Saudi Arabia’s chairmanship of the Group of Twenty (G20) is proving to be a mixed blessing.
The country and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saw their chairmanship as an opportunity to showcase the kingdom’s leadership and ability to be a visionary global player. But plans to dazzle the grouping and international community with glamorous events in which officials, experts, analysts and faith representatives would develop proposed cutting-edge solutions for global problems at a time of geopolitical rivalry and jockeying for a new world order had to be shelved as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the worst global economic downturn since World War II.
Lockdowns and other public health safety measures, coupled with the evisceration of air travel, meant that numerous preparatory meetings and brainstorming sessions had to be virtual, replacing glamour, generous hospitality, and organic networking with the sterility of online gatherings. For example, Riyadh had hoped that a high-level interfaith summit in October, a first on Saudi soil, would cement its transition from an austere, inward-looking country that promoted religious ultra-conservatism to one that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism and freedom of religion. The summit will now have to be held online, although there is a chance that a meeting involving a few prominent non-Muslim religious figures will be held in Saudi Arabia itself.
Prince Mohammed may have seen recognition of Israel following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as a way of dramatically changing perceptions of the kingdom in the final walk-up to the G-20 summit. However, Saudi Arabia has so far signalled that it favoured normalization but would not do so prior to Israel resolving its differences with the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution. That decision likely represents King Salman rather than the crown prince’s inclination but could be overturned if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the November 2020 US presidential election. In that case, Saudi Arabia may well see recognition of Israel in advance of the G-20 summit as a way to smooth what otherwise threatens to be a troubled relationship with the incoming administration.
Prince Mohammed’s ambitions were also dampened by other problems, some of which were beyond his control and others that were of his own making. The economic downturn and oil price plunge cast a dark shadow over Vision 2030, his bold plan to transform Saudi society and the economy. Uncertainty on multiple fronts, including the outcome of this year’s US presidential election, to be held three weeks before the G20 summit, subtle Chinese and Russian pressure to reduce tensions between the kingdom and Iran in a bid to rejig the Gulf’s security architecture, and multiple regional rivalries and conflicts complicated the projection of Saudi Arabia as a bright star on the international horizon. So did multiple controversies that raised concerns about its human rights record and its adherence to the rule of law.
The United Arab Emirates’ decision to forge diplomatic relations with Israel threw another spanner in the works. It highlighted contradicting demands: Catering to United States President Donald Trump’s political needs, countering significant criticism of the kingdom in America’s corridors of power and hedging bets on the outcome of next month’s US election on the one hand, and Saudi aspirations for unchallenged leadership of the Muslim world on the other. Following in the UAE’s footsteps would have changed the US landscape from a Saudi perspective, but it would have also exposed it to a wave of criticism from the Muslim world, particularly from its non-Arab constituency.
The absence of an international secretariat offers the rotating chair of the G20 a unique one-year opportunity to shape the global agenda, as well as that of the world’s largest economies. Saudi Arabia’s 2020 chairmanship had the potential to give the kingdom and Prince Mohammed a chance to project themselves as agents of change in a region which, with few exceptions, seemed incapable of liberating itself from the shackles of history, tradition, poor governance, and ingrained animosities and rivalries.
Prince Mohammed initially appeared to have set the stage with his Vision 2030, which envisioned far-reaching social liberalisation and economic diversification: Lifting the ban on women driving; relaxation of gender segregation; the subjugation of the ultra-conservative religious establishment and clipping the wings of the religious police; opening up a modern entertainment industry that featured cinemas, Western-style concerts and other forms of artistic creativity; and the propagation of an undefined moderate interpretation of Islam that promoted tolerance and religious pluralism.
The buzz was reinforced by the prospect of an initial public offering (IPO) of up to 5 per cent of Aramco, the state-owned oil company, privatisation of other assets, including the national airline and utilities, opportunities in multiple other sectors of the economy and liberalisation and deepening of financial markets. Much of that buzz began to fizzle out early on as a result of a valuation of the company at US$2 trillion imposed by Prince Mohammed against the advice of the oil minister, senior Aramco officials, and foreign advisors. The buzz was also dampened by recognition of legal risks involved in a listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) related to potential 9/11-related legal claims, the NYSE and London Stock Exchange’s transparency requirements, and the kingom’s subsequent decision to list on the Saudi stock exchange.
The repeated postponement of the Aramco IPO as a result of differences over the company’s valuation, queries about corporate governance that would ensure that it would not be required to take on non-core projects at the request of the government, and a reluctance to subject Aramco to submit to transparency and reporting requirements associated with a listing on exchanges in New York, London or Tokyo raised questions in investors’ minds. As a result, the IPO valued the company at US$1.7 trillion, well short of the Crown Prince’s goal of US$2 trillion. Shares were also traded only on the Tadawul, Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange.
The kingdom has also suffered significant reputational damage as a result of the grinding war in Yemen and multiple other issues involving human rights abuse and violations of the rule of law. These included the arrests of powerful members of the ruling Al Saud family and the business community on questionable charges of corruption, creating the perception of a power grab.
Other issues include the detention of dissidents, including activists campaigning for the very reforms implemented by the Crown Prince, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the secretive handling of the judicial aftermath, and the insertion of moles in social media companies such as Twitter. Foreign policy fiascos such as the blockade of Qatar and diplomatic spats with Canada and Germany did nothing for the kingdom’s reputation, either.
As a result the chairmanship of the G20 constituted a badly needed opportunity for Saudi Arabia, but it has thus far been a missed opportunity, at least where the West – where it counts most – is concerned.
The Crown Prince’s insistence on pushing ahead with flashy big-ticket projects, including Neom, a US$500 billion futuristic smart city on the Red Sea; Qiddiya, billed as the world’s largest entertainment city; and a massive luxury tourism drive has raised questions about his priorities at a time when the kingdom needs to focus on structural economic and financial reforms and further social changes.
The major issues confronting G20 leaders – containing Covid-19 and tackling its effects, including job loss and stymied economic growth – are magnified in Saudi Arabia, which had an unemployment rate of just under 12 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, before the effects of the pandemic were felt. The G20 chairmanship created a stage for Saudi Arabia to put its leadership in tackling issues and producing solutions on display. Job creation and economic diversification are what will define Prince Mohammed’s regency.
To be fair, few, if any, G20 members will be able to boast of having put the crises behind them by the time the summit is held. The stakes for Prince Mohammed were reflected in a rare credible poll of Saudi public opinion. Asked whether the kingdom’s ban on demonstrations like the ones that toppled leaders across the Arab world over the last decade was a good thing, public opinion was split evenly: 48 per cent agreed and exactly the same percentage did not.
Saudi Arabia had also banked on a negotiated end to the Yemen war to restore some of the gloss to its reputation. Those hopes have so far been dashed by failed attempts to agree on a face-saving solution for all parties. The failure has fuelled calls in Western capitals for restrictions on arms sales.
A failed bid by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), for English Premier League team Newcastle United reflected the depths to which its reputation had sunk. The takeover bid was withdrawn after massive pressure was put on the Premier League by human rights groups and others to block the sale.
One significant source of pressure came from the Qatar-owned beIN television network, which is one of the Premier League’s biggest broadcasters. The network has charged for years that the Saudi state was behind a huge effort to pirate its programming It was vindicated by a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling in June this year. In it, the WTO said Saudi Arabia actively promoted and supported the pirate broadcaster, the curiously-named beoutQ. By doing so, the ruling said, Riyadh had breached its international law obligations on intellectual property rights.
Prince Mohammed had walked away from the 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires, months after the Khashoggi murder, confident that he had put the incident behind him. His confidence was based on a high-five from Russian President Vladimir Putin and a business as usual approach by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That may have been true for powers like China, Russia and India, but was a premature conclusion with regard to Western powers, with the exception of the White House, an attitude that was not shared by a far more critical US Congress and in much of Europe.
With barely two months to go until the G20 summit in November, Saudi Arabia still has an opportunity to exploit its chairmanship to polish its image and project itself as not only a regional, but global leader in tackling problems with which the world is grappling, chief of which are containing Covid-19 and battling the resulting economic downturn. To do so, it has to quickly adopt a public diplomacy and communications strategy that allows it to put issues that have severely tarnished its image behind it and put its best foot forward.
There are multiple issues that Saudi Arabia could constructively tackle that would significantly improve its image, including a negotiated end to the Yemen war, the release of political prisoners, greater transparency on the Khashoggi case, and formalisation of ties with Israel. But tackling any of these issues entails significant political risk, making it unlikely that the kingdom will successfully do so prior to the G20 summit.
The problem is further that there is little indication that Prince Mohammed has drawn lessons from the fallout of past actions that have significantly damaged his and the kingdom’s image. So far unsuccessful efforts to negotiate a face-saving exit from the Yemen war may be the exception.
Saudi prosecution of alleged perpetrators of Khashoggi’s killing did little to convince the international community that the kingdom honoured due process and the rule of law. Neither did the continued detention of activists, scholars, clerics, businessmen and members of the ruling family on often seemingly trumped up and arbitrary charges nor the continued arrests that seem primarily designed to tighten Prince Mohammed’s grip on power.
Ultimately, the cost-benefit analysis of Saudi Arabia’s G20 chairmanship, once conducted in retrospect, is complicated by factors that it does not fully control. The nature of Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States three weeks after it hands over the baton of the chairmanship will depend on who wins the US election, who controls Congress and how it approaches a potential Joe Biden administration.
The stakes for Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed are high. How it handles the final stretch of its G20 chairmanship is likely to influence its relations with Western powers as well as its leverage in any future talks on rejigging the Gulf’s security architecture, which would involve a more multilateral approach, as well as an easing of tensions with Iran.
Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds
The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.
It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.
The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.
Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.
Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.
Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.
There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.
The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.
This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.
The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.
Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga
The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.
Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.
Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.
By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.
The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.
Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.
This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.
The Central Asia factor
These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.
Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.
Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).
The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.
“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.
All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.
As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.
Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.
Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.
This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.
Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.
In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.
Restoring balance with the West
Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.
Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.
This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.
However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.
From our partner RIAC
The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?
Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.
The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.
The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.
The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.
The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.
The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.
“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.
While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”
The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.
The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.
The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.
The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.
“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.
The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.
Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.
In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.
By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.
“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.
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