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Feature Article

The Legacy of 1979: Religious Fundamentalism and the Royal Family (Part I)

For two weeks in November 1979, a ragged band of religious fanatics held Makkah's Grand Mosque, sending shock waves through the Islamic world and posing a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Al Saud. For how could kings who styled themselves 'Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques' be entrusted with dynastic rule, when they could not guarantee the safety of this most holy of places?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

"We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars, there were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, women worked everywhere. We were normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979." Those were the words of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), in March 2018, with his first appearance on American television. In the "60 minutes" interview, he reflected on the 1970's, a time when, despite the Kingdom's aversion to western and secular values, society was undergoing a rapid transformation. His characterization of the era is something of an exaggeration - opportunities for women were still severely limited by a family structure of deeply entrenched traditionalism, any cinemas that did exist were rudimentary affairs playing to a limited audience, and while women in the more liberal city of Jiddah may have felt comfortable at the beach in bathing suits, uncovered, that did not reflect the reality most enjoyed - but it does point out the sharp contrast between the social strictures commonplace today and the more open, progressive and tolerant culture which was evolving before an austere strain of religious fundamentalism re-emerged with newfound vigor. That fundamental break occurred in 1979.

Secular changes sweeping the region in the 1970's, fueled in large measure by the rapid influx of oil money into the newly-rich Kingdom, began to alienate those who decried the increased consumerism, in particular, as a degeneration of social and religious values. So-called "Salafi" groups, part of a wider movement of social and religious conservatism reacting against modernity, were seeing their leadership taken over by younger members who proposed more radical measures to roll back social reforms. One of these was an association called al-Jama'a al-Salafiya al-Muhtasiba (JSM) which condemned what it perceived as the degeneration of social and religious values in Saudi.

JSM was the successor of a Bedouin movement by the name of Ikhwan-men-taa-Allah, which at one time had supported Ibn Saud, the Kingdom's founder, in his quest to unite the disparate tribes, but had become disenchanted with his deals with Western powers, and his mission to pull the country into the modern age, even before oil wealth was to transform it even more. Ibn Saud eventually crushed the Ikhwan, after their demands spun out of control, but the rapid modernization of the Kingdom, and its adoption of new technological advances, particularly in daily life and entertainment, still infuriated a new generation decades later.

One of the movement's new leaders was a disaffected former corporal in the armed forces named Juhayman al-Utaybi (his grandfather was Sultan bin Bajad bin Hamid al-Utaybi, who led the Ikhwan rebellion in the late 1920's, in which his father also took part). Despite a lack of religious credentials and limited understanding of the Qur'an, al-Utaybi's charisma and radical ideas began to attract an enthusiastic band of followers, whose extremism (they opposed even the greatest of Salafist scholars such as Abd al-Aziz bin Baz) did not escape the attention of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), then led by Turki al-Faysal.

Turki's strategy of engagement, which involved visits by scholars to persuade and educate, failed, as al-Utaybi's vision took an apocalyptic turn. He began to speak of the coming of the Mahdi, or divinely guided one, which, according to some interpretations of the Hadith (traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) is a man endowed with extraordinary powers, who will usher in an era of justice and true belief. As per this tradition, a person referred to as "Mujaddid" appears at the turn of each (Islamic) century to revive the faith and restore it to its pristine glory. al-Utaybi declared a quiet young preacher named Muhammad bin Abdallah al-Qahtani as the Mahdi, then hatched a brazen plan.

Related articles: Royal Family Domestic Politics in the Modern Era: Co-optation, Rebellion and Dissent (Part I)
Royal Family Domestic Politics in the Modern Era: Co-optation, Rebellion and Dissent (Part II)
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Page 2: losing the battle but winning the war?
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Past Feature Articles
The Premier League Prince: Status Symbol or Image Laundering?

The acquisition of a long-suffering Premier League football club by Saudi's sovereign wealth fund has renewed charges of "sports-washing" its negative international image. But is the yearning for a high profile sports team more than a simple distraction from trouble at home?

Spectacles in the Desert: Sports-washing or Catalyst for Change?

All eyes are on Saudi Arabia as the country prepares to host its inaugural Formula One race in Jiddah, the latest in a series of high-profile sporting events that have shattered the commonly-held image of an austere and reclusive kingdom which shuns the corrupting influence of the West. At the same time, these spectacles have become embroiled in controversy, with concern that they are being used to divert attention from human rights abuses at home, in a phenomenon that has been termed "sports-washing". Is the use of sports and entertainment merely a cynical public relations ploy, or is there more than meets the eye?

The Taliban and Royal Support: a Change in Outlook?

Saudi Arabia's nearly complete silence in the wake of the rapid and astonishing collapse of the Afghanistan government is remarkable, given that the Kingdom was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban's control of the country before the 2001 US invasion. Further, the royal family has had controversial dealings with the Taliban and the al-Qa'ida leaders they sheltered in the past, and their involvement with the group is still a matter of ongoing contention. Yet, in light of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's efforts to moderate religious hardliners at home, would the Saudis now prefer to keep a Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan at arm's length?

Changing Dynamics: Family Enterprise or One-Man Rule?

While Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman dominates the headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that two of his brothers, Abd al-Aziz and Khalid, are both highly accomplished in their own right. But to what extent do their policies and views reflect the influence of the powerful heir to the throne, or indeed, the king?

From Washington to Paris: Changing Times or Business as Usual?

As the Kingdom's deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is entertained in Washington, another royal is under fire in France for allegedly enslaving his maids, bringing to mind the notorious affair of Princess Hussa bint Salman, the sister of Khalid, who was accused of threatening to murder a contractor working at her Paris apartment. With talk of a "fundamental" transformation of Saudi society, it is an open question whether real change is afoot, or whether it is a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."