RSIS Luncheon Seminar by Dr James Dorsey, Senior Fellow, RSIS
Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi export of Ultra-conservatism
About the Lecture
Tension between Middle Eastern regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran are likely to intensify sectarian strains in countries like Bahrain, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia that are home to both Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities. At the heart of the battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a four decade-old existential battle for dominance not only in the Middle East and North Africa but in the Muslim world as a whole. It is a battle that precedes but was aggravated by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the first toppling by a popular revolt of both a monarch and an icon of US power in the region. Concerned that the Iranian revolution would offer a form of Islamic governance involving a degree of popular sovereignty that would challenge Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy which cloaks itself in a puritan interpretation of Islam, the kingdom went on the warpath. In doing so, it turned Wahhabi proselytization into the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in World War Two history, spending up to $100 billion since 1979 on the funding of Muslim cultural institutions across the globe and forging close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies that have bought into significant elements of its worldview. The result has been Muslim societies like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh have under Wahhabi and Salafi influence and the playing with religion by governments become more conservative. The spread of Saudi Wahhabism and Salafism and the kingdom’s support of Deobandism in South Asia has also sparked more militant groups. Nonetheless, the equation of Wahhabism/Salafism is simplistic and masks the complex layers of Wahhabism’s impact across the globe, the fallout of the subservience of significant elements of the Saudi Wahhabi clergy to an absolute monarch, and of Saudi funding that is less aimed at proselytization than at the development of soft power. In fact, increasingly Saudi expenditure fails to pass the test of a cost-benefit analysis and raises question of the future relationship between the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family and the Wahhabis. Yet, coming to grips with the fallout of the campaign is easier said than done, nowhere more so than in Pakistan where Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism has been woven into the fabric of society, education and key branches of government and where Saudi-backed militant and violent groups have become powerful and popular tools of Pakistani and Saudi policy.
About the Speaker
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow focused on the Middle East and North Africa who publishes widely in peer-reviewed journals as well as non-academic publications. A veteran, award-winning foreign correspondent for four decades in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the United States for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Financial Times, James has met a multitude of the region’s leaders. As a journalist, James covered primarily ethnic and religious conflict, including some of recent history’s most dramatic events such as the 1973 Middle East war; the Lebanese civil war; the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S.-backed insurgency that ultimately led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops; the Palestinian intifadas; the Iranian revolution, U.S. embassy hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq war; the Iraqi invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein; the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia; the armed struggles in the Western Sahara, Algeria, the Philippines, Kashmir, Eritrea, Tigre, the Ogaden, Chad, Niger, Chechnya, the Caucasus and Georgia; the Columbian drug cartels; the fall of Noriega in Panama; the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador; the Kurdish insurgency in south-eastern Turkey, post-revolution Iran and Saddam’s Iraq; and the war on terror. James writes a widely acclaimed blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, has published a book with the same title, and authors a syndicated column. He is a frequent speaker at international conferences, workshops and seminars and is consulted by governments, corporations and judicial authorities. James won the Dolf van den Broek prize in 2003 and was a two-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 and 1988 as well as was a finalist for the 2012 European Press Prize; the Kurt Schork Award and the Amnesty International Media Award in 2002 and the Index on Censorship Award in 2012. James also co-directs the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wuerzburg.