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Doran: Anti-Americanism Fanned by Saudi Conservatives

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Michael Doran, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
February 5, 2004


Michael Scott Doran, assistant professor at Princeton University and an expert on Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, warns that Saudi Arabia is torn between friendship and enmity with the United States. He says that the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the liberation of Iraq’s large Shiite population have put pressure on Saudi Arabia, whose Shiite minority is pressing for religious freedom.

Doran, an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the sharp divisions between liberals led by Crown Prince Abdullah and the conservative clerics supported by Interior Minister Prince Nayef have worsened anti-Americanism in the kingdom. The conservatives, he says, “are keeping alive a level of anti-Americanism tied to radical Islam that we should be deeply concerned about.”

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor at, on February 5, 2004.

You’ve published an excellent article on Saudi Arabia in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Is Saudi Arabia a friend or a foe of the United States right now?

It is both. [As in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship,] we’re very closely tied for a lot of economic and strategic reasons. We have a long history of friendship with the Saudis and Pakistanis. But there are aspects of the politics of these countries that are very disturbing for American interests.

For example?

Saudi Arabia has a long history of supporting radical Islam. And since September 11, when so many of the hijackers were Saudis, we have a concern about that, obviously. And there are internal conflicts in Saudi Arabia where radical Islamic forces and groups ideologically sympathetic to radical Islam are attacking their domestic Saudi rivals and, in doing so, are accusing them of being agents of the Americans and so forth. They are keeping alive a level of anti-Americanism tied to radical Islam that we should be deeply concerned about.

You say in your article that there are two major factions struggling for pre-eminence in Saudi Arabia. The more liberal side is symbolized by Crown Prince Abdullah; Prince Nayef, the head of the interior ministry, symbolizes the more restrictive or conservative side.

The big dividing line in Saudi politics is over the question: should the political and educational role of the clerics be reduced? Crown Prince Abdullah has overseen something called the national dialogue, in which he has brought together with some clerics a number of liberals, secularists, Sufis, and Shiites, whose voices are absolutely illegitimate in the existing system. He’s trying to raise the possibility of altering the system to give voice to non-Wahhabis [followers of the state-endorsed form of Sunni Islam]. There is a very serious outcry from the clerical right about this. There are many indications that Prince Nayef is more sympathetic to the clerics than to the liberals clustered around Crown Prince Abdullah.

Why can’t Abdullah just remove his brother?

They are only half-brothers. King Fahd [the nominal head of state] is incapacitated. Abdullah may be the crown prince, but there is no center to this system. There are a lot of competing fiefdoms. In the article, I divided it between Abdullah and Nayef, but, in actual fact, there is a third prince as well. That’s Sultan, the defense minister, who shares top billing with Nayef and Crown Prince Abdullah. Nayef and Sultan are full brothers. Some people say that makes a big difference. I don’t have any evidence one way or the other. A good working assumption is that Sultan and Nayef are closer to each other than they are to the crown prince.

But haven’t the Saudis recently cracked down on the extremists?

People in the United States who are supporters of the Saudis say that the reform movement is moving ahead at full speed, and they point to the fact that since last May, Nayef has been cooperating closely with the Americans on security and is cracking down heavily on the extremists inside Saudi Arabia. It’s true that he’s cracking down on those who plant bombs on Saudi soil. But at the same time, in terms of these internal divisions, it’s not true that he’s willing to take on the conservative clerics.

Talk about the role of women. In today’s issue of Arab News there is an article about a goal to create 20,000 more jobs for Saudi women in coming years. Is there a genuine effort to open society more to women?

There is a fault line I mentioned between the clerics and the liberals, or the non-religious reformers. There are several flash points along that fault line. One of them is curriculum change. We have been pushing the Saudis to change their curriculum to remove from school textbooks things that say Christians and Jews are in eternal hostility to Islam. Another issue is women. That’s a major fault line. At an economic forum in Jeddah recently, a woman gave a talk and her veil slipped off, and the Grand Mufti attacked her later and said the root of all evil is the mixing of the sexes.

It is the same story with the reform movement. There are people who very much want to move ahead with some kind of liberalization on the women’s issue, give women the right to drive, and so forth. But the clerics have drawn a line in the sand and said that this is a non-starter.

Women are educated separately from men, right?

Yes. In all these societies, there is what is officially permissible and what happens. There are all kinds of ways in which people get around the official restrictions. But the official restrictions are there and they are important and there are people who are guarding them.

Another part of the problem that most Americans are not aware of is the Shiite issue. I did not realize that Shiites were considered by the ruling conservative clerics to be on the same level as Jews and Christians. How many Shiites live in Saudi Arabia?

The most difficult thing in the Middle East is to get reliable census numbers. Ten percent is a good consensus guess.

And where do they live, in the oil regions of the east?

There are two major groups. There are the [so-called] twelver Shiites, sort of mainstream Shiites, and they live in the Eastern Province. They recognize twelve imams. There are two major groups of Shiites, twelvers and seveners. The Ismailies are seveners, and along the border with Yemen is a region called Nadran and there are between 500,000 and 750,000 Ismailies there.

You know, God likes to put minorities in strategically sensitive positions. So he put the Shiites on top of the oil in the Eastern Province and then he put the Ismailies down there on Nadran, right on the border with Yemen. That is a border that has long been contested between the Saudis and the Yemenis. It’s an uncomfortable position for a minority to be in anyway, but it is made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that Wahhabism, which is very hostile to Shiism in general, is exceptionally hostile to Ismailies.

Can Shiites work in the oil fields?

Sure, but the Saudis quietly restrict the numbers of Shiites who work for the oil industry. Shiites can participate in many areas of Saudi life. They can be teachers in schools and universities, where they can teach subjects like economics, but they cannot openly manifest their Shiism. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime last April, the Shiites of Saudi Arabia petitioned the crown prince and asked for equal rights for freedom of religion. There is absolutely no freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince accepted the petition. Now, he did not do it publicly. He did it in a private meeting. But it was publicized outside of Saudi Arabia in the London Arabic press. Everyone in Saudi Arabia knows that it happened. The Shiites in Saudi Arabia looked at their counterparts in Iraq and they said, “How come we can’t have it better over here?” That has led to a rise in tension between the Sunnis and the Shiites. The right wing, those who support the conservative clerics along that fault line I mentioned, are depicting the struggle as not just Islam versus the Christianity and Judaism of America and Israel, but Christianity and Judaism aligned with Shiism.

So for instance, 156 clerics on January 4, 2004, signed a petition against changing the curriculum. This shows the ideology of the right in Saudi Arabia. They protest the curriculum changes that have already taken place, removing aspects offensive to Americans and non-Wahhabis, and call for no more changes to the curriculum. They depicted those changes as the work of the Shiites. This is also, by the way, the rhetoric of al Qaeda—the Shiites are working hand in glove with the so-called crusaders and Zionists. You get exactly the same rhetoric from non-Qaeda clerics, people that we would call Saudi moderates.

So the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq is viewed with mixed emotions in Saudi Arabia?

Absolutely. It is very important to consider attitudes in Saudi Arabia in general toward Saddam, but also within the radical Islamist movement. It was often said before the war that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein could never cooperate because Saddam was a tyrant and apostate, just like the other leaders in the Muslim world. But if you go into the chat rooms on web sites devoted to radical Islam, they are fascinating. They do not agree. The feeling is, “he was a bastard, but he was our bastard.” He was playing a role as a buffer between the Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and the Shiites in Iraq. He was also keeping the Shiites down in Iraq. Now, some of them say it is good that he is gone because he was no good to Islam. Others say, no, no, he was on his way to becoming a good Muslim. Others try to split the difference and say he was basically no good, but did a couple of good things, like the war against [Shiite] Iran.

In other words, Shiism is a major factor in Saudi Arabia.

It is absolutely huge. It is completely underestimated [in the West]. And it is the elephant in the living room, as it relates to the Saudi reform movement. Because, if you have serious reform in Saudi Arabia— and I mean some kind of government accountability to society and some kind of regularized means, elections, for example, to ensure that accountability— then you have a system that will allow society to express itself. That means, if it is anything approaching one man, one vote, then in the Eastern Province you are going to have Shiites in government. And they will be expressing the interests of Shiism and of the Eastern Province. In the current system that is wholly unthinkable. Even the most moderate Saudi cleric believes there is absolute incompatibility between Sunni Islam and Shiism. There is already a huge gulf there.

So President Bush makes a speech on democracy in the Middle East, citing Saudi Arabia as a country that should move in that direction, but democracy seems an awfully long way down the road.

The obstacles to democracy are huge. It’s not clear that we’re going to want to confront them because we’re going to have to confront the problem of stability versus reform. With Saudi Arabia playing the role of the swing oil producer, there are always going to be those who say, “Stability over anything else.”

Then we are going to find ourselves with the status quo, which is objectionable for a number of reasons.

Bottom line: what does the United States want to see happen in Saudi Arabia that would promote American interests?

I don’t think the United States knows exactly what it wants. It definitely wanted a crackdown on the extremists, and it is getting that. I would say we want serious reform. If President Bush’s speech on democratization means anything, then we have to have some kind of Islamic pluralism in Saudi Arabia. Obviously, ideally, we would like to have democracy in Saudi Arabia. That should be our long-term goal. But you can’t get there if you don’t have Islamic pluralism. You have to break up the monopoly that the Wahhabis have on legitimate political discourse.

Now, in Iraq, of course, there will be Islamic pluralism, with some kind of elections. Is that going to have much of an impact on Saudi Arabia?

I think it will. I think that already, the rise of the anti-Shiite rhetoric that you see in Saudi Arabia is a direct result of Iraq. And so, it is going to increase the pressure and the sense that some kind of reform and democratization is absolutely essential for the Saudis.

The Saudis also have this other problem. There are factors in Saudi Arabia that are generating the reform: the high unemployment rate, the economic crisis, the rise in extremism— all of these things are making people think that they really need to change their political system in some way. So the signs of forward motion in Iraq, assuming all hell doesn’t break out, and the internal crisis in Saudi Arabia are going to generate the sense that something has to happen.

That’s how I read the crown prince’s national dialogue. He is bringing all these people together to see if he can kind of cobble together a consensus about some changes in the government in order to create more glue between state and society. The problem is that the groups he is bringing together have absolutely incompatible goals.