Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Georgetown's CCAS Celebrates Saudi Arabia's Centennial

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Georgetown's CCAS Celebrates Saudi Arabia's Centennial

Article excerpt


In observance of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia's centennial, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University invited scholars and specialists to explore a number of themes including Saudi state building, economic development, and foreign policy.

Within the first set of presentations, Joseph Kechichian, of Kechichian and Associates, reviewed the role of the al-Sand family in the state-building process. According to Kechichian, for the past 65 years the al-Sauds have articulated two primary goals: maintaining custodianship of the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah and preserving the family's role. Historically, Kechichian explained, these two points of policy have been reasserted by each successive ruler, thereby ensuring the legitimacy of each individual king and, as a consequence, the power of the al-Saud family.

Focusing specifically on the history of Saudi Arabia, Kechichian discussed the alliance between the religious establishment, called the ulema, and the al-Saud family, which formed the cornerstone of the state-building process.

The unitarian movement launched by Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, known abroad as Wahhahism, demanded a return to the concept of the absolute oneness of God. The Arabian tribes rejected Wahhab's unitarian message and he sought refuge among the al-Saud family. It was at this point, Kechichian said, that the al-Wahhab and al-Saud families forged a pact committed to the preservation and propagation of pure Islam. As a result, Kechichian stated, the union provided the al-Saud family with a clearly defined religious message that became the basis of their political authority.

At the time future King Abdul Aziz ibn Sand re-established his family's rule in Riyadh 100 years ago, the Arabian Peninsula was a chaotic and fragmented tribal environment. According to Kechichian, the future king forged a new political order, thereby transforming the peninsula into a unified force and ensuring the development of a modern state. "By acting decisively very early on," Kechichian said, "Ibn Sand denied leadership contenders an influence and stripped contentious tribal chiefs of their ability to rule in remote areas. Ibn Saud also appointed his sons and other family members to sensitive regional administrative posts without exposing the family to outright criticism."

But, Kechichian said, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud only achieved his objective through the assistance of the religious establishment and through fostering alliances with the most important tribal families. Despite these accomplishments, King Abdul Aziz did encounter political crises, the most serious of which were the Ikhwani rebellions.

"Between 1927 and 1930 Ikhwan troops rebelled against King Abdul Aziz because they wanted to preserve their independent power base and the peninsula's traditional socio-ethnic framework." In a drastic move, Abdul Aziz challenged the Ikhwan to elect another member of the al-Sand family to replace him. Finding no suitable alternatives, Ikhwan leaders pledged themselves anew to support and obey Abdul Aziz, Kechichian said.

However, further rebellions led the Saudi leader to a decisive battle in which he crushed his Ikhwani opponents. "This was a very bloody chapter in Saudi history," Kechichian explained, "but, nevertheless, an accomplishment. It was a clear victory over the Ikhwan and consolidated the power of the embryonic Saudi state."

In November 1979 the neo-Ikhwan, remnants of the early group, demonstrated that the al-Saud family, even after 50 years of role, faced renewed opposition. One to two hundred neo-Ikhwan supporters laid siege to the mosque in Makkah, holding it hostage for three weeks and demanding that worshippers recognize an Ikhwani as the Mahdi and eradicate all Western influence from the kingdom.

After receiving approval from the nation's top religious leaders, the Saudi National Guard and police units stormed the mosque, killing 103 of the rebels. …

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