Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who are the Islamists?
Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who are the Islamists?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Gulf Arab Reconciliation Hides Simmering Tensions
Gulf Arab Reconciliation Hides Simmering Tensions
Report 31 / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who are the Islamists?

Saudi Arabia is at a critical stage in both its struggle against terrorism and its on-again, off-again efforts at reform, and Islamism is at the heart of both.

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Executive Summary

Saudi Arabia is at a critical stage in both its struggle against terrorism and its on-again, off-again efforts at reform, and Islamism is at the heart of both. The success or failure of the moderate Islamists in providing social, religious and political responses to the country's predicament will, probably as much as anything, determine the ultimate fate of their radical rivals.[fn]In the usage adopted by ICG, "Islamism" is Islam in political rather than religious mode. "Islamist movements" are those with Islamic ideological references pursuing primarily political objectives, and "Islamist" and "Islamic political" are essentially synonymous. "Islamic" is a more general expression, usually referring to Islam in religious rather than political mode but capable, depending on the context, of embracing both.Hide Footnote

On the evening of 15 March 2004, Saudi security forces killed Khalid al-Hajj, the alleged leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and a coordinator of the violent campaign that began in May 2003. The following morning, the police arrested eleven prominent reformist intellectuals, including several Islamists who had been pressing for political reform and trying to establish an independent human rights organisation. Together, these events capture the two faces of Islamism in contemporary Saudi Arabia: a militant, violent one bent on destabilising the Kingdom and forcing its foreign backers to flee, and a moderate, progressive one, intent on promoting political, social and religious reform. While the former has grabbed most headlines, the latter holds the greater potential for reshaping the Kingdom.

In an earlier report on how Saudi Arabia approaches the reform issue, ICG concluded:

Dealing with longer-term challenges and keeping violent opposition marginal requires repair to a legitimacy that has been severely battered by the closed and arbitrary nature of the political system, the concentrated power and wealth of the royal family, and the record of financial corruption and profligacy of many of its members. This necessitates broadening political space, giving more citizens a voice and a stake in the system, allowing them to organise freely, strengthening political institutions, creating a sense of accountability and cracking down on corruption.[fn]ICG Middle East Report N°28, Can Saudi Arabia Reform Itself?, 14 July 2004, p. ii. The recommendations from that report are reproduced in Appendix B below.Hide Footnote

The findings of this briefing, which examines the genealogy of Saudi Arabia's various Islamist groupings and is based on dozens of interviews in the country between March and May 2004, strongly support that conclusion.

Beneath the all-encompassing Wahhabi influence, Saudi Islamism developed over several decades a wide variety of strains. These included radical preachers, who condemned what they considered the regime's deviation from the principles of Islam and its submission to the U.S.; social reformers, convinced of the need to modernise educational and religious practices and challenging the puritan strand of Islam that dominates the Kingdom; political reformers, who gave priority to such issues as popular participation, institution-building, constitutionalisation of the monarchy, and elections; and jihadist activists, for the most part formed in Afghanistan and who gradually brought their violent struggle against Western -- in particular U.S. -- influence to their homeland.

By the late 1990s, the Islamist field was increasingly polarised between two principal strands. Among the so-called new Islamists, political reformers sought to form the broadest possible centrist coalition, cutting across religious and intellectual lines and encompassing progressive Sunni Islamists, liberals, and Shiites. More recently, they have sought to include as well elements of the more conservative but highly popular sahwa, the group of shaykhs, professors and Islamic students that had come to prominence a decade earlier by denouncing the state's failure to conform to Islamic values, widespread corruption, and subservience to the U.S. Through petitions to Crown Prince Abdallah -- the Kingdom's de facto ruler - they formulated demands for political and social liberalisation. Their surprising ability to coalesce a diverse group prompted the government -- which initially had been conciliatory -- to signal by the arrests cited above that there were limits to its tolerance.

The other, jihadi, face of Saudi Islamism has manifested itself most prominently since early 2003, when a network of hardened militant Islamists operating under the name of "Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula" (QAP) began a violent campaign targeting Western and in particular U.S. interests. Large-scale terrorist operations and lower-level violence against Westerners have undermined the traditional sense of personal security among expatriate workers, prompting an unknown number to depart. In the process, militants have been drawn into a full-blown confrontation with the government and its security forces. While its ultimate outcome is unclear, there are strong indications the government has gained the upper hand; despite highly visible attacks in May and June 2004, the militants appear to have suffered significant setbacks that leave them both operationally weaker and politically marginalised. Their remaining core of fighters may well retain the ability to exploit weaknesses in Saudi security and counterterrorism capability, but they have not come close to triggering a broader Islamist insurrection or threatening regime stability.

But victory over the QAP would not mean the defeat of violent Islamism, which feeds on political, social and economic dissatisfaction that preceded the rise of that group and will undoubtedly outlive it. Ferment within the Islamist arena, growing strength of a progressive, reformist outlook and the deepening rift between violent and non-violent activists present an important opportunity to address these underlying sources of anger.

In order not to lose that opportunity, the regime should:

  • build bridges to the centrist coalition, allowing progressive Islamists to express their views more openly, including on national television and radio;
  • release promptly the reformers arrested in the March 2004 crackdown;
  • continue the National Dialogues, initiated in 2003, enlarge them to embrace a greater number of reformist Islamists, and start a serious discussion over a gradual political opening leading to a constitutional monarchy, including expansion of the powers of the appointed consultative council (majlis); and
  • combine such political steps with a sustained effort to fight corruption, poverty and exclusion (especially in peripheral, under-developed regions such as Asir) as the best guarantee against violence and for long-term stability.

Amman/Riyadh/Brussels, 21 September 2004

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