Saudi Arabia is an autocratic monarchy, one of the world’s worst human rights abusers and a significant funder of foreign terrorism. But you wouldn’t have known that from reading an opinion piece in The Guardian yesterday, espousing Saudi Arabia’s credentials as the legitimate leader of the Islamic world and would-be saviour in the fight against ISIS.
Saudi Arabia is a key player in the war in Syria, of course, and its announcement of a coalition of Muslim nations joined together in the battle against ISIS is certainly a positive development in pursuing an end to the conflict, regardless of whether this is more posturing than genuine action. Saudi Arabia and ISIS are locked in a fundamental theological battle for Islamic legitimacy the author, Nawaf Obaid, argues. He is unashamed in who he thinks the legitimate rulers of the Islamic world are: Saudi Arabia. The article that follows reads like an idiot’s guide to Saudi propaganda.
Let’s be clear: this article might appear on the surface to be an argument about defeating ISIS, but really it’s just 830 words of propaganda about the legitimacy of the Saudi government. Obaid’s argument rests on two crucial points; that the Saudis are the ‘custodians’ of Mecca, and that they represent, theologically, the closest thing to a wali al amr (guardian of the Muslim community) and therefore are legitimate to lead ALL Muslims. In a statement almost farcical in its lack of awareness, the article insists that
“King Salman’s legitimacy to rule is contingent on him being first and foremost the wali al amr of the people, and in return the people show their acceptance of his rule by proclaiming him as their ruler”.
Yes, you heard that correctly.
Saudi Arabia is a despotic, autocratic absolute monarchy and the idea that the people proclaim King Salman as their ruler is as insulting as it is stupid. The author thinks he might be able to bamboozle his readership with a smattering of theological Arabic, as if the Saudi monarchy is some kind of universally accepted Islamic truth (perhaps this is what did such a number on the editor who put this to print), but this reader isn’t buying it. For starters, Saudi Arabia’s ‘custodianship’ of Mecca is more a convenient fact of its geographic location than some kind of honour bestowed upon it by the global Muslim community; that the author specifically says this entitles Saudi Arabia to lead all the world’s Muslims is particularly insulting to the approximately 10% of Muslims who are Shia, and are presumably less than thrilled about this self-imposed leadership.
The author is correct to note that the Saudis “show their acceptance” of King Salman’s rule. There’s not a lot else to do but show acceptance when you are ruled over by a sinister dictator and his shamelessly greedy family that crucifies minors for opposing government autocracy and forbids women from driving or even being alone in public. There is no need to go into more detail about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, although it’s perhaps prudent to mention the remarkable similarity most of them bear to those carried out by ISIS, the illegitimate Islamic extremists the author thinks Saudi Arabia is the actor legitimately placed to defeat.
The worst thing about this argument, however, is how stultifying circular it all is. Because despite what the author says, Saudi Arabia’s authority is based on power, wealth and arms, not some kind of divine inspiration, and this is true for ISIS also. So while Obaid tries to imply that all the world’s Muslims have proclaimed Saudi Arabia as their leader, many have actually chosen ISIS. He can try and discredit ISIS with some theological posturing about how their religious arguments do not hold up to Salafi tradition, but the only thing Qur’anic about the Saudi monarchist system is that they have enough power to get some elite religious scholars to say it is, in a political exchange for allowing them stern rule over public morality in the Saudi Kingdom.
The Qur’an offers very little in the way of guidance for how an Islamic political system might work, or even if such a thing is desirable. There is nothing to suggest the “original Islamic scriptures and practices” Obaid refers to as in some way similar to Saudi rule are either in the Qur’an specifically or even that similar to Saudi governance today. Really, the fact that the Saudi system best represents these systems is more a comment on how nothing particularly does than their strict adherence to some stated rules. Even more bizarrely, ISIS’s attempts to restore a caliphate really do replicate this system, even if their attempts to do so are perverse and cruel in the extreme. His argument boils down to an infinite loop of silliness; the Saudis are the guardians of Islam because they are the most powerful, and nobody is allowed to oppose their power because they are the most powerful, and therefore they are the guardians of Islam. It just doesn’t make sense.
Few details are given about Nawaf Obaid by the Guardian. His biography describes him as a “senior fellow at the King Faisal centre for research and Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia”, but further digging also reveals him to be an ex-Special Advisor for Strategic Communications to Prince Turki Al Faisal while he was ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then the United States. More recently, he served as a Special Counsellor to Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, also ambassador to the United Kingdom. That these details were omitted from the Guardian biography amount to an enormous omission of clear bias, and I am highly surprised this article was allowed to make it to print. In the future, the Guardian must ensure it is upfront about who is writing for it, and focus on providing comment from the voiceless victims of autocracy across the world, rather than acting as a mouthpiece of dictatorships and their phoney claims to religious legitimacy.
Update: In response to my direct complaint about this article, The Guardian has emailed me to say they should have made it more clear that the writer works for the Saudi government, and will be running an edit and correction to apologise for this oversight.