābī movement, which provided the rationale for conquest of the peninsula in the eighteenth century and again in the twentieth and shaped the religious character of government and society under Āl Sa῾ūd rule.


The Wahhābī movement began in the mid‐eighteenth century with an alliance between a chieftain of southern Najd named Muḥammad ibn Sa῾ūd and a religious reformer of Najd, Muḥammad ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb. In his teaching Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb stressed the necessity of upholding the essential oneness of God in ritual practice, opposing the practice of praying to saints, which was widespread in the peninsula, especially among Shī῾īs and Ṣūfīs. He opposed saint‐worship on the grounds that a worshiper who seeks the intercession of a saint with God is attributing to the saint powers that should only be attributed to God. This, he believed, was polytheism.

Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb also emphasized the necessity behaving in conformity with the laws of the Qur'ān and the practices exemplified in the sunnah of the Prophet, as interpreted by the early scholars of Islam. Because, in his view, the ultimate goal of the Muslim community is to become the living embodiment of God's laws on earth, he taught that everyone must be educated in order to understand the laws of God in order to live in conformity with them. Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb's philosophy complemented the political ambitions of Muḥammad ibn Sa῾ūd: the religious reformer called for obedience to a just Muslim ruler, because the community of believers can fulfill its goal only by submitting an oath of allegiance to a Muslim ruler who, in consultation with ῾ulamā', is willing to enforce God's laws. For the Wahhābīs of Najd, the marriage between the ῾ulamā' and those who hold political power is the hallmark of a true Islamic government.

Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb and Muḥammad ibn Sa῾ūd propagated Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb's ideas and began a wave of expansion that, by the opening of the nineteenth century, culminated in the conquest of most of the Arabian Peninsula. This first Wahhābī empire was crushed by Egyptian forces in 1818, and its capital at Dir῾īyah was destroyed. Henceforth the territory under the control of the Āl Sa῾ūd family and the descendants of Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb, who took the name Āl Shaykh, shrank to the area of southern Najd. However, the social, religious, and political agenda set forth in Wahhābī ideology remained firmly rooted throughout Najd, to be revived at the opening of the twentieth century. [See Wahhābīyah and the biography of Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb.]

In 1902 ῾Abd al‐Azīz ibn Sa῾ūd, a descendant of the first Saudi rulers of Najd, captured the city of Riyadh, which was then under the control of the Āl Rashīd family of northern Najd, and began a wave of conquest that reached a decisive stage in the defeat of the sharīfian Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz in late 1924. Replicating the method of his ancestors, ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz accomplished his goal by promoting Wahhābī ideology on the popular level, sponsoring Qur'ānic education, mosque preaching, and missionary teaching in remote villages and among the bedouin, and by creating a military force, the Ikhwān (Brotherhood), inspired to conquer by religious faith.

The Ikhwān came into being after 1912, when ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz appropriated a movement that had begun among the bedouin to abandon the nomadic way of life and settle in an agricultural community where, the former nomads believed, they could become true Muslims by fulfilling God's laws. The settlements were called hujar, (sg., hujrah), related to the word for the Prophet's emigration from Mecca to Medina and connoting migration from a land of unbelief to the land of belief. By moving to a hujrah the former nomads committed themselves to a narrow and literal interpretation of the sunnah, enjoining public prayer, mosque attendance, and sex‐segregation while condemning music, smoking, alcohol, and technology unknown at the time of the Prophet. The settlers were zealous followers of Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb's ideas, but, being inexperienced farmers, they were also receptive to the subsidies of food, cash, arms, and agricultural equipment offered by ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz. In return, the former nomads joined the Ikhwān, the brotherhood of fighters who formed the backbone of ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz's army, and the hujrah settlements became in effect military cantonments in the service of his expansion.

By 1917, the capital of ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz's empire, Riyadh, was the center of a religious revival. Qur'ānic schools flourished and scholarly achievement was rewarded in official public ceremonies. Attendance was taken at public prayers, and corporal punishment was meted out to those who were absent. Smoking was prohibited, music condemned, and loud laughter taken as a sign of impiety. Life in the capital was characterized by a high degree of conformity in public behavior stemming from the desire of believers and subjects of the new Wahhābī polity to meet Islamic standards as interpreted by the scholars of Najd. The conformity in behavior demanded during the revival era of the 1920s was self‐perpetuating. Because conduct was considered a visible expression of inward faith, the Muslim community could judge the quality of the faith of others by observing their outward actions. In this sense, public opinion in Najd became and continues to be a constant regulator of individual behavior.

By reviving the notion of a community of believers, united by their submission to God and a willingness to live in conformity with God's laws, the Wahhābī ideology fostered under ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz forged a sense of national identity among the ethnically and tribally diverse people of the peninsula. By claiming to rule in consultation with the ῾ulamā' ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz made faith in Islam and obedience to himself as the just Islamic ruler the glue that would hold his kingdom together. Since his death in 1953 the Saudi leadership has deemphasized its identity as inheritor of the Wahhābī legacy, and the Āl Shaykh family no longer holds the highest posts in the religious bureaucracy. In society, however, Wahhābī influence remains tangible in a visible conformity in dress, public deportment, and public prayer. Most significantly, the Wahhābī legacy is manifest in the social ethos that assumes government responsibility for the collective moral ordering of society, from the behavior of individuals to that of institutions, businesses, and the government itself.

Institutionalization of Islam.

In the 1990s the legitimacy of the monarchy continues to rest on the fragile premise that the house of Sa῾ūd rules in consultation with the ῾ulamā.' While pursuing the agenda of a developing nation, the monarchy has also maintained the appearance of serving the interests of religious constituencies, and it does so through specific religious organizations institutionalized within the state power structure.

The most influential religious body in the kingdom is the state‐funded Council of Senior ῾Ulamā', headed by ῾Abd Allāh ibn ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz ibn Bāz. One of the primary functions of the Council is to provide religious approval for policies determined by the government. For example, education for women, which began in 1960 under King Fayṣal, was approved by the ῾ulamā' in spite of sometimes fierce public opposition, with a determination that female education was acceptable provided that it was compatible with woman's Islamic role as wife and mother. As another example, when the Grand Mosque in Mecca was besieged in 1979 and more than sixty participants were handed death sentences after perfunctory trials, the Council of Senior ῾Ulamā' sanctioned the mass beheadings. In 1990, when King Fahd decided to invite American forces to defend the Kingdom against a possible attack by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the Council was called on to provide Islamic approval for the monarch's decision; the Council subsequently issued a fatwā (legal ruling) stating that the Qur'ān allows a ruler to seek assistance in order to defend against outside aggression.

Religious police, known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and funded through the Ministry of the Interior, help to enforce guidelines on public morality issued by the Council, as well as enforcing rules that many regard as arbitrary and capricious. For example, they monitor the closing of shops at prayer time and seek out alcohol and drug offenders, but they also monitor men's and women's dress in public, non‐Muslim religious services, and social interaction between men and women in cars, public places, and sometimes even in private homes.

Even though the Saudi monarchy supports a conservative social agenda, the kingdom has still been affected by the rise in Islamic conservatism that has swept the region. This sentiment has been inspired by a number of factors, including a reaction to the cultural incursion of the West brought on by massive development and the resulting breakdown of traditional family structures, the presence of foreigners in the kingdom, disaffection with the West, and the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its call to export Islamic revolution. A particularly important factor influencing the rise in Islamic conservatism has been a downturn in the Saudi economy, combined with an overabundance of educated youth whom the economy cannot absorb. This has brought about widespread unemployment, particularly among university‐educated youth.

Unemployed graduates of religious colleges in particular, said to number some 150,000 in 1992, have been attracted to the politics of neo‐Wahhābī groups, which are also known as Salafīyah or those who wish to purify the sharī῾ah from the innovations of scholarship that occurred after the first three centuries of Islam. These groups make the same demands for social justice that Islamist groups in other Arab countries are making: they want jobs, a fairer distribution of wealth, better access to health and education facilities, political participation, and accountability in government. In addition, they want strict enforcement of rules that promote Islamic moral values such as sex‐segregation and public modesty, along with the enactment of Qur'ānic punishments (ḥudūd) and Islamic banking (to comply with the Islamic ban on usury). [See Salafīyah; Ḥudūd; Banks and Banking.]

Gulf War.

The war against Iraq in 1990–1991 marked a major turning point in the rise of both Islamist sentiment and opposition to the absolutism of the Saudi monarchy among Western‐oriented liberals, religious conservatives, and human‐rights and minority‐group advocates alike. Many Saudis of different religious and political persuasions opposed the invitation to American forces and instead advocated a nonviolent Arab solution to what was regarded as a regional problem. Opposition voices pointed out the incompetence of the Saudi military in spite of the huge expenditures lavished on sophisticated training and equipment even at a time of cutbacks in funding for social programs. Religious conservatives resented the presence of non‐Muslim foreign soldiers on Saudi soil, particularly the presence of women soldiers. Moreover, the Gulf War placed an international spotlight on the absolutism of Saudi rule and exposed the kingdom's shortcomings with respect to human rights. This signaled an opportunity for numerous interest groups with differing political objectives to demand political reform.

The initial response of the government was to allow the more radical Islamist voices to speak out while backing a conservative social agenda. In this way the government was able to intimidate Western‐oriented liberals who sought an opening up of the political process while appeasing the broadly based conservative mainstream. For example, in November 1990 a group of Saudi women staged a public demonstration demanding the right to drive cars. In a move that received widespread public approval, the government responded by punishing the participants for promoting what the ῾ulamā' called un‐Islamic behavior in the kingdom. The women were labeled sexually promiscuous on posters publicly displayed by the religious police. The head of the Council of Senior ῾Ulamā' issued a ruling that women should never drive, nor should they ever participate in politics in any way. The women protestors who were university professors were fired from their jobs and their passports were confiscated for one year. Meanwhile, state funding for the activities of the religious police was increased.

Again during the Gulf War period, petitions were sent to the king demanding a constitution, a consultative council, an independent judiciary, and equality among all citizens regardless of ethnic, tribal, sectarian, or social origins. The petition was signed by secular leaders, university professors, and religious leaders; signatories to a follow‐up petition asking that the proposed consultative council be empowered to evaluate all laws in light of the sharī῾ah even included members of the Council of Senior ῾Ulamā.' The king's response was to announce that government reform was in the planning stages. A year later, in March 1992, the king announced the establishment of a “Basic Law” of government and a Consultative Council (Majlis al‐Shūrā), but the announced changes, called “empty reforms” by the human‐rights organization Middle East Watch, fail to open up government decision‐making to diverse interest groups; indeed, they actually reinforce the power of the ruling establishment and in particular of the king.

The end of the Gulf War period saw a dramatic rise in the activity of Salafīyah groups and Shī῾īs as well as of human‐rights proponents. To counter the rise in opposition from religious groups the government has strengthened the allegiance of the Council of Senior ῾Ulamā' while increasing repression of dissident voices. In 1993, for example, seven members of the council who had expressed sympathy with some Shī῾ī and Salafī demands were replaced by scholars considered more sympathetic to the monarchy. In May of that year, a human‐rights organization called the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights was formed to gather information from citizens about human‐rights abuses. The committee's declaration, signed by scholars who declared themselves to be ahl al‐sunnah (people of the sunnah) and loyal to the Saudi state, met with criticism from the council, which issued a statement declaring that the organization was superfluous because the sharī῾ah already provides for human rights, and that it was offensive to the government that upholds the sharī῾ah. The signatories were subsequently harassed, and some were arrested or had their law licenses revoked.

Similar punishments have been meted out to other petition‐signers and critics of the government. Preachers, religious scholars, and university professors have been dismissed from their posts, imprisoned, or had their passports confiscated, and student activists have been denied admission to the university. A Shī῾ī organization, al‐Jazīrah al‐Arabīyah (The Arabian Peninsula), which became active after the war in seeking an end to discrimination in hiring and educational opportunities, sent a statement of grievances to the king that led to the imprisonment of some of its signatories.

Fearing that its own support for conservative religious causes abroad has fueled conservative opposition at home, the Saudi government banned contributions by private citizens for religious activities outside the kingdom. This indicates a major reversal of long‐standing Saudi policy aimed at elevating the House of Sa῾ūd to a position of undisputed leadership in the Islamic world: in 1986 King Fahd assumed the sobriquet of Custodian of the Two Holy Places, once used by his father and formerly by the Sharīf of Mecca. He and his predecessors, furthermore, had provided generous funding for the building of mosques and the distribution of Qur'āns, emergency aid, and welfare funds to Muslims abroad and established and funded international organizations promoting Muslim solidarity, such as the Muslim World League and Organization of the Islamic Conference. The challenge that lies before the Saudi rulers in the 1990s is to maintain their Islamic identity in the eyes of Saudi Arabia's conservative society, while at the same time satisfying the desire for economic and social justice growing within.

See also King Faisal; Muslim World League; Organization of the Islamic Conference. For biographical entries on ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz and Fayṣal, see under Sa῾ūd.


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