Saudi Arabia's ruling House of Saud has begun purging the kingdom's religious establishment in a bid to deny dissidents a legitimate platform for opposing the government. The tactic will fuel the underground opposition movement in the kingdom and undermine the royal family's claims to legitimacy.
Saudi Arabia's government has fired or suspended 1,710 religious leaders in the past six months, the pan Arab daily, al Hayat reported May 28. The government denies the dismissals and suspensions have anything to do with external pressure or evidence of terrorist activity in the desert kingdom. The House of Saud built its legitimacy through a strategic alliance with the family of the founders of Wahabbism, a fundamentalist version of Islam. That alliance grew into a state sponsorship of a massive religious establishment grounded in a hard-line, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Now, the mass firings and suspensions of almost 2,000 religious leaders indicate a critical breach between the royal family and that religious establishment. It likely will fuel a growing radical opposition movement within Saudi Arabia and further weaken the embattled House of Saud. The government in Riyadh is facing a growing challenge to its legitimacy. STRATFOR has reported for some time that a broad spectrum of opponents were converging into one — if not cohesive, at least complimentary — opposition movement that threatened the longevity of the ruling House of Saud and the stability of the kingdom. The rupture with the country's powerful religious leadership will help legitimize this opposition, strengthening its ability to recruit followers and sympathizers. It also will lend credence to the opposition's claims that the House of Saud has lost its right to rule. The fired or suspended religious leaders represent a small fraction of the kingdom's reported 80,000 religious employees. Though not labeled as such, the hundreds of imams, muezzin (those who call the faithful to prayer) and Friday sermon preachers who were fired or suspended likely were deemed untrustworthy or troublemakers by the government. The al Hayat report indicated that those suspended would undergo re-education in the form of "theological training" before their suspensions would be lifted. However, dissidence within the kingdom and within the clerical class runs deep. The government fired and arrested hundreds of clerics in the mid-1990s after attacks on American installations in 1995 and 1996. The arrests fueled rather than quelled dissidence among the religious establishment. A number of signs have indicated that several of the kingdom's troublesome clerics are connected to al Qaeda. Most recently, the government allegedly killed two rogue religious leaders and was seeking a third in Medina in connection with the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh that left 34 people dead, including eight Americans. A London-based Saudi opposition group, Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), claimed May 28 that Saudi security forces raided a home in Medina and killed dissident clerics Ali Khudhair al Khudair and Ahmed bin Hmud al Khaldi. A third man, Nasser bin Hamad al Fahd, still is at large. Fahd was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s, but later released. Known as an extremist, he has published several fatwas backing the Taliban and condemning U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. Fahd has been linked with al Qaeda and is said to have a large following within the kingdom. STRATFOR has reported that the government will be forced to crackdown on the clerics suspected of ties with al Qaeda. The mass dismissals are a part of this crackdown. But alone it will not solve the problem — and instead might exacerbate it. Whereas before the troublesome clerics were at least vested in the government and owed some measure of loyalty to the House of Saud, even if they criticized Riyadh's relationship with Washington, they now will be alienated and more willing to adopt positions advocating the royal family's ouster. As a consequence, the government will be forced to take additional measures — from arresting clerics to exiling radicals to seizing assets of wealthy sympathizers. Riyadh is reluctant to move against all of its opponents at once and has taken a cautious approach until now. But the May 12 attacks and the growing efforts by al Qaeda and its sympathizers to exploit the U.S. pressure on Riyadh to further weaken the support base of the House of Saud will leave the government little room to maneuver.