Par Antoine Guillemin-Puteaux

It is a commonplace to state that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is greatly concerned with its Islamic character. Scholars have gone so far as to describe it as a “theocratic unitarian state”[1] in which the king is the head of the Wahhabi movement[2]. Indeed, the establishment of the Saudi state is tied with the rise of the Wahhabi Hanbali doctrine in the peninsula. As Nabil Mouline argues, it is the charismatic figure of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab who dominated the relationship with the al-Saud in the early stages of the state’s development[3]. In sum, the association of the religious scholars (ulama) and the rulers (umara) paved the way for an organic connection between two poles of the ruling elite: the religious and the political.

A look at the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia[4] would tend to give credence to the notion that a theocracy rules the state. At the political level, the Quran and the Sunna are Saudi Arabia’s constitution and Islam its official religion since God is the sole and ultimate lawmaker. The country’s national flag must read the Muslim creed. What is more, the “government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia derives its authority from the Book of God and the Sunna” (art.7). Society is to be ruled in accordance to “full adherence to God’s guidance” (art.11) and the State must foster an Islamic order: “the State shall protect the Islamic Creed, apply the Sharia, encourage good and discourage evil, and undertake its duty regarding the Propagation of Islam (Da’wa)” (art.23). Insofar as one defines a theocracy as a polity in which all authority is derived from God, modern Saudi Arabia would seem to qualify.

However, it is argued that for a polity to be theocratic, it requires more than deriving its authority from God. A theocracy implies that power is directed towards the implementation of religion, to the detriment of other imperatives such as political expediency. In this sense, a theocracy is ideologically-driven; it aims at implementing a comprehensive political system out of religion. A theocracy could otherwise be characterised as a polity ruled by clerics or leaving the primary say to clerics in policy-making. Saudi Arabia does not manifest any of these traits. The ruling family has refused to implement a maximalist Wahhabi agenda, as demonstrates the bloody suppression of the ikhwan as early as 1928-1930[5]. What is more, struggles between the ulama and the regime have shown that both spheres, religious and political, understood their vetted interests as discrete in nature. In other words, the division of labour between the throne and the altar exhibits a pattern whereby the interests of the two do not coalesce perfectly. Thus, the kingdom is not a theocracy. Rather, the balance of power shifted in favour of the political sphere over the 19th century, and remained in the hands of the political leaders since the consolidation of the Saudi state after 1932 under Abd al-Aziz[6] to the detriment of the religious establishment.

The legitimacy of the Saudi royal family rests upon a number of pillars. Thanks to oil income, the kingdom has struck a distributive social bargain with its society: the monarchy is deemed legitimate insofar as it provides for the needs of its people. This bargain co-opts society by reducing the incentives to oppose the regime and by raising the costs of doing without it[7]. To be sure, religion is another determinant of the state’s legitimacy. Following the categories developed by Max Weber[8], one can say the Saudi regime has carved out traditional authority from the reliance on socially-embedded religious and tribal structures.[9] At the time of the first Saudi state, the regime drew its legitimacy from the charismatic figure of al-Wahhab. The charisma of the leader has been institutionalised through the establishment of bureaucratised patterns to deal with social and political issues. Hence, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques enjoys a bureaucratic legitimacy as the head of a religious and political apparatus upholding his authority.[10]

There seems to be an inherent tension between the development of a modern nation-state willing to control all spheres of society through specific regulations, and the traditional organisational patterns of the clergy whose reference is universal, whose reach was not to be circumscribed by definite borders, and whose first and foremost principle is the implementation of God’s word on Earth. The Saudi religious state rests upon seemingly wobbly foundations insofar as modern institutions are innovations and deviations from Wahhabi conservative norms. Positive law is opposed to revealed Law, while compromises key to political survival may contravene unbending religious principles.

How to explain the Saudi regime’s ability to maintain a Wahhabi religious legitimacy -seemingly based on exclusive and inflexible principle- while the regime’s very political character constrained it to make compromises and choices that could not primarily be dictated by religion?

I contend that the answer lies with the particular way in which the relative reduction of the religious grasp on politics has come to light in Saudi Arabia. The usual path of secularisation is one in which religion is taken off the political sphere, so as to make both spheres independent from one another. Secularisation in the words of Blumenberg is the “incremental withdrawal of religion from the public sphere” requiring the new elaboration of thought and institutions on rational grounds.[11] In the case of Saudi Arabia, however, I argue that the relative diminution of religious influence over the political and social spheres has been rendered possible by the co-optation and absorption of the religious domain by the political one. Religion has lost ground in the public sphere not because it was separated from the political authorities enforcing norms -as a certain reading of secularisation would assume- but on the contrary because it was so closely knit to it that it was in the end controlled by the political rulers.

In Saudi Arabia, the religious establishment had developed as a powerful actor since the 18th century, one that could imperil the supremacy of the royal family. In order to face that competition, the regime ‘would attempt to “unify” all authority under a central pole’[12], and in so doing swayed religion to politics by neutralising the independence of the most senior ulama. That process partly illustrates Carl Schmitt’s theory of secularisation, which states that it is a ‘transfer of content from the religious sphere to the political sphere within structures first carved by the theological.’[13] In Saudi Arabia, many religious structures have been maintained but reframed in a way that made them subject to the political authorities.

I argue that the politicisation of religion has enabled the regime to maintain its religious legitimacy over time. I first show how the regime took over the religious apparatus and made it a legitimising structure. Then, I turn to the way religious legitimacy has enabled the regime to withstand religious and political challenges alike. Finally, I analyse how the regime’s actions are constrained by ideologically-driven segments of society that challenge the government’s religious legitimacy.

 

I- Unify and rule: the regime’s control over the religious sphere

Since its inception, the third Saudi state has relied upon the alliance of the political and the religious spheres[14]. The alliance of the throne and the altar was not all smooth sailing however, as both spheres are distinct and have gone through power struggles along with the development of central institutions in the country in the 1950s and 1960s.[15] The state has become the dominant player in the alliance and maintained the legitimising power of the ulama while greatly reducing the latter’s autonomy and curbing its political power.

The relation set between the religious and political authorities is beneficial to the throne and the altar. Put bluntly, the regime offers the ulama protection in exchange for legitimacy. The Hanbali doctrine of obedience to the political ruler (waliyy al-amr) provides the basis for the relationship between the regime and the ulama since no law can be of effect without the coercive power of the ruler.[16] The regime consecrates Islam as the foremost organising principle in society, and the foundation of all authorities. In a similar fashion to caliphs who claimed the religious and temporal authorities, the king of Saudi Arabia is recognised by the Basic Law as the source of regulatory, executive and judicial authorities.[17] The ruler is allowed to exert political-religious powers, such as ‘declaring jihad, issuing fatwas, commanding right and forbidding wrong.’[18]

The state has managed to restrict the power of the ulama through the establishment of political-religious institutions. Since the 1940s, the Saudi regime has attempted to keep the influence of the religious sphere in check and ‘to amputate a certain number of its prerogatives, most notably in the legislative, judicial, and educational fields.’[19] Institutionalising education and the legal system put an end to the religious establishment’s monopoly. Similarly, with the functions of the Grand Mufti spread out, and the position not filled from 1970 to 1993, the state could more easily oversee the activities of the religious institutions.

The religious establishment resented such attempts and argued that traditional Islamic tribunals were able to settle all litigations on topics as wide as criminal, civil, administrative, and commercial. They opposed civil regulations and institutions, such as the Civil Service Code, labour laws, and the Committee for the Resolution of Litigation. In 1960, the Grand Mufti did not shy away from excommunicating all who attempted to use positive laws- with a subtly phrased exception for the ruler.[20]

The ulama have carved out a space for themselves in the new institutional landscape. First, in a bid to preserve their position vis-à-vis the political power, the ulama created modern religious institutions: high schools, universities, NGOs. Muhammad bin Ibrahim was very active in that scheme. Consequently, the power struggle enabled the clergy to broaden its social reach and become a more resilient institution to back the state.[21] Concurrently, the ulama took note of its inability to stop the government’s institution-building efforts. The ulama’s strategy changed towards seeking active participation in the newly established bodies. A new cooperation of the civil and the religious emerged within the structure imposed by the state.[22]

Established in 1971, the Council of Scholars has become the cornerstone of the state’s legitimising apparatus. The Council serves the dynasty twofold: as an institution propagating Wahhabism, and by the systematic support of the royal family’s political decisions, even when they risk alienating popular support of the ulama. The Permanent Commission of the Council deals with micro-social questions, while the Council of the Committee of Senior Scholars works on macro-social issues. The political authorities can ask for legal statements on political matters, a bayan, so as to legitimise their actions.

The government is able to control the Council’s proceedings through several ways: the king enjoys veto power over the agenda of issues examined by the Council’s Permanent Commission, the government can set the agenda of the Council by convening extraordinary sessions of the Committee of Senior Scholars, and the Secretary general of the Committee is a civil servant appointed by the government and tasked with ensuring linkage between the body and the regime. The Council of Senior Scholars is accountable to the king since the latter appoints the head of the Council and can dismiss members as he sees fit.[23] At the same time, fatwas issued on social, legal and even religious matters can only be enacted when approved by the Council of Minister[24]. King Abdullah reasserted the government’s authority over the legal pronouncements of clerics sphere with a 2010 decree on the senior -official- ulama’s monopoly over fatwas.

As was shown, the religious and the political spheres don’t make up a homogenous entity in Saudi Arabia. Rather, political and religious elites form a nexus of two distinct stakeholders working with each other. The institutionalisation of the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia is the result of the interplay between the religious and political spheres. The resulting bargain has led to the bureaucratisation of the religious sphere, embedded in the country’s institutions and influential in the legal and judicial matters of the kingdom. The other side of the compromise is the supervision of the religious sphere by the political power.

 

II- Religion, the bulwark of the monarchy

The regime has relied on religious forces both institutional and not, so as to withstand the main challenges to its legitimacy. In times of great perils, the religious establishment has been a most effective defendant of the monarchy thanks to its efficient organisations and prestige within society. The religious establishment reasserted the Islamic legitimacy of the kingdom on four main occasions: in 1979, with the occupation of the Mecca Mosque and the Islamic revolution in Iran; in 1990 in the aftermath of American troops stationing in Saudi Arabia and throughout the challenge from the Islamic reform movement; in 2003 in the wake of jihadi attacks on Saudi territory; and in 2011 so as to prevent an uprising emulating the Arab revolutions.

The religious establishment has supported the government by taking part in delegitimising campaigns against foreign enemies of the ruling dynasty. The Council of Clerics excommunicated Ruhollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Beyond excommunication, the ulama involves in long-standing campaigns against enemies of the regime, on religious grounds. By way of example, one can think of Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh’s 2016 claim that Iranians were not Muslims.[25]

Senior ulama have reinforced the regime in the face of internal challenges. Since 1979 brought about multiple challenges to the regime, the tacit alliance between the Al Saud and the ulama was [then] reactivated’[26]. During the rejectionists’[27] attack of the Great Mosque in 1979, the Council of Scholars gave its blessing to the ruling family so as to authorise an assault on occupiers[28]. Although the ulama hesitated and gave the regime a green light some 36 hours after the beginning of the occupation, it proved an invaluable basis for an action that was otherwise to be deemed a sacrilege. By condemning the attack led by Utaybi, the Council laid the blame at his door and safeguarded the regime’s Islamic credentials.[29] Similarly, in 1990, Grand Mufti Abd al Aziz bin Baz did not oppose to the presence of American troops on the lands of Saudi Arabia at the height of the Sahwa reformist movement’s campaign against foreign troops in the peninsula. Meanwhile, the religious establishment dismissed the Islamist opposition of the early 1990s. It also declared members of al Qaeda heretics, forbidding the resort to suicide attacks and fighting in Iraq against the Americans after 2003.[30] In 2011, the Grand Mufti Abd al Aziz Al al Sheikh deemed all protesters un-Islamic on the grounds that they sewed chaos. Islam, he argued, favoured dialogue so protesters had nothing to do with Islam[31].

Beyond its reliance on institutional religious forces, the regime favoured the development of Islamist forces that were instrumental in bolstering its Islamic legitimacy and fighting common enemies. The religious forces in Saudi Arabia are usually deemed bureaucratised. ‘As a consequence, they have generally been portrayed as a mere appendix of the regime, and never as a buffer between state and society.’[32] Yet, the regime has often mobilised its connections to Islamist networks, much less dependent on the regime than the religious establishment.

Back in the 1960s, the Muslim Brotherhood helped foster Saudi Arabia’s Islamic legitimacy abroad. Saudi Arabia enhanced its Islamic credentials so as to take the lead in the Arab cold war against “progressive” regimes of the Arab world which Arab nationalist ideology threatened the kingdom’s legitimacy. One could wonder why the Saudi regime relied on foreign religious forces to foster its Islamic image and did not draw upon its symbiotic relationship with Wahhabi clerics. As Lacroix argues, “the Saudis needed an Islamic ideology to systematically oppose… Nasser’s Arab nationalism, yet the Wahhabi ulama were too traditional to build one out of Wahhabism.’[33]

The Brotherhood played a crucial role in the emergence of the Saudi state and institutions since the kingdom still lacked the required skilled human capital to perform such a task. The Brotherhood became very active in education, especially in high schools and universities. Out of this presence was carved out ‘the mainstream Islamist trend that developed in Saudi Arabia from the 1960s onwards, and which is known as al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya– the Islamic Awakening’, a combination of Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood religious cultures.[34]

Islamist groups (jama’at islamiyya) developed as a socialising force within the kingdom, engaging notably with the youth. The Sahwa had an important oppositional potential, but did not use it against the kingdom in early stages. On the contrary, the jama’at insisted that Saudi Arabia was the only contemporary example of a rightful Islamic state, just as did the Wahhabi ulama.[35] The state favoured the development of jama’at networks so as to counter the influence of Arab nationalist movements at home[36].The Sahwa also helped counter the influence of ‘rejectionist’ forces in Saudi Arabia, their competitors throughout the 1970s.[37]

In sum, religious groups have been instrumental in helping the regime withstand challenges to its legitimacy throughout its history. The ulama has proved to be a highly institutionalised legitimising body from which to draw at will, even to the detriment of the ulama’s popularity among society -as shows its support for the stationing of foreign forces in Saudi Arabia in 1990. Similarly, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the state relied on the Sahwa networks that albeit not ‘bureaucratised’ were happy to counter attacks to the religious legitimacy of the al-Saud monarchy, as the monarchy’s contenders in the shape of the rejectionists and jihadis were also the Sahwa’s competitors in the ‘religious market’.

 

III- ‘More Papist than the Pope’: religious challenges and constraints to the monarchy

Nurturing religious forces in the kingdom sowed the seeds of an Islamic opposition that would question the legitimacy of the regime. The state is constrained by religion as it cannot depart from some religiously- accepted actions. In the face of such challenges, the regime has attempted to redefine the Islamic character of the kingdom in a more socially liberal fashion.

Due to the structural conditions of the polity in Saudi Arabia, an authoritarian state where oppositional social movements are constrained, not many such movements can emerge. Since the 1960s onwards, Islamist movements have succeeded in creating well-structured networks so as to relay Islamist ideas. That was made possible by the wide acceptance of their ideas in the Saudi society. In turn, Islamists have emerged as key actors to mobilisation and opposition to the Saudi regime. That privileged position in the Saudi socio-political landscape translates into the possibility for Islamist networks to alternate as stabilising and destabilising forces for the regime: Islamists are “double-edged networks.”[38]

Participation and governance deficits have unleashed political-religious calls for reforms of the regime. From 1990 to 1994, the Sahwa movement mobilised against the regime, outraged as it was by the resort to foreign US troops. Sahwa leaders conveyed petitions to the king in 1991 and 1992 to express their discontent, while thousands of young Saudis mobilised, in parallel to oppositional Friday sermons (khutba). The very jama’at that the state had nurtured since the 1960s provided ‘ready-made mobilizing structures’[39] to oppose the state. Because of their ties to the regime, Sahwa leaders considered breaking off with it was not beneficial. By late 1992, they had withdrawn their support to the opposition and reverted to their stabilising stance. More broadly, corruption, poor prospects for political reforms, insufficient health and housing services, and unemployment put the government’s resilience at risk. The sheikh al-Awda, former member of the Sahwa reform movement in the 1990s, made the case in 2012 that restraining citizens leads to extremism. By focusing on the socio-economic conditions for unrest, the cleric argues that the monarchy suffers from a legitimacy deficit that is rather independent from its Islamic credentials.[40]

The Saudi regime had to cope with the mounting danger of the jihadi opposition, which expanded throughout the 1990s, notably in Afghanistan. 2001 was a milestone as 9/11 revealed the extremist potential of Saudi nationals and the collapse of the Taliban state prompted al Qaeda to reconsider its strategies towards the Arabian Peninsula. From 2002 onwards, veterans of the Afghan jihad established cells in Saudi Arabia that would become al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). From May 2003 to 2005, the terrorist group managed to carry out an important wave of attacks against the kingdom. The Sahwa’s condemnation of the AQAP and supervision of the youth limited the jihadi group’s ability to recruit within the kingdom.

Individual clerics emerged from within the Saudi society and developed a set of cohesive beliefs supporting jihadi-salafi actions, including those of al-Qaeda.[41]. Much like the Sahwa in the early 1990s, salafi-jihadi clerics opposed foreign troops in the country and engaged in a counter-refutation of the religious justification issued by the Council of Senior Scholars in 1992. They went a step further and broke off completely with the religious establishment. In blunt, ‘within Saudi Arabia, the shaykhs of Jihadi-Salafism provided the ideological justification for violence, and al-Qaeda engaged in the violent acts’.[42] The sheikhs deemed the Saudi regime apostate and called for toppling it. They founded their justification in the Quran, the Sunna, and the consensus among scholars such as Abd al-Wahhab and Ibn Baz.[43] Salafi-jihadi sheikhs question the obedience to the king, its control over the ulama, and make the case for defensive jihad against Jews and Christians alike. In turn, they question the monopoly over the legitimate use of force, claimed by the king.

The salafi-jihadi challenge was all the more threatening to the Saudi legitimacy because of its timing: the death of the Chief Mufti Abd al Aziz Ibn Baz in 1999 and Ibn Uthaymin in 2001 deprived the religious establishment of two prestigious figures[44]. The regime took a number of steps to counter the jihadi threat, from issuing decrees forbidding critiques against the Grand Mufti and the Council of Senior Ulama to the arrest of some prominent salafijihadi leaders in 2003. Since 2002, charity organisations are under public scrutiny so as to prevent terrorist fundings.

Despite the opposition of Islamists, the regime has restricted the implementation of conservative norms and redefined its Islamic legitimacy. In 2013, thirty women were appointed by King Abdullah as members of the Consultative Council. The religious police (mutawwa’) has been restricted in its actions since a 2016 royal decree and is now essentially tasked with reporting offenses, while pursuit and capturing of offenders is left to official authorities.[45] In 2017, a royal decree allowed issuing driving licence to women, with the official approval of the Council of senior ulama.[46] In upholding a new set of values, the regime shifts it social base from the traditional conservative ulama to liberal-Islamists[47], i.e. transforms the backbone of the regime’s religious legitimacy. Crown Prince bin Salman’s pledge to return to ‘moderate’ Islam and equation of the past 30 years religious dominant trend in the country as ‘extremist’[48] confirms the regime’s willingness to reframe its religious legitimacy as more open and inclusive.

While reframing its identity, the regime must tread a fine line between the expectation of new liberal elites and the conservatives. If the position of the regime and official ulama is too divergent from that of more conservative clerics, the ulama may lose its credibility and ability to uphold the royal family’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, the Sahwa remains a powerful actor in Saudi politics and one deeply embedded in society. It won the 2005 municipal elections in the most important Saudi cities. The opposition of the Sahwa to liberalisation of education and society may be enough to constrain the regime in its national politics[49]. Any liberal step too far may imperil the Sahwa’s support for the regime and force the latter to reassert its Islamic legitimacy.

The foundational social bargain with the conservative religious forces has been tilted, as conservative norms are being repelled incrementally. The regime’s ability to silent the opposition from senior ulama shows how religion had to yield to politics in the kingdom, now perhaps more than ever. The regime cannot -neither is willing to- drop its religious legitimacy. Rather, it is carving out a new Islamic legitimacy, based on increased openness and disregard to the Wahhabi interpretation of religion it used to endorse.

 

Conclusion

The regime has managed to uphold its religious legitimacy through politicising religion. It could do so, not because of the quietism of the ulama as argued by Guido Steinberg[50], but thanks to efficient methods of co-optation and its ability to overcome the ulama’s opposition. Religion has been effectively mobilised by the royal family as a instrument for preserving resilience. Yet, religion is a double-edged sword when it comes to legitimacy since the Saudi regime must face challenges by social forces which turned Islamic principles against its actions so as to delegitimise the regime.

Although religion remains very important in the public discourse and is unquestionably a pillar of the regime’s legitimacy, it has lost ground to other principles in the organisation of society, as evidenced by the promotion of a new ‘moderate’ Islamic identity with a lighter footprint and less constraints on society. Thus, the traditional Wahhabi forces that were prominent in the early stages of the Saudi state have gone through a relative decline to the benefit of a new class liberal-Islamists. That is not to say that conservative forces are no longer relevant in Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, the regime cannot depart too widely or promptly from traditional religiously-vetted practices. It is also constrained by the mobilising potential of Islamist forces such as the Sahwa.

A look at the religious forces in the kingdom appears to support the thesis that the ‘absorption’ of the traditional ulama by the state has led to its fading influence. The more tied to the regime, the less able it has been to resist its policies, be they Islamic or not in its opinion. Similarly, those religious forces that enjoy important mobilising potential in the country do so partly because they have more leeway to stick to their Islamic principles than the senior ulama, which have to bend to political imperatives. In that light, the decreased differentiation of the religious and the political spheres have paradoxically led to the relative fading of the religious in the public sphere. Certainly, the pattern of secularisation that I endeavoured to highlight is far from complete secularism. Religion is an important marker of identity at the individual, social and political level. However, the policies of the Saudi regime show that areligious principles are gaining ground.

The Saudi regime has succeeded in maintaining its religious legitimacy over time and overcoming the tension within a religious nation-state because it swayed religion to politics and redefined whatever behaviours were religiously acceptable accordingly. Insomuch as the religious legitimacy of the kingdom has been maintained while religion had to yield to politics and lost some of its influence in the public sphere, one could say that Saudi Arabia exhibits a peculiar case of secularisation, cloaked in the clothes of Islamic legitimacy.

Bibliography

Scholarly works

Al-Atawneh, Muhammad, ‘Is Saudi Arabia a Theocracy? Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia’, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 45, No. 5 (September 2009), pp. 721-737

Al-Sarhan, Saud, ‘The Struggle for Authority, The Shaykhs of Jihadi-Salafism in Saudi Arabia,1997-2003’, in Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer, Stéphane Lacroix (ed.), Saudi Arabia in Transition, Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, Cambridge UP, 2015, pp.181-206

Bligh, Alexander, ‘The Saudi Religious Elite (Ulama) as Participant in the Political System of the Kingdom’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Feb. 1985), pp. 37-50

Chelly, Amélie, Iran, autopsie du chiisme politique, Les éditions du cerf, 2017

Dazi-Héni, Fatiha, Monarchies et sociétés d’Arabie, Le temps des confrontations, Presses de la FNSP, 2006

Filiu, Jean-Pierre, L’Apocalypse dans l’Islam, Fayard, 2008

Gregory Gause III, F. ‘Oil and Political Mobilization in Saudi Arabia’, in Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer, Stéphane Lacroix (ed.), Saudi Arabia in Transition, Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, Cambridge UP, 2015 pp.13-30

Lacroix, Stéphane, ‘Understanding Stability and Dissent in the Kingdom, The Double-Edged Role of the jama’at in Saudi Politics’, in Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer, Stéphane Lacroix (ed.), Saudi Arabia in Transition, Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, Cambridge UP, 2015, pp.167-180

Maisel, Sebastian, ‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’, in Mark Gasiorowski, (ed.) The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, Westview Press, 2014, pp.91-120

Mouline, Nabil, ‘Enforcing and Reinforcing the State’s Islam, The Functioning of the Committee of Senior Scholars’, in Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer, Stéphane Lacroix (ed.), Saudi Arabia in Transition, Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, Cambridge UP, 2015, pp.48-67

Roelants, Carolien, Aarts, Paul, Saudi Arabia, A kingdom in peril, Hurst & Company, 2016

Shahi, Afshin, The Politics of Truth Management in Saudi Arabia, Routledge, 2013

Weber, Max, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Bedminster Press, 1968

Primary sources

Basic Law of Governance, 1992, available at: The embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Washington DC, 2018

‘Muslims should reconsider management of Hajj’, Khamenei.ir, 5 Sept 2016

Press articles

‘A date to mark! Saudi women to start driving in June 2018’, Al Arabiya English, 27 September 2017

Chulov, Martin, ‘I will return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam, says crown prince’, The Guardian, 24 October 2017

Payton, Matt, ‘’Iranians are not Muslims’, says Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti’, Independent, 7 September 2016

‘Saudi cabinet decree prevents ‘religious police’ from pursuit, arrest’, Al Arabiya English, 13 April 2016

[1] Bligh, Alexander, ‘The Saudi Religious Elite (Ulama) as Participant in the Political System of the Kingdom’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Feb. 1985), pp. 37-50, p.40. Despite his use of the concept of theocracy, Bligh recognises that it is comprised of distinct religious and political spheres, the latter having the upper hand in the relationship.

[2] The Wahhabi doctrine dates back to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1793), a religious revivalist who preached a return to the fundamentals of Islam along the lines of the conservative Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. Condemning many traditional ritual practices as heretical, al-Wahhab emphasized the need for a strict return to the doctrine of tawhid (divine unity). The doctrine expanded under the patronage of Muhammad ibn Saud (c.1703/04-1765), founder of the Saudi dynasty, and provided an ideological foundation to the state. See Maisel, Sebastian, ‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’, in Mark Gasiorowski, (ed.) The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, Westview Press, 2014, pp.91-120.

[3] Mouline, Nabil, ‘Enforcing and Reinforcing the State’s Islam, The Functioning of the Committee of Senior Scholars’, in Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer, Stéphane Lacroix (ed.), Saudi Arabia in Transition, Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, Cambridge UP, 2015, pp.48-67, p.48

[4] Basic Law of Governance, 1992, available at: The embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Washington DC, 2018

[5] Bligh, op.cit. p.45

[6] Mouline, op.cit. p.48

[7] For a discussion of the economic challenges to the State’s legitimacy, see Gregory Gause III, F. ‘Oil and Political Mobilization in Saudi Arabia, in Bernard Haykel and al. op.cit. pp.13-30

[8] Weber, Max, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Bedminster Press, 1968

[9] Al-Atawneh, Muhammad, ‘Is Saudi Arabia a Theocracy? Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia’, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 45, No. 5 (September 2009), pp. 721-737, p.726

[10] Controlling the holiest cities of Islam is a symbolic asset on which the Saudi state has relied to enhance its credentials at home and abroad. As the Custodians of the Holy Mosques, Saudi rulers strive to appear as enablers for the performance of the hajj, one of the pillars of the Muslim faith. A. Shahi considers that although there cannot be any single measure of that symbolic resource’s effect on the regime’s actual legitimacy, it endows it with “symbolic capital” which bolsters its claims to a special position in the Muslim world. In Shahi, Afshin, The Politics of Truth Management in Saudi Arabia, Routledge, 2013, pp.82-85. The responsibility for organising the hajj may be a double-edged sword for the regime since failures to secure its performance weakens its legitimacy. Following the 2015 Mecca stampede, Iran relied on the Saudi mismanagement of the hajj to question its Islamic character. See for example: ‘Muslims should reconsider management of Hajj, Khamenei.ir, 5 Sept 2016.

[11] Translated by the author from Chelly, Amélie, Iran, autopsie du chiisme politique, Les éditions du cerf, 2017, p.17

[12] Mouline, op.cit. p.48

[13] Translated by the author from Chelly, loc.cit.

[14] The first Saudi state originates in the conquests of Muhammad ibn Saud who by the late 18th century ruled over nearly all of Najd. The state fell prey to the Ottomans and collapsed in 1818. A second Saudi state was revived in 1824 until it collapsed again in 1887. Emerging in the early 20th century, the third Saudi state entered its current stage when Abd al-Aziz unified the Hijaz and Najd in 1932, establishing the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Maisel, op.cit. pp.91-120

[15] Mouline, op.cit. p.49

[16] ibid, p.67

[17] Al-Sarhan, Saud, ‘The Struggle for Authority, The Shaykhs of Jihadi-Salafism in Saudi Arabia,1997-2003’, in Bernard Haykel and al. op.cit. pp.181-206, p.191

[18] loc. cit.

[19] Mouline, op.cit. p.51

[20] ibid, pp.52-53

[21] ibid. p.57

[22] loc.cit.

[23] Al Sarhan, op.cit. p.190

[24] Mouline, op.cit. pp.59-67

[25] Payton, Matt, ‘’Iranians are not Muslims’, says Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti’, Independent, 7 September 2016

[26] Mouline, op.cit. p.57

[27] The Saudi rejectionist trend focused on ritual practices and actively rejected the Saudi state institutions. In Lacroix, Stéphane, ‘Understanding Stability and Dissent in the Kingdom, The Double-Edged Role of the jama’at in Saudi Politics’, in Bernard Haykel and al. op.cit. pp.167-180, p.173

[28] Roelants, Carolien, Aarts, Paul, Saudi Arabia, A kingdom in peril, Hurst & Company, 2016, p.16

[29] Filiu, Jean-Pierre, L’Apocalypse dans l’Islam, Fayard, 2008, p.116

[30] Mouline, op.cit. p.63

[31] Roelants, Aarts, loc.cit.

[32] Lacroix, op.cit. p.167

[33] ibid, p.169

[34] ibid, p.170

[35] ibid, p.172

[36] ibid, pp.172-173

[37] loc.cit.

[38] Phrase coined by Guilain Denoeux. In Lacroix, ibid, p.168

[39] ibid, p.176

[40] Roelants, Aarts, op.cit. p.23

[41] The three most prominent figures of that movement have been al-Shu’aybi, al-Fahd, and al-Khudayr, coined the ‘shaykhs of Jihadi-Salafism’ by Saud Al-Sahran. Al-Sahran, op.cit. p.181

[42] ibid, p.190

[43] ibid, p.189

[44] ibid, p.205

[45] ‘Saudi cabinet decree prevents ‘religious police’ from pursuit, arrest’, Al Arabiya English, 13 April 2016

[46] ‘A date to mark! Saudi women to start driving in June 2018’, Al Arabiya English, 27 September 2017

[47] Phrase coined by Lacroix. In Dazi-Héni, Fatiha, Monarchies et sociétés d’Arabie, Le temps des confrontations, Presses de la FNSP, 2006, p.115

[48] Chulov, Martin, ‘I will return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam, says crown prince’, The Guardian, 24 October 2017

[49] Lacroix, op.cit. p.180

[50] Argument cited in Dazi-Héni, op.cit. p.86

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