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What Will Trump Do About Saudi Arabia?

Having vowed to “eradicate” “radical Islamic terrorism,” the new US president cannot stand by idly regarding Saudi Arabia’s actions in Africa.

February 3, 2017

Having vowed to "eradicate" "radical Islamic terrorism," the new US president cannot stand by idly regarding Saudi Arabia's actions in Africa.

Having vowed in his inaugural address to “eradicate” “radical Islamic terrorism,” President Trump ought not stand by idly regarding Saudi Arabia’s actions in Africa.

Let me be clear: Within Africa, Saudi Arabia — that is to say the government, the religious establishment and members of the ruling family and business community — does not fund violence.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has unabashedly launched the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history over the last half century. The country has pumped up to $100 billion dollars into ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam.

That Saudi campaign has succeeded in making ultra-conservatism a force in Muslim religious communities across the globe. It involves the promotion of an intolerant, supremacist, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam.

Even where it rejects an active involvement in politics, Saudi Arabia fosters a mindset in which militancy and violence against the other is not beyond the pale.

What that campaign has done, certainly in Muslim majority countries in Africa, is to ensure that representatives of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism have influence in society as well as the highest circles of government.

Religion or geopolitics?

This is important because, contrary to widespread beliefs, the Saudi campaign is not primarily about religion. It’s about geopolitics, specifically it’s about a struggle with Iran for hegemony in the Muslim world.

As a result, it’s about anti-Shiism and an ultra-conservative narrative that counters that of Shiism and what remains of Iran’s post-1979 revolutionary zeal.

The campaign also meant that resolving the question whether the kingdom maintains links to violent groups takes one into murky territory. Saudi Arabia has made countering jihadism a cornerstone of its policy. That is however easier said than done.

What is evident in Africa is that the kingdom or at least prominent members of its clergy appear to have maintained wittingly or unwittingly some degree of contact with jihadist groups, including IS affiliates.

Let me illustrate the impact of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism by taking a closer look at Nigeria – and lay out how this relates to political violence in the region.

Saudi Arabia enters Nigeria

One of the earliest instances in which Saudi Arabia flexed its expanding soft power in West Africa was in 1999 when Zamfara, a region where Islamic State affiliate Boko Haram has been active, became the first Nigerian state to adopt Sharia.

A Saudi official stood next to Governor Ahmed Sani when he made the announcement. Freedom of religion scholar Paul Marshall recalls seeing some years later hundreds of Saudi-funded motorbikes in the courtyard of the governor’s residence.

They had been purchased to enforce gender segregation in public transport. Sheikh Abdul-Aziz, the religious and cultural attaché at the Saudi embassy in Abuja, declared in 2004 that the kingdom had been monitoring the application of Islamic law in Nigeria “with delight.”

Northern extremism

Later on, a Boko Haram founder who was killed in 2009, Muhammad Yusuf, was granted refuge by the kingdom in 2004 to evade a Nigerian military crackdown.

In Mecca, he forged links with like-minded Salafi clerics that proved to be more decisive than his debates with Nigerian clerics who were critical of his interpretation of Islam.

Once back in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state, Yusuf built with their assistance a state within a state centered around the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque.

Yusuf’s religious teacher, Sheikh Ja’afar Adam, a graduate of the Islamic University of Medina, presided over a popular mosque in the Nigerian city of Kano that helped him build a mass audience.

Adam’s popularity allowed him to promote colleagues, many of whom were also graduates of the same university in Medina, who became influential preachers and government officials. Adam was funded by Al-Muntada al-Islami Trust, a London-based charity with ties to Saudi Arabia.

Adam publicly condemned Yusuf after he took over Boko Haram. In response, Yusuf in 2007 order the assassination of Adam.

Sufis and Shiites

Nigerian journalists and activists see a direct link between the influx of Saudi funds into Yusuf’s stomping ground in northern Nigeria and greater intolerance that rolled back the influence of Sufis that had dominated the region for centuries and sought to marginalize Shiites.

“They built their own mosques with Saudi funds so that they will not follow ‘Kafirs’ in prayers and they erected their own madrasa schools where they indoctrinate people on the deviant teachings of Wahhabism.

With Saudi petro-dollars, these Wahhabis quickly spread across towns & villages of Northern Nigeria… This resulted in countless senseless inter-religious conflicts that resulted in the death of thousands of innocent Nigerians on both sides,” said Shiite activist Hairun Elbinawi.

No surprise then that a recent phone call to Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari in which King Salman expressed his support for the government’s fight against terrorist groups was widely seen as Saudi endorsement of the military’s crackdown on the country’s Shiite minority.

The state-owned Saudi Press Agency quoted Salman as saying that Islam condemned such “criminal acts” and that the kingdom – in a reference to Iran – opposed foreign interference in Nigeria.

Fueling new sectarian divisions

Over the past decade or so, ultra-conservative, sectarian forms of Islam have cut across Africa at an often dizzying pace.

In the process, African politicians and ultraconservatives in cooperation with Saudi Arabia have let a genie of intolerance, discrimination, supremacy and bigotry out of the bottle.

Despite all that, Iran is putting up tough cultural and religious resistance to Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism in Africa.

Indeed, Africa is witnessing the world’s highest rates of conversion to Shi’a Islam since many Sunni tribes in southern Iraq adopted Shiism in the 19th century.

Shiites were until recently virtually non-existent in Africa, with the exception of migrants from Lebanon and the Indian subcontinent. A Pew Research survey suggests that that has changed dramatically.

The share of Shiites has jumped from 0% in 1980 to 12% of Nigeria’s 90-million strong Muslim community in 2012.

This pattern is not uniquely African even if Africa is the continent where Iranian responses to Saudi promotion of Sunni ultra-conservatism have primarily been cultural and religious in nature — rather than through the use of militant and armed proxies as in the Middle East.

Battle for influence

It is nonetheless a battle that fundamentally alters the fabric of those African societies in which it is fought. It is a battle that potentially threatens the carefully constructed post-colonial cohesion of those societies. la

The potential threat is significantly enhanced by poor governance and the rise of jihadist groups like Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and Al Shabab in Somalia.

While their ideological roots can be traced back to ultra-conservatism, their political philosophy views Saudi Arabia as an equally legitimate target because its rulers have deviated from the true path.

At the bottom line, both Africans and Saudis are struggling to come to grips with a phenomenon they opportunistically harnessed to further their political interests; one that they no longer control and that has become as much a liability as it was an asset.

While it may be tempting for the next U.S. administration to extend to sub-Saharan Africa its policy of taking Saudi Arabia’s side against Iran, it would be better to acknowledge that the Saudis are the ones creating the conditions for more chaos in places like Nigeria, regardless of the situation other theaters of confrontations.


Saudi Arabia has bankrolled strict conservative Islam in the religious & political life of Africa.

Saudi Arabia may not fund violence in Nigeria directly, but it promotes anti-Shia animus.

The Saudi campaign is not about religion but geopolitics, specifically against Iran for hegemony.