The following essay will be forthcoming in Current History. Our thanks to the editors for allowing the essay to appear here.

The politics of Islamist dissent in Saudi Arabia have come under intense scrutiny since September 11. This is hardly surprising. Osama bin Laden is Saudi Arabian by birth and upbringing. Suspicion existed for some time that Saudis, both private citizens, and public officials, had sent financial assistance to bin Laden after his exile to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia was one of only three states (along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates) to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. Perhaps most alarmingly, 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian citizens.

Ties between the events of September 11 and Saudi Arabia reinforce the need for serious reform in the kingdom. Political, economic, and social problems in the country have provided a fertile field for dissent—dissent that can no longer be managed from above. If these problems are addressed in a meaningful manner, the attraction of the radical flank of Islamists is likely to diminish in the presence of credible alternatives. But if serious structural reforms are not implemented, the call from the most radical flank will almost certainly find an audience among the population.

The internal and external grievances of the Islamists resonate broadly. The former involves authoritarianism and repression, maldistribution and inequity, the absence of representation in the political system, and the seemingly permanent stationing of United States military forces in Saudi Arabia. The latter involves American backing of Israel, United States-led sanctions on Iraq, and American support for repressive regimes in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan.

Contentious politics in general and social movements with Islamist lineages in particular are a significant part of the landscape of the contemporary Middle East. The Saudi case is especially interesting because Islamist movements, even under the constraints of an authoritarian political system, have been able to forge effective, amorphous underground networks throughout the country. We have only begun to debate what political dissent inside Saudi Arabia might mean for the future of the country and its ruling family, the al-Saud. A start is to understand the historical context, inner workings, and impact of the Islamist movement in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Saud’s authority

The al-Saud base their claim to legitimacy on the success of military conquests in the 1920s and 1930s and on their alliance with religious authorities. The al-Saud rule in an uneasy symbiosis with the Muslim clergy. This relationship dates to the 1744 alliance between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud, a sort of merger of religious legitimacy and military might. The descendants of al-Wahhab still dominate the official religious institutions of the country. The official clergy regularly issue fatawa (religious judicial opinions) that justify the policies of the al-Saud in Islamic vocabulary, even when the policies are deplored in the populace (the clergy, for example, issued a fatwa to justify the presence of United States troops during the Persian Gulf war).

Islam remains a double-edged sword for the al-Saud. It grants members legitimacy as protectors of the faith, yet it constrains their behavior to that which is compatible with religious law. When family members deviate from that straight path, they are open to criticism since the regime’s “right to rule” rests largely on the alliance with the al-Wahhab family. Today, the “alliance” between the regime and the official clergy is much contested by dissidents because the two groups no longer serve as checks on each other: the official clergy is said to be dependent on the al-Saud for its existence—co-opted. The ruling family still needs the legitimation conferred by the clergy, but the clergy has become subservient and bureaucratized in the last 25 years.

Over time the al-Saud family has sought to add a new dimension to its “right to rule” and its role as a provider of the welfare of the nation. The family continually seeks to appeal to these claims through the mechanisms of distribution, coercion, and penetration. Although distributive policies are increasingly challenged by lower oil revenues, they still include health care, education, subsidized food and energy, state-subsidized loans, land grants for housing, and widespread investment incentives. Coercion is applied through a massive intelligence apparatus that constrains freedom of expression, assembly, and mobility. The security apparatus is so extensive that the belief in and fear of its retribution historically manifest in pervasive self-censorship. The al-Saud have thoroughly penetrated every aspect of society. They dominate all political positions, are active in every economic sector, strategically marry into other families, and have worked to dominate religious institutions. This is a carrot-and-stick policy of rule, supplemented with a healthy dose of religion.


Resentment of abuse of state authority has long simmered just beneath the surface in Saudi Arabia, but the regime has historically been denounced only in private conversation, with criticism rarely erupting into public confrontation. But two important historic moments of opposition provide striking parallels with today’s Islamist opposition movement: the 1929 Ikhwan rebellion and the 1979 seizure of the great mosque in Mecca by Juhaiman al-Utaibi. In both instances, the Islamic legitimacy of the al-Saud family was seriously challenged by movements that emanated from the heartland of traditional al-Saud support, the Najd. This meant that both movements were composed of muwahidun (unitarians, commonly called Wahhabis by detractors), who follow a particularly austere and puritanical belief system. Both times opposition was justified because the regime deviated from the straight path of the Koran and Sunna. Corruption was a common theme.

During the conquests of the peninsula in the early part of the twentieth century, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz, depended on the formidable fighting force of the Ikhwan, tribal muwahidun warriors, to extend the borders of his kingdom. When the strength on which he had depended turned against his leadership, Abdulaziz crushed the Ikhwan as a military force at the Battle of Sabalah in 1930. Nearly 50 years later, in 1979, Juhaiman al-Utaibi forcibly took control of the sacred mosque in Mecca in an effort to topple the ruling family. He was the grandson of an Ikhwan warrior; his charges against King Fahd of corruption, deviation, and dependence on the West echoed his grandfather’s charges against Abdulaziz. Al-Utaibi did not garner much popular support because he chose a holy venue rather than a palace, but the incident exposed the vulnerability of the regime. It took several weeks and the assistance of French special units to root the rebels from the mosque. This uprising led to greater surveillance over the population, more power granted to the mutawwain (the Saudi “police” of public virtue), new constraints on mobility and expression, and simultaneous promises of reform.

During the 1980s, an Islamic education system fostered a new generation of sheikhs, professors, and students. The state provided generous funding for the expansion of Islamic universities even during the downturn in oil revenues in the mid-1980s. The regime sought to legitimate itself during hard times by binding religion and state institutionally. Imam Mohamed bin Saud University in Riyadh, the Islamic University in Medina, and Umm al Qura University in Mecca continued to grow even as other programs were cut back. By 1986, more than 16,000 of the kingdom’s 100,000 students were pursuing Islamic studies. By the early 1990s, one-fourth of all university students were enrolled in religious institutions. This generation of students serves as bureaucrats, police officers, mutawwa, sharia (Islamic law) judges, or preachers in some of the 20,000 mosques in the country.

An Islamic resurgence swept Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, but it was not directed against the regime. Several nonviolent Islamist groups took root during this time. The resurgence was also propagated by the newly returned Arab Afghan mujahideen (guerrillas). About 12,000 young men from Saudi Arabia had gone to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation; perhaps 5,000 were properly trained and saw combat. All this cultivated a fertile field for dissent, which culminated in the rise of an Islamist opposition movement during the gulf war in 1990-1991. Its grievances and justification echo its predecessors.

The Gulf War as catalyst

The 1990s were a difficult decade in Saudi Arabia. Festering anger suddenly exploded with the gulf war. The stationing of American troops in the country during the war transformed an inchoate resurgence of Islamic identity into an organized opposition movement. Individuals emerged as symbols of resistance against the corruption of the al-Saud. The war also accelerated the debates that were long conducted in private. Although the universities remained closed for much of the war, the mosques became centers of sermons, ideological debate, and political opposition. Secret tapes and underground leaflets were circulated in the streets, schools, and mosques.

Although Islam has often been used by the ruling family to bolster the prevailing order, it is also used to oppose that order. During the gulf war, the call to Islam was especially vibrant and empowered sympathizers. Islamists are by far more coherent, powerful, and organized than any other social force in Saudi Arabia, including those based on nationalism, regional identity, or business activity. Islamism provided the vocabulary, symbols, and historic reference points that resonated with the population. Only Islamism was able to give the populace common scripts to confront the overwhelming power of state institutions. Islamism is the only movement that is able to cut across multiple cleavages in Saudi Arabia. It has tapped into two forces: a convergence of dissent, and socioeconomic distress.

The dissenters have come together on grievances against the regime; their convergence is indicative of a narrowing base of legitimacy. Despite significant differences in ultimate agenda, many sources of discontent now focus on three central points: calls for redistribution of wealth, procedural social justice, and regime accountability: in essence, the rule of law. Because of this convergence, the state can no longer resort to its time-honored strategy of playing one group against another. This convergence cuts across cleavages of region, gender, class, school of Islam, ethnicity, ideology, and rural-urban settings. Private businesspersons and public bureaucrats, industrialists and small-shop owners, Sunnis and Shias, men and women share core grievances. People are weary of ad hoc and arbitrary personal rule.

Islamism also taps into an already-distressed social and economic environment. King Fahd has been incapacitated since his stroke in 1995, and the family has been wracked by succession struggles. Since the heyday of the oil boom, per capita income has plummeted by more than one-half. The birth rate is a very high 3.5 percent. The majority of the population is under 15. These young adults will register their demands for education, jobs, and housing at the same time.

Unemployment in the general male population is about 10 percent, and among recent male college graduates, around 30 percent, likely higher. Yet Saudi Arabia remains utterly dependent on foreign workers, who constitute perhaps 90 percent of the private sector and 70 percent of the public sector labor force. Social norms militate against the participation of local women in many economic activities. Moreover, since the gulf war, new social problems, such as guns, drugs, and crime, have been reported. Islamism has tapped into this high level of discomfort in Saudi society.

The Islamist social movement

All strands of the diverse Islamist movement share three key attributes. First, their critique of the regime is both symbolic and material. Second, all are aware of the power of the embedded social structure in which they operate. Third, all contest the dominant historical narrative on the founding of the kingdom.

Opposition activists charge that the regime, including the official religious authorities, deviated from the straight path. They focus criticism not only on the ruling family but also on the clergy because it is this group that has convinced the people that the al-Saud are Islamic. In interviews this author conducted in London in 1997 and 1999, one Islamist said, “We must follow true Islam as the prophet and his companions understood it, not as the corrupt scholars say.” Another argued that the “Wahhabi in contemporary Saudi Arabia do not name the exact ancestors to which we should refer because it would undo their own arguments about authority and obedience. If we really read the early stuff, we would see that the ancestors do not advocate blind obedience to unjust rule, but rebellion. Their writing undermines the position of the al-Saud, so they have conveniently been dropped from the discourse.”

In material terms, all believe that there has been a fundamental abrogation of the political pact in Saudi Arabia that defined the relationship between state and society. Islamists call for a separation of the political and public from the private and commercial. There is shared resentment at corruption and the commissions many princes have received. All call for a halt to the ruling family’s intrusion into private life. In a more general sense, all criticize the mismanagement, maldistribution, and waste of national assets. Enormous military expenditures have proved worthless after years of spending. This holistic critique centers on a renegotiation of the political pact; that is, all want a redefinition of the rules of the game that separates private from public, upholds governance by the rule of law, and abolishes the official state clergy.

The second strand that ties the movement together is an awareness of the power of the embedded social structure. The problem of mobilization of an opposition movement is formidable under any authoritarian regime. It is further complicated in Saudi Arabia by oil revenues, which financed both an extensive state intelligence apparatus and a cradle-to-grave welfare state that may placate potential opposition. These constraints are coupled with an overwhelming social concern for privacy and discretion in one’s behavior. The ever-present concern for the privacy of the family unit and discretion in behavior clearly constrains efforts to mount collective public action.

Yet family networks have also proved vital to mobilizing support underground. Networks at the village level have been important means by which to disseminate information through sermons. One activist repeatedly emphasized in an interview with this author the importance of the relationship between Saudis and the desert as part of the training and mobilization of opposition. He explained that “people know the desert well. They are able to survive in it because families regularly spend three months in desert camps as a part of holiday. The smallest camps cannot have less than 50 people. Americans need mineral water to survive in the desert. A Saudi Arabian can drink mud and survive.”

The societal emphasis on the importance of consensus also makes cohesion among dissidents important. Three splits have occurred within the Islamist movement: between the Shia who returned with amnesty and those who stayed in exile to wage struggle; between Saad al-Faqih and Mohamed al-Massari; and between Khaled al-Fawwaz and Osama bin Laden. These small splits between individuals had painful repercussions in the Islamist movement in Saudi Arabia.

The third strand that ties the movement together is criticism of the dominant historical narrative on the founding of the kingdom. All Islamists construct a detailed alternative history of Saudi Arabia from a fabric of cultural symbols and language that resonate among people across divisions of class, region, gender, and status.

The dominant narrative is recounted in history textbooks and state-run media. It tells of a glorious history of state formation under the wise leadership of the founder, Abdulaziz, who unified diverse tribes and regions. He married into all defeated tribes to confer membership on them and to instill a sense of nationhood. Islam was embraced by the al-Saud. This history, however, is not congruent with private conversations. Alternative historic narratives are about conquering rather than unification, violence rather than wisdom, and the abuse of Islam rather than its embrace. Marriage into defeated tribes was, according to one Islamist, “a trinket, like graft.”

The alternative historic narratives use clear historic reference points. Often recounted are the agreements made between Abdulaziz and representatives of major families, historic meetings between Abdulaziz and the clergy, and the meeting between Abdulaziz and the Hejazi notables, all of which shaped an implicit understanding of the acceptable relationship between state (under the ruling family), religion, and society, including distinctions between public and private. All have been abrogated in recent years.

Multiple clergy

In the wake of the gulf war, the state-appointed clergy has been supplemented by a popular-level alternative clergy that is articulate and vocal. The divide between official Islamic authorities and popular Islamic leaders is great. A dissident explained, “The old clergy believe that the ruler is the vice-regent of God on earth. Advice can only be given in private and in confidence. The new clergy reject the idea of vice-regency. Rather, it is the duty of the clergy to criticize the ruler and work for change.” The alternative clergy decries waste and imprudence in government expenditures. It highlights the absence of a capable military despite massive expenditures on weaponry. When the official clergy wrote the fatawa that justified the presence of United States troops on Saudi soil using Islamic vocabulary, other religious leaders offered counter-fatawa that condemned United States troops, also using Islamic justification. The alternative fatawa drew wider public support than did the official fatawa.

During this turmoil, Islamists charged King Fahd with deviation from the straight path of Islam. He was criticized for his personal behavior, methods of governance, domestic and foreign policies, and, of course, his decision to allow the stationing of American troops. Influential popular-level sheikhs, such as Salman al-Awdah and Safar al-Hawali, were arrested. Many were forbidden to deliver sermons.

During this time of ferment, several petitions were presented to King Fahd that demanded structural reforms in the kingdom. The very dialogue of political intercourse changed. Before the war, criticism could be offered only in private and on a one-to-one verbal basis. Now it was transformed into a public discussion – much of it written, signed, and documented. The most influential petitions were from opposition Sunni clergy.

All Islamists concur that the official clergy should be abolished and advocate the existence of contending clerical voices in the country. They argue that debate would be healthy and that each believer could choose to abide by the clergy he or she considers most legitimate. The point is that the ruling family would not control the clergy through the appointment of a single official voice.

In spring 1991, 453 religious scholars, judges, and university professors issued a petition that in strong and direct language called for a restoration of Islamic values. The petition asked for 12 political reforms, including a consultative assembly, fair judiciary, redistribution of wealth, an end to corruption, and the primacy of religious law. The government was shaken because the people thought to be its pillar of support had endorsed such sweeping changes. The ruling family was concerned not only by the petition’s content, but also by the very public way in which it was circulated, making the rounds of schools and mosques before the king saw it. Because it abrogated the norm for privacy in political discussion, the Supreme Council of Scholars, the elite of the official clergy, condemned the publication and circulation of the petition.

In July 1992, 107 religious scholars signed a “memorandum of advice” (muzakharat al-nasihi) to King Fahd. He refused to receive the 46-page document. It was even bolder and more defiant than the petition drafted the previous year. Its tone was straightforward; its charges, specific. The petitioners deplored the “total chaos in the economy and society . . . widespread bribery, favoritism, and the extreme feebleness of the courts,” criticized virtually every aspect of domestic and foreign policy, and demanded a more rigorous application of Islamic law.

Pressures for reform were not limited to Sunni Islamists. Representatives of the Shia Reform Movement (an umbrella organization of several Shia opposition groups that press for the rights of the minority Shia community in Saudi Arabia) continued to call for a consultative council that included representatives of their community. The business community submitted a so-called liberal petition that demanded structural reforms. Forty women kicked their drivers out of their cars and drove through the streets of Riyadh.

The al-Saud regime simultaneously denied the existence of an opposition movement, co-opted semiloyalists, and initiated a massive crackdown on dissent. By 1993, actual organizations were formed to disseminate the opposition message. Demonstrations—largely unheard of under this authoritarian regime—erupted to demand the release of the imprisoned sheiks, the most significant occurring in Buraydah in September 1994, the very heartland of the ruling family’s support. Within the Islamist movement, activists disagreed about whether to engage in a public demonstration. Some argued that the timing and the causes were not appropriate, and that the movement was not yet ready. Others fomented the demonstration. The dissension over the Buraydah demonstration highlights the split between the reformists and the radicals in the movement. The radicals became more serious and violent. That split still haunts us today.

Islamism’s impact

Only three years ago, it was fashionable to dismiss Islamism in Saudi Arabia as a failed movement, or a mere post-gulf war hiccup on the domestic front. Observers argued that Islamism had been quashed or co-opted by the al-Saud regime because sheiks and dissidents were less vocal than before. This was a mistake. Those who made this error were using an inappropriate yardstick, looking only for “regime overthrow” as a measure of success. In fact, Islamist pressures have initiated significant steps toward reform.

It is unlikely that Fahd would have created the consultative council in 1992 without the pressure of Islamists (it had been promised regularly since 1975), or that he would have created provincial councils, or later expanded the membership of the council from 60 to 90. But the incremental response of King Fahd to popular dissent in the early 1990s has satisfied no one. He appointed a nonlegislative consultative council and gave more power to provincial governments, where other family members ruled. These “reforms” disappointed some and angered others. They consolidated the ruling family’s centrality to political life, rather than broadening meaningful participation.

Most significantly, Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler since King Fahd’s illness, would have had a harder time asserting his position in the succession struggles against Prince Sultan (second in line to the throne) and his brothers that followed Fahd’s stroke in 1995 had it not been for the power of the Islamist voice in Saudi Arabia. Abdullah apparently will respond to Islamists in a way that grants concessions to the opposition and protects the ruling family. Specifically, Abdullah has begun to address the grievances, allowing a popular clergy to voice opinions and by reining in the more ostentatious behavior of princes. It is also reported that he has tried to limit the extent to which they participate in oil-related endeavors. In summer 1999, he released the sheiks who had been jailed. He has allowed the press a bit more leeway than before. He has publicly criticized United States policy toward Israel and Palestine. Still, on November 14, 2001, Abdullah summoned a number of religious authorities to his side. He warned them to be cautious in their rhetoric and to “not be emotional or provoked by others.” He exhorted them to avoid inflammatory comments and to “weigh each word before saying it.”

Islamists have successfully captured the discourse in Saudi Arabia. The struggles of the Islamist movement have made conversation permissible, an enormous feat in the authoritarian circumstances of Saudi Arabia. Islamists have initiated a renegotiation of the social contract in Saudi Arabia and an alternative telling of history. The al-Saud occupy all positions of authority, but they now must make some compromises in accordance with the historical, material, and ideological critique that the Islamists have eloquently articulated.

When the clergy presented King Fahd with the memorandum of advice, the nasihi, they profoundly changed political discourse in Saudi Arabia. It was a collective action conducted in such a way that it had to be taken seriously. The nasihi permitted people to talk about politics and religion in Saudi Arabia, a right that had long been denied. Permission had to come in Islamic vocabulary and with Islamic authority. The nasihi gave ordinary Saudis “cognitive liberation,” that is, it gave people freedom to talk. The popular clergy assumed the risk of political activity for Saudis who were hesitant to speak out. They used their voice to give people a sense of empowerment. The nasihi also gave Saudis “agency by proxy.” Islamists opened the floodgates of criticism in the kingdom by invoking the Islamically grounded right to advise the ruler (hence, the memorandum of advice).

If the success of a movement is measured by regime change, then the Islamists have failed in Saudi Arabia. But if success is measured by discourse and meaning, the Islamists clearly have succeeded. The larger debates in Saudi Arabia today are about the construction of meaning as a nation. People are talking about the terms and content of their belonging together, and about the right to talk about such sensitive topics. The contemporary debate is about what it means to be “Saudi” that is, the meaning of citizenship. The Islamists began a national conversation about what it means to belong and about the relationship of state and citizen, and religion and state.

Implementing meaningful reform

Islamists do not work in a vacuum but are intimately tied to the fabric of communal, regional, and economic networks. Islamists, however, have clearly been the most articulate and powerful of the various social forces in Saudi Arabia. They are better organized and more cohesive than other social forces in representing their interests to the state. Even though people disagree on strategy and the ultimate goal of opposition movements, they do concur on grievances and particularly on the call for regularity and predictability. In effect, Islamists express the grievances of many people.

Contentious voices also resonate because the exclusionary structure of governance does not reflect the diversity of the population. Contrary to popular images, Saudi Arabia is not a homogeneous country in ethnicity, religion, or ideology. The variety of Muslim practices include Wahhabi orthodoxy, mainstream Sunni calls for reform of the state, minority Shia communities, Sufi practices throughout the Hejaz, and, most important, a Sunni Salafi opposition movement (the Salafi—believers who adhere to the ways of their pious ancestors, the companions of the prophet—are the most powerful voice in Saudi Arabia today). In religious, political, social, and economic affairs, inclusion must be practiced. The sprawling religious bureaucracy must be reformed to incorporate the religious diversity of the country, rather than only the muwahidin. Likewise, political positions, from the local to the national level, must allow for the inclusion of diverse ethnic identities, regions, and ideological voices. Reform of the political and religious institutions would promote greater tolerance in Saudi society.

In economic matters, the domestic economy must, as the ruling family well knows, be more diverse, private, and local. The overwhelming dependence on foreign labor creates economic and political problems. The private sector must be simultaneously nourished and confronted—that is, it must be given protection, particularly in the face of World Trade Organization-mandated direct foreign investment, but it also must hire (more expensive) Saudi labor. The ruling family has long postponed a confrontation with the private sector because new expectations must be reciprocal: if it must hire more expensive labor, then the private sector will, in turn, insist on transparency in the awarding of contracts, representation in politics, and limits on princely activity in the commercial realm.

In international terms, the maintenance of United States military bases in Saudi Arabia must be reconsidered. The bases are there to protect a stable and cheap supply of oil to the United States and its allies. Yet the presence of the bases fosters opposition to the regime they are there to protect. The bases cannot be fully used because of this opposition (they are not, for example, being used during the current war in Afghanistan). It is a vicious circle, but several other basing options (Oman, Bahrain, Turkey) are available to the United States.

Above all, Saudi Arabians are now looking for more inclusive and representative governance. They want freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. They want to participate in the development of their country, particularly in meeting the needs of education, health, employment, and infrastructure for a booming population. Saudi Arabians do not want to waste precious national resources on arms purchases from the United States, deals over which they have no control.


Portrayals of internal politics as contests between United States-allied “moderates” and puritanical “Wahhabis” are grossly oversimplified. So too is a menu that offers two stark choices: an absolute monarchy tilting toward the West or a revolutionary Islamist regime hostile to the West. Internal contests and choices are more complex than that.

The depth of royal coercion has meant that other voices have not been allowed to flourish. Today, there is not a viable alternative to the ruling family that could unite the disparate parts of the country, perhaps enhancing bin Laden’s pull artificially.

What many Saudi Arabians are talking about constitutes neither full competitive democracy nor absolute monarchy. Rather, it is a voice in governance and the rule of law. The challenge before Crown Prince Abdullah is to promote domestic reform that incorporates the diversity of the population. His strong nationalist voice can be used to counter the power of the radical movement. The wide middle ground between a revolutionary bin Laden and an authoritarian ruling family cries out for cultivation.

The bad news is that serious structural reforms are necessary in Saudi Arabia. The good news is that Abdullah has the capability and the personal legitimacy to initiate such change. He must protect his close relationships with other branches of the ruling family, particularly the sons of King Faisal and of King Saud. He must preserve a working relationship with the seven brothers who comprise the al-Fahd branch, even though they contest his rule. But Abdullah is 78 years old. He must work quickly and with sensitivity. It is not clear that other high-ranking members of the family carry the same weight in diverse quarters of Saudi society as does Abdullah. At least, ordinary Saudis now have permission to engage in a national conversation about their future.