Saudi Arabia wants to improve Image; Here’s How

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Saudi Arabia is alleged to be hiring a PR firm to improve its tattered image in the West .

As usual, such a campaign confuses substance with fluff and the money will be wasted.

I am sympathetic to Saudi feelings that they get an unfair rap. In my Engaging the Muslim World I argued that it is wrong to confuse the Wahhabi form of Islam that the Saudi regime favors with terrorism. The kingdom is pragmatic, and supported the secular nationalist regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, for instance. It is not that I agree with almost any Saudi policy, I am just trying to be even-handed.

The Saudis were not involved in 9/11, despite the desperate arguments of the lawyers of the 9/11 victims. The Saudis are innocent but have a lot of money, so it is profitable to railroad them. Saudi Arabia is heavily invested in US stocks and companies, and it was foreseeable that 9/11 would harm those investments pretty badly.

Al-Qaeda did it, not the the Al Saud. Bin Laden had been kicked out and deprived of his citizenship, and was plotting to overthrow the royal family.

Moreover, at least publicly, the Saudis under King Abdullah were against the Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq.

But since Crown Prince Muhammad b. Salman has emerged as the power behind the throne, the kingdom has been flexing its muscles and engaging in an astonishing adventurism that has roiled the region. But the heir apparent is young and inexperienced, and the kingdom has no checks or balances. It is not too late to step back from the brink.

So here are 7 policies the Saudi government can change if it wants a more positive image in the US press.

1. They have to end their savage and fruitless war on poor little Yemen, which has been bombed intensively by Saudi Arabia and its allies. The war has caused 600,000 cholera cases and 2000 cholera deaths, not to mention the people who have died being pummeled from the sky.

2. They have to give up on overthrowing the government of Bashar al-Assad of Syria and recognize that Salafism (the Sunni version of Wahhabism) wouldn’t work in Syria. There are too many powerful religious communities, from the Alawites to the Christians to Druze that just would not accept a Salafi state, and nor would most Sunni Syrians. Now that Russia has come in strongly to back al-Assad, funding anti-Assad hard line rebels will just prolong the country’s agony. Syria is resource-poor and poses no threat to Saudi Arabia. Let it go.

3. They should cease their effort to force Qatar to fall in line behind Riyadh. A divided Gulf Cooperation Council is a laughingstock, and it is highly unlikely that mere talking will resolve this one.

4. They should seek a diplomatic resolution of the stand-off with Iran. Actually if they stopped bombing Yemen and made peace with Syria, there wouldn’t be much reason to demonize Iran.

5. They should license churches for their Christian guest workers, the way Qatar has. There isn’t any reason in Muslim law that Christians can’t worship in the Arabian Peninsula. The Qur’an deplores interfering with or destroying churches and other houses of worship (The Cow 2:114).

6. Stop pushing climate change denialism. Petroleum is done; put a fork in it. The crown prince realizes that the kingdom has to move away from petroleum to fund its government. But guess what. The Empty Quarter would be perfect for a huge solar farm.

7. Let women drive.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Aljazeera English: “Air strikes by Saudi-led coalition in Yemen kill more than 40”

25 Responses

  1. You are absolutely right to point out that the Saudi regime is not the same as extreme Wahhabi ideology. However, I believe it is true to point out that the regime uses Wahhabi radicalism in order to advance its political goals. After the attack by Juhayman al-Otaybi’s gang on the Grand Mosque in Mecca with between 200-300 armed supporters on November 20, 1979, it seems that the Saudi rulers decided to co-opt Wahhabi radicals rather than crush them. The stream of truly disgusting anti-Shi’a and anti-infidel hate speech that is coming from Saudi clerics and broadcast from various Saudi media is appalling and it is in no way matched by anti-Sunni propaganda by Iran.

    Saudi Arabia has also been responsible for funding hundreds of mosques and madrassas throughout the Middle East, Pakistan, the East Asia and even in Europe that have been spreading extreme religious fanaticism and have been responsible for radicalizing many would be terrorists. According to a WikiLeaks release, Hillary Clinton said that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] in Pakistan.”

    I believe the State Department was right to point out that “While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority…” link to

    Another WikiLeaks file quoted from a speech by Hillary Clinton in 2013 when she said: “The Saudis and others are shipping large amounts of weapons – and pretty indiscriminately – not at all targeted towards the people that we think would be more moderate, least likely, to cause problems in the future.” On August 17 2014, she said: “…we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

    I believe that one can add another policy to your excellent list of seven policies, namely “If Saudi Arabia wishes to be taken seriously as a modern state it should clamp down on radical religious preachers and should cut the link between religion and politics in the kingdom.” This advice should also be heeded by the clerics in Tehran.

  2. All good points Prof. Cole, but something tells me Saudi Arabia will not be willing to follow that path. It is up to Saudi Arabia to take the lead and bring unity to the Islamic world, and accept other branches/denominations of the religion, especially the Shiites, which will mean making peace with Iran, but that would make their BFF Israel unhappy. I would say changing their terrible image is simply a ploy, an eyewash, they can afford the top PR firms around the world to help them, make a show of reforming, but are they truly able to put their differences aside, and unite the Muslims under one umbrella, stop the war mongering, and trying to influence Muslims in other nations to follow Wahhabism? You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. If only they followed your advice, the Islamic world will be better served.

  3. Thank you, Juan, much to think about. I doubt you will be top of the bestseller list in Riyadh.

  4. “I am sympathetic to Saudi feelings that they get an unfair rap.”

    For their war crimes in Yemen alone, one could argue that the Saudi regime is worthy of extremely severe criticism that would negate any argument of the Saudi regime presents about an unfairly tarnished image. Few states on our planet are engaging in their level of belligerence that results in the deaths of a large number of innocents. Obviously, one can distinguish between Saudi civilians and the Saudi government. Many Saudi civilians likely support their regimes policies in Yemen, Syria and domestically, and many likely do not. As the Saudi regime is an absolute monarchy, there is no mechanism for Saudi civilians to express their disapproval.

    Let us recap your seven points. In points 1 and 2, the Saudi government is committing war crimes, and is abetted by our government (United States). Point 3 also is problematic from an international law perspective: members of the WTO are prohibited from unilaterally imposing sanctions and blockades of other members. Point 4: with regards to a stand-off with Iran, it appears MbS is walking back some of his earlier belligerent rhetoric, and appears to want to negotiate with Iran to stop the ongoing Saudi-created mess in Yemen and Syria. It’s about time too–at this stage, they are only hurting themselves and everyone else in the Near East. All of their policies with regards to Iran are extremely costly and foolish. If they were actually gaining anything from their belligerence against Iran, one could perhaps understand their actions. They aren’t gaining anything. Point 5: They are again acting in contravention of international law. The Universal Declaration of Human rights has a section on freedom of religion. Point 6: Just sheer idiocy (shared of course with the Trump administration)… Point 7: This is extremely important. It is a form of gender apartheid, and is against international law. They are perhaps the only geographic entity to inflict gender apartheid on its citizenry.

    The only three criticisms that are not featured in this extensive list of criticisms against the Saudi regime are (1) the brutal oppression of minorities (Bedouin, Sufis, and Shias), (2) the brutal oppression of overseas workers (largely from the sub-continent), and (3) the Saudi form of governance (absolute monarchy).

    • the saudis got the bad rap 15 years ago, too, when they weren’t doing most of those things.

      Iran is also guilty of war crimes of some magnitude, in Syria.

      • Iranian war crimes in Syria cannot provide cover for Saudi war crimes in Syria. If these war crimes were brought to the ICC, such an argument could not be brought before the court. Iranian war crimes are judicially a separate issue.

        15 years ago, Saudi Arabia was just as regressive from a legal perspective with regards to women’s rights. Domestically, they were every bit as regressive to their migrant population. With regards to foreign policy, today Saudi Arabia supports terrorist outfits, namely Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, that have committed pogroms in Syria and Iraq.

        Even if one suggests 15 years ago, Saudi Arabia was not fully deserving of their bad rap, today, they are fully deserving of strong condemnation. Today, they are likely one of the most regressive regimes on our planet.

  5. People, and governments even more, invest hugely in their personal stories and legitimacy-enhancing mythes. That investment is even more critical when the substance of their histories are so painfully thin on any real, sustaining legitimacy. Saudi Arabia and Israel are great cases in point.

    On the one hand, Saudi Arabia has read the writing on the wall and would be the first to agree to the need to adapt economically, and they now have any number of initiatives underway to do so. But expecting them to give up some of their more deep-seated biases and counterproductive premises, that go to the heart of their self-image, is expecting a lot.

    Along this same line of thinking, Naomi Klein just did an excellent piece at the intercept. It insightfully chalks up the underlying denialism of Climate Change (and a number of other intransigent problems) by the Usual Suspects, to their brain-free investment in free-market ideology.

    link to

    It’s a great piece, along with much of her more recent writing, because she transcends her earlier polemics and here puts her finger on one of of the true drivers behind the backwardness that so frustrates the rational world in the face of a very real problem that can only be addressed by objective science.

    In the case of CC denialists and the KSA, there is another factor, however, that may be more critical. That would be sheer, rank, short-sighted, animalistic greed. In my salad days I spent untold hours with smart, aggressive characters on the make, whose ideology was the dollar and whose MO was legal manipulation to set-up no-risk killings.

    It’s important to recognize what few distinctions there really are between impulsive thievery and the more patient and well-educated variety. Relying on good PR may seem shallow, and it is, but it can also be damned powerful if well handled. Michael Corleone made the transition he promised and is now personified by the likes of Jamie Diamond, obviously pulling the strings of people like Hillary Clinton, as well as those of folks like Paul Ryan, with their childish adoration of Ayn Rand’s half-baked “philosophy”.

    It’s this whole, glib, easy-to-swallow line about the Invisible Hand and a “free” market that never was and never will be, that has had such a pernicious impact on the world, particularly in the last 30-odd years.

    True Believers like Paul Ryan really are just children, carrying water for the agenda of the above opportunists. My point is that those with real power know better, as demonstrated by their manipulation of putative “free market” forces.

    Nothing short of a revolution will result in any real change, and the transparency of Trump’s corruptness may inadvertently be setting the stage for it. Aside from more active measures, one can only hope; and do their best to see things for what they really are.

  6. Good list, Juan. Maybe the Saudis will follow up on one or two of the items in the no-too distant future, but almost certainly not all of them.

    Just a point on this ongoing problem of how to characterize the relationship between Salafism and Wahhabism, which I have commented on here before. I think it is not accurate to call Salafism, “the Sunni version of Wahhabism.” This simplies that Wahhabism is not Sunni, but it is, a very specific form of Sunnism. Again, the fundamental demand of Wahhabism from the 1740s on in KSA is that the Shari’a law code that a nation adopts should be that of the strict Hanbali Sunni code. The Salafis do not make that demand, with the other three acceptable, namely Hanafi, Melki, and Shafi. The Salafis originated in Egypt and Cyrenaica in the 19th century initially as a liberalizing movement, but have become more traditionalist/fundamentalist more recently. Part of the issue of confusion between them and Wahhabis is that many Egyptian Salafis fled to KSA under Nasser and became high school teachers there. That has led to some convergence of their views and some of the ongoing confusion, with many inaccurately simply equating the two. Also, some say that Wahhabism is a branch of Salafism, but that is only true under an expanded definition of what Salafism is.

    • Wahhabism is not Sunnism and no one in the Gulf thinks it is. The differences are too numerous to count, from takfir at the drop of a hat, to rejection of the need to follow one of the four madhhabs, to having rejection of innovation be the default regardless of utility. Ibn `Abdu’l-Wahhab threw all the Sunnis out of Islam and Wahhabis excommunicated the head of the faith, the Ottoman sultan. Only once they got rich from oil did Wahhabis begin claiming to be Hanbalis and hence seeking admission to the club. But declaring yourself a Wahhabi in Egypt is still unacceptable, so people with that tendency say they are Salafis, a term they stole from liberal reformers like Muhammad `Abduh.

    • In the past, all Sunni sects regarded Jews and Christians as the “People of the Book”, while Wahhabi ideology describes them as Kafir or infidels. As early as 1959, Shaikh Mahmood Shaltoot, he head of the renowned al-Azhar Theological school in Egypt, in a fatwa wrote: “The Ja’fari school of thought, which is also known as ‘al-Shia al- Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah’ (i.e., The Twelver Imami Shi’ites) is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of thought.” The Wahhabis regard the Shi’is as heretics.

      Wahhabism as it is practised these days by the Saudis has very little to do with Islam or other Sunni denominations. Only yesterday the Human Rights Watch in a statement showed the extent of hostility towards other religions by Saudi authorities and educational system.
      link to

      • The situation is strange though. Every now and again, Wahhabi issue statements demonizing Shias. If Saudi Arabia considers them to be heretics, how is it possible for Iranians and Shias from other countries to attend Hajj and Umrah? Not to mention the 15% of Saudi Arabia that is also Shia.

  7. Juan- you should add another item to the list-
    8. Stop proselytizing around the world- cease funding construction of mosques and madrassas, and staffing them with extremists and fundamentalist preachers. It gives Islam a bad name.

  8. I was wondering when you would get to “women driving”. that actually should be the first thing they did. the average person around the world frequently only knows one thing about Saudi Arabian life and that is women aren’t allowed to drive. Change that and there will at least appear to have joined the last century. This is a first world country operating in the middle ages. they need to get with the agenda and loosen up a bit. Get with the agenda on such things as international aid. As millions of Muslims flee to Europe, what has Saudi Arabia actually done to help?? Not much that I’ve read about. Now its true I rely on the MSM, but. . they aren’t known as a generous country.

  9. But Juan, the Hanbali code is a Sunni code. The Wahhabi Saudis view themselves as leading all the Sunnis against the Iranian Shia. They are certainly not Shia nor Idabi nor the various odd subsects of Shia that many Muslims do not accept as being Muslim, and so on. I completely agree that they considered all other Sunnis besides themselves not to be proper Muslims. But they have always considered themselves to be Sunnis, the one true and pure brand of Sunni Islam.

    • Yes, I am saying that the assertion that they are actually Hanbalis and a form of Sunni is recent, and is political. They have not always considered themselves Sunnis. Read ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In the Gulf you hear people talking about Wahhabis vs. Sunnis.

  10. It may be worth reviewing the basic history of these Sunni codes just to get this a bit clearer, and I accept that Juan or others may correct me if I am wrong. Anyway, the Hanafi is the mainstream one that was used by the ruling caliphates: Ummayyad, Abbasid, and later the Ottoman. It is widely viewed as the “most liberal,” although that is a matter of interpretation. It tended to accept more Hadith than the others and also allowed until this stopped around 1000 CE reasoning as well as an accumulation of judicial precedent. It persists in the central core of the Muslim world.

    The Melki and Shafi developed as variations on the dominant Hanafi during the Abbasid period, each emphasizing that certain parts of the Hanafi were not to be allowed, either some of the Hadith or parts of the reasoning (ijtihad) or precedents. Today, one finds many nations in North Africa using Melki codes while Shafi is more in Southeast Asia, although this is complicated.

    The Hanbali was the last to develop and was/is the strictest and most puritanical and least widespread. It allowed only the Qur’an and a very narrow set of Hadith to be used for the shari’a, with pretty much all of the reasoning and precedents rejected. Thus it is not surprising that as Juan has noted those wanting to impose the Hanbali code such as Abdul-Wahhab rejected followers of the other codes as impure and unacceptable Muslims.

    Ironically, the only nation that I am aware of besides Saudi Arabia that uses the Hanbali code is Qatar. But they use a more liberal interpretation of it than do the Saudis, which is another reason for the fierce competition between the two royal families and nations, although I think that maybe the Taliban imposed it when they ruled Afghanistan, something I suspect Juan knows the answer to,.

  11. Seems to me their past strategy of spending tens of billions of dollars on arms sales to stop Western criticism of their appalling record has worked out pretty well so far.

  12. Juan,

    I am willing to grant at least some of your points, although all of this is very complicated with lots of disagreements out there among various sources. There are some who distinguish “Wahhabi” and “Sunni,” but the vast majority view the Wahhabis as a sect of Sunnis, who are also may be a sub-sect of “traditionalist Salafism.” It is certainly clear that Abdel Wahhab viewed other Mjuslims who did not follow his teachings as not being proper Muslims and thus worthy of being killed if they did not convert, this idea being used by his allies among al Saud to justify their conquests in the Nejd and slaughters n various places, including Karbala (that city mostly Shia).

    I also grant that he did not specifically call for imposition of the Hanbali code per se, something I have erroneously said in many places and in print. He did his own thing, especially focusing on following Hadith and opposing worship of tombs and saints and such things. However, his family had long been followers of Hanbali ideas, especially his influential grandfather. It does seem that when later Wahhabis did go for adopting the Hanbali code they tended to emphasize ibn Tamiyyah, Hanbal’s student, more than ibn Hanbal’s teachings themselves. I am not clear on exactly when the Hanbali code became official in Saudi Arabia, but it would appear that certainly by the time of Abdulaziz this was the case (or not too long into his rule).

    Part of the problem here is that the Wahhabis do not like being called that, with the current Saudi king apparently especially opposed to the use of the term. They prefer Muwahuddin, usually translated hilariously as “Unitarians,” although nobody but they call them that. But they seem more willing to be called “Salafis” than “Wahhabis,” which has probably encouraged the trend to people confusing the two.

    • We can call them Muwahhidun or Unitarians. The name does not matter.

      An essential tenet of Sunnism is that you have to belong to one of the 4 madhhabs or legal rites. Ibn `Abd al-Wahhab rejected that. Another is that you have to accept other Sunnis as Muslims if they say they are, even if they lead a dissolute lifestyle. Ibn `Abd al-Wahhab rejected this. Not Sunni.

      I don’t deny that Wahhabis have become accepted by many as a kind of Sunni in the past 40 years or so, but that has to do with the influence of oil money. But this is a relatively new wrinkle in history. Rashid Rida, no liberal, did not see them as Sunnis in the 1920s.

  13. Juan,

    I am going to post on this on Econospeak more fully shortly, and this will be my last comment here.

    Rashid Rida is generally viewed as one of the founders of Salafism, so, well…

    As for this key matter about Sunnism, I think you are barking up a not very useful tree on that one. Sure, this annoyed Sunni here or there wants to separate themselves from the super-strict Wahhabis in KSA, but the hard fact is that right now the very annoying Saudi monarchy is playing the game of leading the Sunnis against the Shia in a worldwide war. That this is really a power game against the non-Arab Iranian Shia in a local power competition phonily blown up into a supposed a global theocratic war is a bunch of baloney and garbage does not matter. It is what most people believe and accept. I know that you and I agree that this silly conflict should not be supported by the US, whatever we think about whether or not the Saudis are really Sunnis or not.

    • The word Salafi has two meanings. 1) is late 19th and early 20th century liberal Sunni reformers– Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and (a little more conservative) Rashid Rida. Abduh allowed bank interest and sharing meals with Christians and was against veiling.

      2) is late twentieth century Sunni fundamentalists who adopt Saudi Wahhabi practices into their Sunnism in places like Egypt. The two kinds of “Salafi” could not be more different.

  14. I know I said my previous post would be my last, but… I agree that current Salafism looks very different from late 19th century Salafism. But it appears that they are historically linked, with al Banna who founded the Egyptian Ikhwan and al Qutb back in the 1920s being students of those earlier Salafists, and with them moving it more in the direction of a conservative traditionalism, with this being more aggravated when King Faisal invited many of them into Saudi Arabia in 1962, forming the Muslim League, and promulgating a form of “pan-Islamist Salafism” that converged substantially on Wahhabism. (I discuss some of this in the post I have put up on this on Econospeak.)

    • No, it is the appropriation of the term Salafi by people not originally connected to the liberal movement. I am not aware that al-Banna called himself a Salafi. Muslim Brothers were distinct from Salafis until the 1990s when some proportion of the movement so designated themselves, and then split off.

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