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Death of ‘reformer’ King Abdullah: Why Saudis will remain frenemies to the world

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The death yesterday (23 January) of Saudi King Abdullah – widely acclaimed as a “reformer”, albeit a one only in the context of the glacial pace of change in this semi-mediaeval kingdom – changes nothing for anybody anywhere. While the optics of geopolitical political correctness demand that everyone adopts a suitable posture of mourning, the irony of it all lies in the fact that King Abdullah will be buried in an unmarked grave and his own country has declared no national mourning. India has.
This reality is both humbling, at one level, and scary at another. Humbling because the world’s richest and most powerful Muslim is being consigned to oblivion with little fanfare – death ends all claims to greatness – but also scary because it shows the sheer unemotional severity of Wahhabi Islamist doctrine. This doctrine has brought little more than grief to the rest of the world – including terrorism, brutal Sharia laws, conflicts with Muslims of other stripes (especially Shias), and severe repression of women. But for the availability of cheap oil, which made the House of Saud critical to the world, the tyranny of Wahhabi/Salafist Islam would have ended long ago.The fact that King Abdullah made small changes to the inequities of Wahhabi Islam – appointing women to government positions and opening up a new coed university – makes no difference to the reality of the totalitarian reach of his kingdom and the theocracy that ruled it after the installation of Ibn Saud as the ruler of Saudi Arabia in 1932 with British support.
His anointed successor, the new King Salman, is even less of a reformer than King Abdullah, as he believes that the late monarch went too fast with his changes. With many jihadi groups actually celebrating the death of King Abdullah as “the death of a tyrant”, someone who stole the “two holy mosques” and mortgaged his soul to the infidel west, King Salman is unlikely to push his luck by modernising too fast. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has officially listed conquest of Saudi Arabia as its ultimate goal.
The world has no reason to mourn either the death of King Abdullah or cheer the installation of King Salman because the underlying cause of illiberal and jihadi Islam will not decline without the end of the House of Saud as an extreme monarchy.
A little bit of history will explain why. The power of the Saudi dynasty is embedded in two important events in the first half of the 20th century: the capture of Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine, by Ibn Saud’s forces in 1925 from Sharif Hussein, ending nearly 700 years of Hashemite rule; and, two, his imposition of the illiberal doctrines of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an extremely conservative Islamic cleric. Wahhabism ended the more liberal religious practices in Mecca established for centuries, including the traditional ways of the Haj.
Put simply, Ibn Saud did a Mohammed on Mecca. Just as the prophet overturned established religious practices once he returned triumphantly to Mecca in CE 630, Ibn Saud did the same after he captured Mecca nearly 1,300 years later in 1925. Ibn Saud hijacked Islam for the purpose of perpetuating his own rule in an alliance with powerful, conservative ulema and clerics. He sowed the seeds of radical, jihadi Islam, even though he ruled with western support – first the British, and now the Americans, who have a military alliance with the House of Saud.
The reason why talk of Saudi “reforms” makes no sense is simple: nobody barring the direct sons of Ibn Saud has ever ruled Saudi Arabia. Till this basic inequity is resolved by either ending the absolutist reign of one family, or its reduction to a constitutional monarchy, there is no chance of Saudi Arabia becoming a modern nation at peace with itself and the rest of the world. Even the present King Salman is one of Ibn Saud’s over 45 sons through over one score wives and his power depends on the support of the clerics of Wahhabi Islam and his ability to directly control Mecca and Islam’s holiest places.
That this control depends on support from the hated west infuriates most Muslim jihadis, and so it is more or less guaranteed that the House of Saud will ultimately lose out. The US cannot protect the House of Saud forever, not when the same Wahhabi doctrines are creating more and more jihadis in the world.
To retain power, the Saudi king is thus likely to become more and more brutal inside the kingdom, even while bankrolling radicals elsewhere to keep them from turning their attention to destabilisation at home. There is Saudi money going – directly or indirectly – to all global Islamist insurgencies, from the al-Qaeda to the ISIS to the Pakistani Lashkars and Taliban.
The paradox of supporting so many jihadi groups is that ultimately the power of jihad will fell the Saudi ruling family itself. This means the dethroning of the House of Saud will, in the short-term, make things worse, as it can be defeated only by more radical and brutal Islamists of the al-Qaeda and ISIS kind.
The world thus has to grit its teeth and wait for a few decades – if not generations – for this internal Islamist warfare to expend itself before Saudi Arabia joins the modern world.
The tell-tale signs of a changed Saudi/Wahhabi/Sunni Islam would be the following:
#1: Control of Mecca and the Kaaba shifts from the House of Saud to a larger confederacy that includes the Shias of Islam. As long as only one group of Muslims, and that too the most conservative of the lot, controls the holiest places of Islam, internal conflict will be embedded in Islam, and this will affect the whole world.
#2: The House of Saud is either overthrown or reduced to a constitutional monarchy.
#3: Women get equal rights in Saudi Arabia, and the clerics are defanged by reducing their roles to purely religious duties.
#4: At the last stage of modernisation, Saudi Arabia will open up to the establishment of other religions on its soil.
Needless to say, none of this is going to happen in a hurry. So, Saudi Arabia will continue to be a frenemy to the world at large despite its role in keeping oil prices cheap.

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