Saudi Arabia's Religious Scholars Are a Double-Edged Sword

7 MINS READJul 30, 2014 | 09:19 GMT
Saudi Arabia's Ulema Represent a Double-Edged Sword
Saudi policemen stand guard in front of the Al-Rajhi mosque in central Riyadh in 2011.

There are signs that imams of influential mosques in Saudi Arabia are re-creating distance between themselves and the Saudi government. For instance, imams recently resisted the government's call to condemn an attack on Saudi soil by Yemen-based al Qaeda fighters. Although it is an early indicator, this bodes ill for Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism strategy. Riyadh's dilemma is that the group of religious scholars and preachers, a group known as the ulema, whose ideas have given way to jihadism is also the antidote to violent extremism. Without the robust support of the ulema class, the Saudis cannot combat the jihadism that threatens the kingdom on its northern and southern borders.   

The identity of the Saudi kingdom is a religious one based on the Salafist ideology of its founding theoretician, Muhammad bin Abdulwahab, a puritanical scholar from the Nejd region of the Arabian Peninsula. His pact with the patriarch of the royal family, Muhammad bin Saud, led to the founding of the first Saudi state in 1744 and the establishment of a monarchy. The legitimacy of the monarchy has been based on religion and manifested by the support of the ulema, which have grown into a massive power center over the centuries.

The Ulema as Tools for Containment

This ultra-conservative establishment of religious scholars has been an important tool that the House of Saud has used to prevent the rise of opposition groups. The Saudis have had great success with this strategy, whether the opponents were left-wing secular Arab nationalists, Islamists or even Salafists and jihadists who see the royal family and its supporters as having deviated from the founders' intent. The religious scholars' adherence to the Koranic verse "Obey Allah and obey his Messenger (Mohammed) and those in authority among you" has proved extremely helpful in maintaining a consensus against more extreme and radical elements.

The utility of the ulema has been seen on a number of occasions throughout the modern Saudi state's history, most recently in the kingdom established in the aftermath of World War I. Its founder, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrehman, with the backing of the ulema in 1929, obliterated the Ikhwan, a religious and tribal militia that had gone rogue after helping Abdulaziz seize most of the areas that form the modern kingdom. Abdulaziz's son, King Faisal, used the ulema's support in 1963 to move against religious extremists opposed to introducing television in the kingdom. In 1979, his successor, King Khalid, was able to get the ulema to support his decision to allow French commandos to deploy and help regain control of the Holy Mosque in Mecca from a group of renegade Salafist militants under the leadership of Juhayman al-Otaibi.

In 1994, King Fahd had to deal with opposition from within the community of religious scholars. Some of the members rose up — albeit peacefully and through sermons — calling for reforms and better adherence to Islamic principles while voicing opposition to the stationing of U.S. forces in the kingdom. The latest and perhaps most significant example of the monarchy's use of the ulema was under King Abdullah's administration, when Riyadh defeated the kingdom's branch of al Qaeda, with critical assistance from the religious scholars, in 2005-2006.

Changes Within the Ulema

Riyadh's continued success in rallying the religious establishment notwithstanding, the ulema class has gone through a great deal of change and internal fragmentation. There are significant factions that are uncomfortable — to say the least — with the monarchy's policies, especially those involving reforms. More important, there is considerable overlap between the ideas of the ulema and of transnational jihadists. The jihadists have used this common ground to maintain pockets of latent influence within the kingdom. Moreover, there is sympathy for the jihadists among the ulema ranks.

An undersecretary at the Islamic Affairs Ministry told the kingdom's English daily Arab News on July 19 that authorities were investigating imams of 17 mosques in the capital who, in their Friday sermons, refused to condemn a jihadist attack on the kingdom's border with Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula militants based in Yemen conducted the cross-border raid on the al-Wadia border post near the small Saudi frontier town of Sharurah. It left four border guards and another Saudi citizen dead. Another report in the daily al-Watan quoted the Islamic Affairs Ministry as saying that some 100 imams ignored the call to condemn the incident.

Under new management, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula re-established itself in Yemen in 2009 and has remained more or less contained there. The ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime during the Arab Spring has aggravated divisions in Yemen, where a variety of forces are tearing the state apart. The resulting anarchy in Yemen has enabled the al Qaeda branch to expand in the country and use it as a base to strike Saudi Arabia.

While the Saudis are trying to deal with al Qaeda on their southern flank, another far more powerful transnational jihadist group has appeared to the north. The Islamic State, which declared the re-establishment of the caliphate in its controlled areas in Syria and Iraq, has emerged as a major threat to the kingdom. In order to protect itself, the kingdom deployed 30,000 soldiers to its border with Iraq after Iraqi soldiers reportedly abandoned posts on their side of the boundary in the wake of the Islamic State offensive. On July 18, Saudi security forces raised the threat level in light of intelligence about an Islamic State plot to attack critical infrastructure, particularly desalination plants, in the country.

Under these conditions, it makes sense for the Saudis to target the belligerent ulema. What is surprising, though, is that the authorities revealed their investigations via Saudi media. Normally such matters would be dealt with quietly, and more senior ulema would be involved in an effort to persuade the defiant imams to obey their rulers' orders. That did not happen, however, and the government decided to leak the investigations to the media. This suggests that the problem is not with a few of the ulema but is more widespread. It also suggests that the government is trying to create a national consensus against the dissidents. The disobedient imams appear to be a small group within the wider body of the ulema, but the number of such religious figures could grow.

Jihadists' Strengthening Position

In the past, the jihadists were a small movement and, despite the ambiguity within religious circles, there was not much support for them. But now that jihadists are gaining strength in the region, they are better positioned to parlay latent feelings of sympathy into more substantive support. The quandary for the Saudis is that the ulema class is an incubator for the ideas that promote jihadism as well as the means by which to fight Islamist militancy. Taking into account the country's youths — increasingly educated, socially and politically aware, unemployed and inspired by the Arab Spring — and the allure of resurgent jihadist fervor is an even more dangerous threat for Riyadh.

The jihadists are in a position to more effectively challenge the monopoly of influence that the monarchy has long enjoyed over the kingdom's religious scholars. To a great degree, this has to do with overlapping jihadist and Saudi interests, especially those related to fighting the Shia and Iran. Saudi efforts to enact social reforms also create space for the jihadists to exploit. Riyadh has been stretched thin as it deals with the fallout of the Arab Spring in the region, a fact that works to the jihadists' advantage as well. Finally, there is the matter of transitioning leadership from the second- to third-generation of princes.

Most of all, the perception that the monarchy is weak and ineffective in foreign policy matters, contrasted with a jihadist movement that is gaining support, could influence many in the ulema's ranks to quietly support both sides. Thus, the thing to watch for is whether the Saudis — who have proved extremely resilient for nearly three centuries — can deal with a much larger jihadist challenge than they have faced before and continue to use the ulema to wage jihad against jihadism.   

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