Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
THE Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at the heart of the Arab world, which is why the British Empire worked so hard more than a century ago to wean it away from the control and even the influence of Turkey. That campaign succeeded, in some part because many living inside the vast territory that subsequently formed the modern kingdom regarded the Sufi school favoured by the Turkish Caliphate as being insufficiently religious. Instead, they began to get influenced by the teachings of an 18th century theologian, Abdel Wahab, who condemned the Sufi doctrine and asked for adherence to a much more austere world view and way of life. The Al Sauds formed an alliance with the preacher, thereby gaining legitimacy for themselves as defenders of the true faith throughout the land.
The Al Saud- Abdel Wahab partnership was strongly favoured by the British Empire, which understood the damage that it could do to the hold of Turkey over the Arab peoples that the Caliphate had dominated for so long. After the 1939-45 war between the Axis and the Allies, the US became the dominant power across the globe, overtaking the British Empire, which began its disintegration soon after the South Asian subcontinent broke free of the tutelage of London. This destruction of an empire that earlier had spanned the globe had been predicted by Winston Churchill, who had said that he had not taken over as PM in 1940 in order to “preside over the liquidation of the (British) Empire”. After the defeat of the Conservative Party in the 1945 General Elections in the UK, that task fell to Clement Attlee, who carried out the processes whereby independence was given to India and to the new state of Pakistan.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was named after the ruling family, who ensured that it remained a close ally of both the UK as well as the US so far as foreign relations was concerned. However, within the kingdom, Wahabbism became the norm, and milder versions of theology were not only disfavoured but largely eliminated. So long as followers of Abdel Wahab were convenient for the US and its allies, the policy of the Al Sauds was welcomed and backed in London and Washington. After seeing off Turkish domination, the Al Sauds were at the forefront of the opposition to Arab nationalists such as Ahmed ben Bella and Gamal Abdel Nasser, who were opposed to the policies of the US and the UK the way Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran was before he was removed from power by the CIA. Ultimately, the US-Al Saud alliance prevailed over the Arab nationalists, ensuring that the region remained in alliance with the US and the UK.
Subsequently, Wahabbis were pressed into service against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and assisted by the sclerotic leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, once again the US and its friends prevailed. However, in 2001, a carefully planned attack in New York and Washington was carried out by extremists loyal to Osama bin Laden, and from then onwards, the romance between the Wahabbis and the US-led alliance began to sour in every part of the world except Saudi Arabia and the other Wahabbi-inclined sheikhdom, Qatar. The Arabs are an amazingly talented people, and they saw that the harsh restrictions imposed by Wahabbi doctrine had shrunk domestic science and technology, such that even toothpaste had to be imported from outside. The curricula in schools and colleges within the Gulf Cooperation Council countries placed so much emphasis on theology that the rest of the subjects were touched upon much less than ought to have been the case. Those educated in schools and colleges that followed traditional curricula showed themselves unable to deal with the needs of the modern economy, such that the GCC needs the services of millions of people outside the region in order to run effectively. This has been worrying more than a few thoughtful leaders within the Arab world, and in countries such as Kuwait, several educationists have pressed for changes in curricula and in attitudes that would better fit into the 21st century rather than the 18th. Arab populations are overall as young as those in South Asia, and given the decline in oil prices, it is clear that they need to be equipped to successfully handle the complexities of business, trade and industry within the GCC.
The changes needed to ensure such a transformation have been opposed by the Wahabbi theological establishment in a manner not seen in another theology-heavy country, Iran. Despite the power of the Ayatollahs, especially Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, science and other subjects are taught with substantial finesse in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and other cities in the most consequential Shia-majority country in the world. Enter Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, to whom Iran is the deadliest foe, and to best whom it is needed to modernise Saudi society. But so far as internal policy is concerned, Crown Prince Mohammad has shown himself to be a bold reformer, who for the first time since the kingdom was established, has challenged the Wahabbi establishment and is seeking to ensure that a milder theology more in sync with the needs of modern civilisation becomes norm in Saudi Arabia, the land within which both holy cities of Makkah and Medina are located.
The education of women should be given the same importance in the kingdom as is already the case in Iran. Entering into a war with Iran will prove as self-defeating for Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as happened when President Saddam Hussein of Iraq entered the battlefield against Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and the country he dominated. Internal reform is a whole-time process, and the external environment needs to be tranquil for Crown Prince Mohammad’s noble vision of moving his country away from the Wahabbi influence that for so long affected its policies and its institutions. Should the youthful reformer succeed, the Crown Prince will earn a place in history on the same level as his grandfather, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the founder of the House of Saud.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.
Geopolitical Notes From India