No country has done more to spread radical Islam than Saudi Arabia. For the better part of four decades, the oil rich nation has—through public and private institutions—funded a multiplicity of organizations dedicated to spreading the most radical and reductionist interpretations of Islam.
In short, the weaponization of Islam is a core part of Saudi foreign policy. It is the primary means by which the country projects power and secures influence in countries across the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. So far, with U.S. complicity, the strategy has enjoyed great success.
Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree other Gulf nations, are engaged in a kind of cultural terraforming. Centuries of diverse and divergent religious traditions within Islam—in countries like Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq—have been swept away by an influx of Saudi-educated clerics and Saudi-produced religious materials. These Saudi-influenced imams and religious literature teach the radical brand of Islam that predominates in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism.
In 1744, Muhammad ibn Saud made a Faustian bargain with Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab: al-Wahhab would back al-Saud in his battle for supremacy if he pledged allegiance to al-Wahhab’s puritanical vision of Islam. This interpretation of Islam, which differs little from the militant Salafi beliefs that inform the Islamic State’s and al-Qaeda’s understanding of Islam (the Islamic State uses Saudi produced textbooks in its schools), became known as Wahhabism.
The Saudis, who are not descended from the Prophet and have no particular claim to rule even in their territorial heartland of Najd, relied on the clerics of the al-Wahhab family for religious legitimacy. The bargain struck in 1744 held fast. In 1926, Ibn Saud took over the Hejaz and in 1932 the country of Saudi Arabia was created. Ibn Saud’s conquest of most of the Arabian Peninsula would not have happened without the support of the fanatical warriors (the Ikhwan) who, more than anything else, fought to purge the peninsula of what they deemed to be heretical beliefs and practices.
The Saudi royal family has struggled with what some Saudi royals refer to as a deal with the devil. Reformers within the royal family, and there are many, are hamstrung by zealous clerics who exert growing influence within the Kingdom. The leading cleric in Saudi Arabia is the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, who was the previous grand mufti, was infamous for his archaic beliefs, which included denying that the Earth revolves around the sun.
The current grand mufti, Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah al ash Sheikh, has issued fatwas (religious proclamations) that have called for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian Peninsula, upheld the rights of men to take ten year old girls as brides, banned the playing of chess, and declared the entire population of Iran to be apostates.
Beliefs like these do little to help a country, even an extraordinarily wealthy one, modernize and empower its citizenry, most especially women. Despite its wealth, Saudi Arabia is struggling with a booming population, increasing levels of poverty and unemployment, and bloody sectarian divisions. The country, much like its Gulf-based neighbors, remains dependent on foreign workers. This is particularly the case for jobs that require high levels of technical expertise. Manufacturing in Saudi Arabia is limited and the economy remains almost entirely dependent on oil exports.
These internal issues contribute to Saudi Arabia’s fear of what it views as growing Iranian influence in the region. These fears are not unjustified. In contrast with Saudi Arabia, Iran possesses a formidable military, a relatively diverse economy with a comparatively vibrant manufacturing sector, and a growing well-educated middle class. Perhaps most critically, Iraq—thanks to the US invasion of that country—is now firmly within the Iranian sphere of influence.
Saudi Arabia’s very real and largely unaddressed internal problems combined with the fear of Iranian influence is driving a foreign policy that is becoming ever more reactionary and aggressive. In response, Saudi Arabia is redoubling its efforts at cultural terraforming.
This strategy is in evidence throughout the Muslim world but is particularly noticeable in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. As a frequent traveler to these regions over the past 15 years, the changes wrought by Saudi religious foundations and charities are disturbing to say the least. In places like Somalia and Yemen, centuries-old traditions that include visiting the shrines of Sufi saints have disappeared. In many cases the shrines themselves have been destroyed by radical Islamists.
Diverse forms of dress—in many parts of Somalia and Yemen women did not traditionally cover their faces or in some cases their hair—have been to a great extent replaced by Saudi inspired abayas, burqas, and niqabs (a sheer cloth that covers the entirety of the face).
These may seem to be superficial changes but they are the result of the relentless efforts of Saudi- and Gulf-based “charities” and religious organizations. Their methods include providing an avalanche of free and discounted religious materials; scholarships for students and trainee imams to study at madrasas in Saudi Arabia; and even the provision of micro-loans to men who are deemed to be followers of the Saudi brand of Islam.
These relatively soft methods of spreading radical ideologies have served the Saudi state well. Such policies placate the clerics and at the same time create a kind of client-patron relationship between Saudi Arabia and populations across the Muslim world. However, in response to Iran’s growing influence and its own deeply rooted insecurities, the House of Saud is trying to replace these soft-power methods with hard power.
In Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Saudi Arabia is overtly and covertly funding a host of armed groups who, if not openly allied with groups like al-Qaeda, are largely devoted to achieving the same aims, namely the creation of some kind of state governed by a radical interpretation of Islamic law. Despite the fact that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers held Saudi passports and were possibly aided by Saudi officials, the US government has largely ignored the role Saudi Arabia plays in advancing radical ideology. This is the same ideology—with a few subtle differences—that is at the heart of terrorist groups like the Islamic State. Not only has the US ignored the role that Saudi Arabia plays in fostering radical ideology across the Muslim world, it is now aiding what can only be described as reckless adventurism in countries like Yemen and Syria.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is engaged in a war that has laid waste to an entire country and produced what is now the world’s most pressing and neglected humanitarian crisis. The chief beneficiary of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has been al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). While Saudi jets have relentlessly bombed everything from hospitals and farms to refugee camps in Yemen, they rarely if ever target AQAP’s strongholds. AQAP occupied and governed the Yemeni port city of Mukalla for a year without ever having to worry about being targeted by Saudi forces. AQAP and Saudi Arabia are fighting the same enemy: the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia rebel movement.
The war in Yemen has demonstrated the limitations of Saudi foreign policy and most critically, the weakness of its armed forces which routinely fail to defend the country’s border against incursions by Houthi-aligned forces. Most importantly, the war in Yemen should be a deafeningly loud warning to U.S. policy makers about the dangers of allowing Saudi Arabia to continue its transition from soft to hard power projection. This transition has already resulted in the empowerment of AQAP and other terrorist organizations. This alone should be great cause for concern.
Of even greater concern is the danger the transition now poses to stable countries in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and its ally the UAE are now enforcing a blockade of Qatar. Ironically, the reason for the blockade is Qatar’s alleged support of terrorist groups. Without being checked by the U.S., Saudi Arabia’s move from soft power to hard power threatens to turn what is already the world’s most troubled region into a cauldron of chaos. The spillover from such policies could be even more costly than Saudi Arabia’s unchecked funding and support of radical Islamists across the Muslim world.
Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including The National Interest, The Economist, and West Point’s CTC Sentinel.