The Saudi regime’s main criterion for success in balancing their traditional religious values with modernization has been holding on to power. To ensure their survival as rulers of Saudi Arabia, the ruling faction of the Al-Saud family have harnessed advances in technology and embraced new techniques of governance. These transformations, which have been largely facilitated by the enormous wealth that the discovery of oil has brought, have, at times, brought the regime into conflict with representatives of religious tradition, or orthodoxy. The regime’s close relationship with, and patronage of Islam as ‘Guardian’s of the Holy Cities’, drawing on popular traditions, has resulted in a society steeped in Islam, which is drawn on as a source of legitimacy. Islam as a rallying force beyond narrow tribal allegiances, played a vital role in Abdel Aziz ibn-Saud’s formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Later, the promotion of Islam was used to counter the threat to the rule of the Al-Saud posed by Arab nationalism and communism, secular ideologies which threatened their rule. Throughout the twentieth century religious leaders, and adherents, objected to the introduction of modern innovations such as the telegraph, the radio, and the television, but, until recently, religious representatives have not questioned the legitimacy of the regime. The threat to the House of Al-Saud posed by what has been labelled “Islamic fundamentalism” in the West, has been caused by a number of factors, not least the pronounced difference in wealth between the ruling princes and the rest of the population. In the absence of alternative political outlets, Islam has provided the idiom for revolution in Saudi Arabia.

The precise definitions of modernity and modernization are keenly disputed, especially in the Islamic context. Hopwood offers one:
‘Modernization is the introduction into society of the artefacts of contemporary life – railways, communications, industry (less often nowadays), technology, household equipment. Modernity (modernism) is a general term for the political and cultural process set in motion by integrating new ideas, an economic system, or education into society. It is a way of thought, of living in the contemporary world and of accepting change.’
This definition is insufficient, as it fails to recognise the modernizing effect of advances in technology. For example an “artefact of contemporary life” like the internet can give rise to “new ideas”. Likewise, a transition to mass literacy falls into the lacuna. Thus, it is unsatisfactory to attempt to draw a distinction between the terms “modernity” and “modernization”. A more adequate working definition, to be used in this paper, is supplied by the ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary’ where the term “modern” encompasses both meanings:
“of, or relating to the present or to recent times; characterized by or using the most up-to-date techniques, equipment, etc; denoting a recent style in art, architecture, etc, marked by a departure from traditional styles and values ”.

A common presumption made in Western discourse is that modernisation of Islamic societies amounts to a convergence with Western norms. In such a dialectic, Islam is taken as the tradition in opposition to the modern secular forces of liberal-western democracies. This leads to frequent description of Islam as a conservative force particularly within Saudi society . This view downplays the extent to which interpretations of Islam, based on the same sources, have varied considerably throughout its 1,400 year history. Especially in a situation where
“Islam lacks a single canonical authority or a fixed story that holds together all the elements of a religion such as Christianity and imparts to them legitimacy .”

Therefore, to characterise all manifestations of Islam as simply “traditional” is misleading. In fact this paper posits that the forces of Islam emerging in Saudi Arabia are “modern”. Saudi society has radically changed since the Second World War and Islam has responded to meet the fears, desires and aspirations that living in such an altered society entails.


The writings and practices of Muhammad Abdel Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), a religious scholar brought up in the Hanbalite school , have given rise to the description Wahhabi , the “traditional religious value” of Saudi Arabia. Al-Wahhab repudiated what he viewed as heretical practices such as saint veneration, a common practice among Shi’a, and exalted the doctrine of tawhid – “God’s uniqueness as omnipotent lord of creation and his uniqueness as deserving worship and the absolute devotion of his servants ”.

In 1744 Al-Wahhab entered into an accord with the tribal lord Muhammad Al-Saud. The politico-religious alliance generated vast conquests as previously warring tribes were united under the banner of Islam. In exchange for ideological justification and recruits for the conquests, shari’a, religious law, as interpreted by the ulama, the religious scholars, was imposed on the territories. In his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler (the imam – the commander of the faithful) should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion . Al-Wahhab also appointed the mutawia, who served as the enforcers of justice and were financed by the public treasury. The mutawia enforced a strict system of orthodoxy where repeated abstention from public prayers invited reprimand or penalty . Beyond the zakat, the mandatory religious tax of just 2.5%, and the payment of the mutawia and ulama, Al-Wahhab could not have envisioned a radical redistribution of the assets of the state, including the booty gained through conquests. Al-Wahhab’s pre-modern interpretation of Islam certainly did not envision the state performing a ‘welfarist’ role.

The Wahhabist tradition of government envisions a divide within the state between the religious and the temporal domains. In practice, the balance of power was eschewed in favour of the charismatic figure of Al-Wahhab and “it was said that no camels were mounted and no opinions were voiced by Muhammad Al-Saud or his son Abdel Al-Aziz without his [Al-Wahhab’s] approval ”. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has persisted with the Wahhabist template but a shift in the balance of power has seen the temporal authorities, bolstered by oil wealth, largely dictate to the ulama. This has led Lackner to opine that “the fiction of Wahhabism which has lost its real roots with the destruction of the age old desert culture can only be maintained by an intellectual petrification ”.

The Ikhwan

In order to understand the extent to which the Al-Saud draw legitimacy from traditional religious values it is necessary to examine the formation of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom. Ibn-Saud began life as an exile in Kuwait, as the Al-Saud clan had been superseded by other forces in their Najd heartland. In 1902 he set off on a legendary expedition, with a handful of men, and captured Riyadh where the ulama swore allegiance to him. Although the original Al-Saud empire had disintegrated, the Wahhabi tradition had continued to flourish in Arabia. The remaining mutawia “needed a politico-military figure, a symbolic Imam to endorse their cause ”. Consequently
“Ibn Saud enlisted them in the service of his domain as he employed them and paid them their salaries in cash and kind… In return [he] was guaranteed the political submission of the Arabian peninsula under the guise of submission to God .”

In collaboration with the mutawia, Ibn-Saud created an altogether new force, the Ikhwan. Beginning in 1912, settlements were created for the Islamic indoctrination of nomadic Bedouin. This provided Ibn-Saud with “an ascetic, military force which could be mobilized and demobilized swiftly and which combined the mobility of the Bedouin with the political reliability and loyalty of the villagers ”. This new force played a vital role in Ibn-Saud’s conquest of what was proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, including the Hijaz, which contains the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Renowned for ferocity, the threat of the Ikhwan, ready to be unleashed against Mecca, was sufficient to bring about its surrender .

The formation of Saudi Arabia represented an acceptance of the modern order of the nation state. This led to conflict with the Ikhwan who, already suspicious of the introduction of modern technology, wished to continue what they viewed as a jihad against infidels. As a result, an uprising occurred in 1928 that was suppressed by the forces of Ibn-Saud, who was supported by the British, irked by Ikhwan raids on their Iraqi colony. Crucial to Ibn Saud’s victory over the Ikhwan was the support of the ulama who ruled that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler .

The ulama’s support for Ibn Saud signalled their submission to him as it had
“became clear to those distinguished among them that if they were to play a role in the country they would have to accept the subordination of religion to politics. They also understood that their eminence was dependent on restraining their former students, the mutawia ”

Thus, the ulama were co-opted by the regime, a process that would become more pronounced under Ibn-Saud’s son Faysal. Consequently, although the ulama were not in favour of the introduction of artefacts of modernity such as the radio and the telegraph, they accepted Ibn-Saud’s authority. Ibn-Saud had revived the Al-Saud-Wahhabi alliance but in the twentieth the religious authorities, lacking the charisma of a figure like Al-Wahhab, were subordinate to the will of the temporal ruler. Nonetheless, Ibn-Saud’s role as the imam continued to be essential to his authority. An Arab visitor to Saudi Arabia 1928 observed
“The ulama are the power that holds the sultan and his people together – the medium of control. But they seldom meddle in politics .”

King Faysal

1953 saw the death of Ibn-Saud, the patriarch of the Saudi Royal family. His sons continue to rule Saudi Arabia. The first to ascend to the throne was King Saud, who proved an inept ruler. In 1964 he was moved aside by means of a ‘Palace Coup’ which brought King Faysal to the throne. Vast oil wealth allowed Faysal to oversee a rapid expansion of the Saudi State and he is the principal architect of modern Saudi Arabia.

The period 1945-1975 witnessed a rapid modernization of Saudi society. Mass education caused a rapid transformation of the literacy rate , and controversially included women. Urbanization, and the arrival of millions of foreign migrants to work in the oil industry affected profound changes to Saudi society.

In the era of Nasser’s charismatic appeal to pan-Arabist sentiment, Faysal’s “Islamic rhetoric came to the forefront mainly as a counter discourse to current Arab political trends associated with Arab nationalism ” which “threatened the very foundation of Saudi rule. ” The threat to Faysal emanated not only from the restive Saudi population but also from within the Royal Family, where a number of ‘Republican Princes’ emerged, though these renegades were soon exiled. Faysal’s opposition to Arab nationalism led to alliance with the United States, however the United States’ close relationship with Israel began to place strains on this relationship, Tension over the Palestinian issue, led the regime to play a leading role in the OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s. Nonetheless, throughout the reign of Faysal, Arab nationalism and communism were trumpeted as the main threat to the regime. Moreover, vast wealth accrued from a cordial relationship with the West dictated a symbiosis. Nonetheless, in a situation where Israel was seen as anathema to Islam and pan-Arabism, rapprochement of the sort undertaken by Sadat at Camp David would not have been feasible, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was desired.

Traditional religious forces continued to resist Faysal’s rigorous modernization programme, which included the education of women and the introduction of television, but no serious opposition movement emerged based on a defence of traditional religious values. This can be explained by a fear, amongst traditionalists, of “modern” political forces, particularly the secular force of nationalism, represented by Nasser’s Egypt, which seemed to threaten the role of religion in society, as exemplified by the fate of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, thousands of whom were imprisoned. Therefore
“As Islam… was widely interpreted as a revolt against modernity, and as the… [monarchy was] interpreted to be more traditional and less modernized than most of the republics, there appeared to be less of an incentive, or need, to revolt against them in the name of Islam, “traditional values” and “authenticity. ”

The regime and the religious authorities viewed one another as allies against a common foe. The ulama, while displeased by certain aspects of the regime’s modernization programme, nonetheless allowed themselves to be co-opted by the regime to an unprecedented degree. The establishment of the Ministry of Religion was the most important aspect of this process for it “locked the senior ulama in an official role. ”. Although, “the most uncompromising among the ulama were ousted and denied the privilege of becoming civil servants. ”. In return for co-option, religious universities were established which replaced the informal centres of learning around the mosque school. As a result, during the reign of King Faysal, religion penetrated society to an unprecedented degree. However, below the surface, interpretations of Islam were shifting beyond traditions. This was facilitated by mass literacy that eroded the traditional role of the ulama as the intermediary between the text and the predominantly illiterate people, and considerably increased the number of religious scholars. In such circumstances it became more difficult for the regime to control the interpretation of Islam. The historical parallel of the emergence of Protestantism in response to mass literacy in the Europe of the sixteenth century may be drawn.

The Post Faysal Era

The assassination of King Faysal in 1975, by a disgruntled member of the royal family removed a charismatic and effective rule. The monarchs who have followed Khalid (1975-1982) and Fahd (r.1982) have persisted with Faysal’s, pro-Western policies and emphasis on Islam as a source of legitimacy, especially in response to the seizure of the Grand Mosque and the rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution. However, since the 1970s Islam has become “a two edged political instrument – as the kingdom’s primary medium of self-legitimisation, and as the main venue of protest for opposition elements ”. Given that formal political protest, in the shape of political parties, has never been tolerated it is not surprising that opposition should emerge in this religious guise. Furthermore
“Saudi Arabia is a very traditional and Islamic country it is natural that most opposition from dissatisfied sectors of the population would find it most appropriate to articulate their difficulties in the Islamic idiom .”

However, such Islamic opposition is a departure from Wahhabi tradition as it should be recalled that in his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion. As the regime has upheld shari’a, this is not a charge that can be levelled against them. It could be argued that western notions of the state and even Kingship, are inconsistent with Islam, both, however, were accepted in the 1920s by the ulama, the representatives of religious tradition.

“Islamic” grievances against the government emanate from two broad sources: the regime’s foreign policy and socio-economic problems afflicting Saudi society. Since the 1980s, the Islamist opposition has been highly critical of the regime’s pro-Western orientation, especially during the Gulf War. To many Saudis “the United States represents materialistic Christian values and power, which challenge Islamic values and Muslim power. ” Consequently the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War became increasingly unpopular, especially as the plight of Iraqis enduring US-led sanctions was brought home to the Saudi population. Antipathy towards the United State’s can also be explained by the United State’s support for Israel against the Palestinians . Indeed, with the demise of the Soviet Union, global Islamic discourse has tended to represent the United States as its greatest foe. In such an era of ‘globalisation’, these grievances have given rise to support for Al-Queda, and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who perpetrated the September 11 attack against the ‘Twin Towers’ were Saudis. The violent US response to September 11 has served to ratchet up anti-American sentiment, providing fertile grounds for recruitment into radical Islamist organisations. This Islamic criticism of the regime’s foreign policy contradicts the judgement of the ulama of the 1930s who asserted that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler.

The emergence of Islam as a subversive force can largely be attributed to the socio-economic problems afflicting contemporary Saudi Arabia. A rapidly expanding population and a downturn in the price of oil has created significant unemployment that today stands at around 20%. This has led to poverty that is in stark contrast to the opulence of the coterie of princes and technocrats who monopolise the vast resources of Saudi Arabia. In response to these inequalities, preachers have drawn on Islamic sources to indirectly criticise the regime. A non-Saudi Muslim scholar who visited the country during the 1980s remarked that “the sermons at Friday prayers at Mecca and Medina are filled with parables of Omar, the second caliph, who was known for simple living and humility .” Even the establishment ulama have challenged the unequal distribution of wealth; in 1991 a petition was drafted, and signed by senior ulama that argued “Public wealth must be distributed fairly among all classes and groups ”. The Wahhabite tradition does not envision such redistribution and the shift in emphasis is a further example of how Islam is responding to the discontent of its adherents.

In response to Islamic criticism, the regime has suppressed opposition and renewed emphasis on Islamic legitimacy. Thus, for all important decisions, especially the decision to allow American soldiers to use Saudi Arabia as a base during the first Gulf War, fatwas, or religious rulings, have been secured. This has opened up a cleavage between the establishment ulama and radical Islamists, who have ceased to support the current system. The regime has also attempted, by the establishment of a consultative council in 1994, to use the often Western-educated middle class technocrats as a counterweight to recalcitrant Islamists.

As has been mentioned, mass literacy has given rise to a population with personal access to the texts of Islam. The availability of the internet further erodes the establishment ulama’s interpretative authority. As
the very testing of authority that the internet provokes makes the boundaries of digital Islam more porous and subject to change than those of it predecessors .

London based organisation like the Campaign for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (1993) and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (1996) have used the internet to challenge the authority of both the regime and the establishment ulama. These organisations have called for fundamental changes to Saudi society. Indeed Al-Faqih, one of the new leaders, has argued in favour of a rule by religious scholars that has been compared to the Iranian model of the velayat-i faqih (rule of the religious jurist) . To view these organisations, that harness modern technological innovation and who argue for a change to the Wahhabist system of government as representatives of “traditional religious values” is to fail to recognise the modernisation of Saudi Islam.


Islamic legitimacy was of critical importance to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the survival of the Al-Saud family as rulers, especially when confronted by the threat of Arab nationalism. The regime drew from the Wahhabist template that emphasised loyalty to the ruler. During the first fifty years of the state, the regime maintained a delicate balance between the traditional religious values, and modernization. At times, this caused resentment, but with the exception of the Ikhwan rebellion, no large-scale movement emerged to challenge the regime’s Islamic legitimacy. This can be explained by the state’s patronage of the ulama and maintenance of shari’a, as well as the Islamist’s fear of modern, anti-secular forces However, since the death of King Faysal, Islam has provided an outlet for opposition.

Much Western commentary on Saudi Arabia often simplistically portrays Islam as representing traditional forces within Saudi society. It assumes the immutability of Islam, and fails to take into account how the radical transformation of Saudi society, which has seen a predominantly poor and nomadic people become urban and relatively wealthy, has coloured interpretations of Islam. Mass literacy, has diminished the interpretative authority of the establishment ulama who are no longer the sole intermediaries between the text and the people. This process has been accelerated by the internet, which is now the main forum for protest against the regime. Since the 1980s, a declining economy and reliance on the United States have led to rising discontent with the regime. In a country, steeped in religion, that suppresses all political opposition, Islam has modernized to become the channel and idiom for this discontent.

Today, the House of Saud stands at a difficult crossroads. King Fahd, has been invalided by a stroke while the Crown Prince and de facto ruler Abdullah, is in his eighties. The prospect of a succession crisis looms. Such a crisis could see rival factions emerging from within the House, one representing radical Islamic views, drawing on support from the economically marginalised, the other a secularist outlook, supported in the main by the technocratic bourgeoise. Neither the secularists nor the Islamic radicals favour the continuance of the status quo and the quid pro quo for support from either side would probably be a check on the autocratic rule of the Al-Saud Family.



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Other Sources
BBC Radio 4 ‘Crossing Continents’ 8/12/2003

(essay, 2004)

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