Raja Mandala: Saudi Arabia and the ghosts of 1979

Events that year had a deep impact on the Subcontinent. Delhi must cheer on Saudi crown prince’s effort to take on religious extremists.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: November 28, 2017 12:35 am
saudi arabia, mohammed bin salman, wahhabi, sunni shia conflict, muslims, mohammad ibn salman, saudi prince arrest, saudi arabia, saudi arabia latest news, king salman, saudi arabia Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (center) attend the opening ceremony of Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (File Photo)

Mohammad bin Salman, the bold crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been making waves with a muscular foreign policy, an ambitious economic agenda to wean the kingdom away from oil, the will to destroy the domestic political order and plans for social liberalisation. Conventional wisdom warns pursuing any one of these four elements would be politically suicidal. But the 32-year old crown prince, promoted out of turn by his father King Salman, is pressing ahead.

Not all his exertions have succeeded. The Saudi intervention in Yemen has turned out to be prolonged and costly. His attempts to punish Qatar have not brought Doha to its knees. The recent arrest of 200 top royals, officials and business tycoons on charges of corruption, has been viewed by many as marking a political coup by Mohammad bin Salman, widely known as MbS.

It will be a while before his economic plans can be implemented and generate real results. His social reforms, such as letting women drive and calls for “moderate Islam”, are undermining the foundation of the modern Saudi state — an alliance between the House of Saud and Wahhabi clerics. Although MbS has been seen abroad as impatient and impetuous, he seems to have considerable support from the younger generation of Saudis that is fed-up with social oppression and economic stagnation.

Speaking at an investors conference in Riyadh last month, MbS said, “We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world. We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today.” In an interview to The New York Times last week, MbS said, “Do not write that we are ‘reinterpreting’ Islam — we are ‘restoring’ Islam to its origins — and our biggest tools are the Prophet’s practices and [daily life in] Saudi Arabia before 1979.”

Other Arab leaders in the region including Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the president of Egypt and Mohammed bin Zayed al Nayhan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, have been pushing for moderate Islam over the last few years. But coming from Saudi Arabia, which is the centre of the Islamic world, and its royal family whose legitimacy rests on the claim to be custodian of the holy sites, Mecca and Medina, it is significant.

Why is MbS constantly harping on 1979 — and the times before and after? It was indeed a critical year that transformed the Middle East and had powerful consequences for the whole world, especially the Indian Subcontinent. The first among the three pivotal events was the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by a group of zealots, who accused the Saudi royalty of abandoning Islam and selling its soul to the West.

From then on, the House of Saud moved rapidly towards conservativism. To counter the extremist flank from the right, it pandered to the Wahhabi clergy at home and promoted extremist groups abroad. But the Sunni flank has become ever more radical and sees the House of Saud as the most important political target.

The second event was the Islamic revolution in Iran that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi in Tehran. Claiming to be the true guardian of Islam, Ayatollah Khomeini presented a big political threat to Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Islamic world. The Saudi rivalry with the Islamic Republic of Iran for influence in the Islamic world, inevitably acquired a sectarian colour (Sunni versus Shia) as well as an ethnic dimension (Arab versus Persian).

The third event was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan at the end of 1979. As US-Russian detente of the 1970s collapsed, Washington stepped in to mobilise a jihad against godless Russian communists with the help of the Saudis and the Pakistan Army. The Russian bear was pushed out of Afghanistan a decade later, but radical political Islam had been legitimised.

If the Middle East paid a huge price for the turmoil generated by 1979, so did the Subcontinent. Before 1979, the Subcontinent was a very different place. It had no dearth of economic and political problems. But violent religious extremism was not one of those. This is an awful legacy from 1979. General Zia-ul-Haque’s imposition of conservative Islam on Pakistani society and the promotion of religious radicalism to achieve political objectives in Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh has radically transformed the Subcontinent’s political dynamic.

But can MbS put the genie back in the bottle? Sceptics will caution against too much hope, for a strong resistance to the new agenda of “moderate Islam” is inevitable. Even among those who think MbS is on the right path, there will be much political disputation on how to exorcise the ghosts of 1979.

Delhi though must cheer on MbS and his effort to take religion back from the extremists. The ideas of religious moderation and social modernisation have been steadily pushed on the defensive in the four decades since 1979. Any effort to reverse 1979, therefore, must be welcomed whole-heartedly in the Subcontinent.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi and contributing editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’.

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More From C. Raja Mohan
  1. K
    Nov 29, 2017 at 5:27 am
    When all the data was ready, the public prosecutor, Saud Al Mojib, took action, explaining that each suspected billionaire or prince was arrested and given two choices. He adds, ‘’Then the detained princes are shown all the files that we have and as soon as they see those about 95 per cent agree to a settlement,” which means signing over cash or shares of their business to the Saudi state treasury.’’ Under Saudi law, the public prosecutor is independent. We cannot interfere with his job - the king can dismiss him, but he is driving the process ... We have experts making sure no businesses are bankrupted in the process” - to avoid causing unemployment. The anti-corruption drive is only the second-most unusual and important initiative launched by Mohammad. The first is to bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation - whence it diverted in 1979.
    1. L
      Nov 29, 2017 at 5:22 am
      The crown prince mentioned that saudi has suffered a lot from corruption from the 1980s until today. The calculation of our experts is that roughly 10 per cent of all government spending was siphoned off by corruption each year, from the top levels to the bottom. He also mentions that over the years the government launched more than one ‘war on corruption’ and they all failed. Why? Because they all started from the bottom up. The current King has never been tainted by corruption charges during nearly five decades as governor of Riyadh. That seemed to be one of the drives for them to want to stop it throughout the system. It is a vow both father and son took. The crown prince also mentions that his father saw that there is no way we can stay in the G-20 and grow with this level of corruption. In early 2015, one of his first orders to his team was to collect all the information about corruption -
      1. Z
        Zaraconian Prince
        Nov 29, 2017 at 5:17 am
        The Government of Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is working within a clear legal and ins utional framework to maintain transparency and integrity in the market It is worth mentioning that Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council (It’s top advisory council to the government) is studying proposals for protection of people who report financial crime, local media reported, following the government’s anti-corruption crackdown. A saudi local newspaper (Al-Riyadh) has reported on Tuesday that the council had agreed to study two proposals on the matter that also included protection of eyewitnesses who report violations such as financial crime These articles mentioning torture are a little absurd..the kingdom has disclosed almost nothing about the charges against any of the detainees or about any settlement talks with them, so final outcomes, including in the case of Prince Mutaib, may be difficult to discern.
        1. R
          Nov 29, 2017 at 1:52 am
          This a humble request to the king that he should cancel the dependent fee.I have lived my whole life in Saudi Arabi,I luv it there.I don't want to leave Saudi arabia.Pls Cancel It
          1. A
            Nov 28, 2017 at 11:40 pm
            This is yet another US move to control the region and surround Iran. Against all odds, Israel and Saudi Arabia will shake hands. Hamas are Shias and backed by Iran.
            1. A
              Nov 28, 2017 at 11:46 pm
              Hezbollahs are Shias. Hamas, though Sunnis, back Hezbollahs.
              1. N
                Nov 29, 2017 at 1:50 am
                Well ISIS, Al Kaida, Taleban, Bokoharam and many more who killing innocents across the world on the name of religion belongs to Sunna (Sunni)
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