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Saudi Arabia Is Trying to Remake the Middle East In Its Image

No country has done more to spread radical Islam [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4] and unemployment, and bloody sectarian divisions [5]. The country, much like its Gulf-based neighbors, remains dependent on foreign workers [6]. 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 [7] 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 [8] a host [9] of armed [10] groups [11] 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 [12], 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 [13].

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 [14]. The chief beneficiary [15] 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 [16] and farms to refugee camps [17] 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.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Saudi Arabia Is Trying to Remake the Middle East In Its Image"

#1 Comment By Jones On August 8, 2017 @ 11:14 pm

Thank you for writing this piece. I’ve been trying to explain these issues to people when asked about Islam and terrorism. I wish this was better understood. If you want to talk about terrorism, you have to get much more precise than people ordinarily want to do. The underlying struggle is precisely that the Saudis are spreading a kind of Islamic monoculture that is unusually hospitable to extremism (though I would not simply equate it with militant extremism). Very often what people are talking about when they talk about “Islam” is precisely this new monoculture, rather than, for example, the wide variety of traditional forms that people around the world practiced. A great number of the Muslims affected by the spread of Wahhabism are actively fighting against it — they reject its tenets and reject it as a foreign imposition. But this never gets noticed or supported.

#2 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On August 9, 2017 @ 9:37 am

It’s time for a BDS movement aimed at Saudi Arabia. The Brookings Institution and other beltway bandits sucking at the teats of the Saudi harpy will squeal like stuck pigs but such a movement is long overdue.

#3 Comment By Stephen On August 9, 2017 @ 9:49 am

“Without being checked by the U.S. …”

Stop. It. The U.S. “checking” has got to stop. The only role we should play in Saudi Arabia’s diminution is our withdrawal of all support, financial and otherwise. We could stop buying their oil and potentially try to convince others to do the same. And that’s it.

#4 Comment By Fred Bowman On August 9, 2017 @ 10:13 am

With friends like Saudia Arabia who needs enemies. The US problems in the Middle East stem from our inability to take a evenhanded approach to All parties in tha region.

#5 Comment By Simon Hawthorne On August 9, 2017 @ 11:03 am

“It’s time for a BDS movement aimed at Saudi Arabia. The Brookings Institution and other beltway bandits sucking at the teats of the Saudi harpy will squeal like stuck pigs but such a movement is long overdue.”

Couldn’t agree more. Saudi Arabia has been a cancer on America, and its time we stop dealing with them.

#6 Comment By bjsdfkasd On August 9, 2017 @ 11:56 am

what a nonsense

#7 Comment By Stephen J. On August 9, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

Good article.
I wrote the article, link below on September 7, 2013
“Has America been Saudi-mized?”
[much more info at link below]

#8 Comment By Dan Green On August 9, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

My take is the so called middle East is a distinct other civilization. Iran and Saudi are the two current custodians of a violent so called religion. Main effort is to get the US the hell out of the region and cozy with Russia and China who don’t share western so called values, we coin our interest. Saudi hang their hat in our tent Iran is going with the Russians. What is in it for US now that we are energy independent and both Iran and Saudi are afraid to attack the Israeli’s. They would respond in a New York minute

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 9, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

“No country has done more to spread radical Islam than Saudi Arabia.”

I just happened to catch a program on Assassins this weekend. And the form of weaponization you are talking about occurred long before Saudi Arabia.


Islamic history suggests otherwise.




Unfortunately for me, my current status won’t permit my usual long winded answer.

But Saudi Arabia and others no longer have the luxury of a robust Iraq (Pres Hussein) as buffer to Iran.

Uhh excuse me, one of the primary goals of Islam is to spread the faith. Trying to pin the tail on Saudi Arabia is like throwing rocks at fish in a pond aiming at one particular trout in a pond of dozens.

The extension of charities if part f the Muslim and social fabric of the regions states and Muslims everywhere. I noted this

“Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree other Gulf nations, are engaged in a kind of cultural terraforming.”

suggests a narrative that is unsupportable by the data. “a lesser degree” in my view is equivocation. I doubt the Saudis are more engaged than others. And if so, it’s competitive to their neighbors as opposed to hostility towards western states.

As you note, there’s a difference as with most Muslim monarchy’s being monarchs and governing as Muslims. It’s dicey as the attempts on the Royal families demonstrate. It would do well to remember that Britain and the US requested that the Saudis take in the radical elements after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan.

I don’t think that the private charities are under the control of the Royal family because you note, these charities are also funded via private supporters as well.

Should the US see fit, we could simply freeze monies we believe support violent extremists.

But singling out the Saudi Arabians only feeds the fires of regime change in the region and the dubious charge that the Royal Family is responsible for 9/11.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 9, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

One other note:

the desire by states to have influence over US policy is best modeled by that of Israel. It should be no wonder why they would desire to have the same and beyond.

#11 Comment By Martin Dayle On August 9, 2017 @ 7:51 pm

There is a fine line difference between intolerant people and extremists. Saudis are creating a large breed of intolerant people and then creating conditions which are ripe for conversion from intolerance to extremism. It seems time may be running out as the dollar-peg breakdown seems inevitable.Out of the five scenarios listed by the author, four show a peg break. Maybe with reduced funding for their adventures, the Saudis will think rationally.


#12 Comment By Mark Hearne On August 9, 2017 @ 8:18 pm

“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.”

What is the punishment for apostacy in Saudi? I wonder if its death!. So is this man calling for the genocide of all Iranians!

#13 Comment By Drumund On August 9, 2017 @ 10:59 pm

This is an excellent article, but it leave out one very important fact that is at the heart of the whole problem. The reason Saudi Arabia can spend all that money promoting radical Islam, and the reason the U.S. remains its friend, is that the country controls a large proportion of the world’s oil.

Western, democratic nations pour hundreds of billions of dollars into Saudi Arabia to buy that oil, a good portion of which is then funneled around the world to promote radical Islam. And the US supports this because it knows Western economies would collapse without Saudi oil.

The obvious solution is to get off oil and onto renewables, something the world as a whole is in fact doing. However, our present president is, unfortunately, dedicated to sticking with fossil fuels, and I think that is a main reason he is so friendly with Saudi Arabia.

#14 Comment By Lou On August 9, 2017 @ 11:01 pm

You guys need to read Daniel Greenfields piece on McMasters purges at the NSA. anyone that questioned radical islam has been purged. anyone that mentioned Obama loyalists leaking info on Trump has been purged. its here at Sultan Knish.


#15 Comment By Jon H On August 10, 2017 @ 8:04 am

The Saudi rulers love the West but their people hate us. Iran’s rulers hate the West but their people love us. In ten years both regimes will be gone. Something to consider, perhaps.

#16 Comment By Sarah On August 10, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

Two things need to be done.

1. Stop any purchase of oil or any other exportable item from both Saudi Arabia and Iran by the West.

2. Stop any and all sales or ‘gifting’ of aid, advice, foreign workers, scientific, medical, engineering or educational information etc with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Arabs are so weak. Seriously. Tremendously weak. Why do we view them with such sincere trepidation for their supposed ‘strength’?

They cannot produce or manufacture just about anything. They have to import nearly everything – from food and water through to scientific, medical, engineering and educational knowledge and advancements.

They cannot even supply their own educated, skilled workers from their own burgeoning populations.

They cannot train and educate their own scientific and medical staff. They cannot explore Research & Development into any scientific area themselves.

They cannot even build their own weaponry, instead relying on foreign purchasing from places like the UK.

If we cut them off – not just Saudi Arabia, but all the Islamic nations on the planet – then we won’t have all these issues.

The Saudi’s can’t export Wahhabism without the money when the oil sales dry up.

The threat of violence, both nuclear and otherwise will dry up when they can’t get the materials from the rest of us – let alone the scientific know-how.

They can’t even produce their own scientists and Doctors.

They are so fragile, so vulnerable, so incredibly weak. They only have the ‘power’ that they currently hold, because we ALLOW them to have it.

If we cut it all off – all of it – the Islamic world would descend into a primitive hellscape within 5 years. Their biggest danger to the rest of the world, would be horde’s of shrieking fighters, riding horseback, brandishing poorly made swords.

Ban immigration from the Islamic world, for any reason whatsoever into the rest of the world. Ban the communication. Ban the business dealings. Ban the support and aid.

Let them have Islam, let them live, without our interference in any way, shape or form. IF they want to enjoy the marvels of the modern era – they can build it, manufacture it, process it and research and develop it on their own. They certainly have a large enough combined population to do so.

They can either work it out – cut off from the rest of the planet – or they can disintegrate. Either way, it will be their choice – and their actions – including THEIR consequences to suffer. Not ours.

Maybe they won’t be so keen on Islam then, once they see what Islam can give them, compared to the rest of the human race.

#17 Comment By DrivingBy On August 11, 2017 @ 9:21 pm

Thanks for publishing this, but it’s late. This has been going on for decades, with KSA quietly sponsoring madrassas in the USA, often on or near what they consider key college campuses. The threat presented by Islam isn’t terrorism; the threat of Islam is Islam.

#18 Comment By DrivingBy On August 11, 2017 @ 9:44 pm


The Saudis are not working out of some unique or novel intent, they’re just following Mohammad’s blueprint. In Islam, Mohammad is the Perfect Man, and all of his words and acts are to be emulated.

Mohammad promised peace and then executed the entire tribe of the Banu Qureyza (who were pacificst Jews, go figure). Well, all the males and undesired females were terminated. The females chosen to live were made into slaves & baby factories. This was done at Mohammad’s direction, therefore, this is an act to be imitated when it becomes possible.

Immediately after 9/11 we had causus belli. We could have simply said “you may occupy some other piece of sand now” and taken the territory, wtih zero Saudi citizens allowed to remain. They get to take (some) of their US dollars and retire anywhere in the world, we get their sand and oil apartment, empty of occupants.

But the unpatriot wilsonian oil president and the GOP-E, many of whom have more loyalty to their Gulf States handler/paymaster than to the USA, decided to deflect to relatively secular Iraq, which was a useful counterweight to Iran’s terrorist mullahs, thus gifting Iraq to Iranian influence. Democrats today want whatever weakens the USA, so they were fine with that dodge.

I’m sure TAC would be just horrified at my suggestion that we should have retaliated permanently for the 9/11 attacks, but that’s my 2c. When you can solve a problem of a thousand year old foe permanently and without mass murder you should do it, stat.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 13, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

“What is the punishment for apostacy in Saudi? I wonder if its death!. So is this man calling for the genocide of all Iranians!”

The tit for tat Muslim sectarian reprisals that go on continuously between Iraq and Iraq is a staple of their political tensions. I wouldn’t take the extreme rhetoric of one cleric of either side.

It’s common place. Note the retributions of various religious clerics in both countries.