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Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-Conservatism

The monster that Saudi Arabia created may come to haunt itself — at home.

August 26, 2016

The monster that Saudi Arabia created may come to haunt itself -- at home.

The Saudi export and global support for religiously driven groups goes far beyond Wahhabism. It is not simply a product of the Faustian bargain that the Al Sauds made with the Wahhabis.

For the Saudi government, support of puritan, intolerant, non-pluralistic and discriminatory forms of ultra-conservatism – primarily Wahhabism, Salafism in its various stripes, as well as Deobandism in South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora – is about soft power.

To create soft power, Saudi Arabia has waged the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in post-World War II history. It is actually bigger than anything that the Soviet Union or the United States attempted.

The campaign is designed to a large extent to counter Iran in what is an existential battle for the Al Sauds, rather than a case of mere religious proselytization.

Generating a peculiar form of soft power

Saudi Arabia’s focus on ultra-conservatism rather than only Wahhabism or quietist forms of Salafism allowed the kingdom not simply to rely on export of its specific interpretation of Islam, but also to capitalize on existing, long-standing similar worldviews.

In waging its campaign, Saudi Arabia was not alone. It cooperated with governments willing to benefit from Saudi largesse and willing to use religion opportunistically to further their own interests. They cooperated with the kingdom wholeheartedly, but to the ultimate detriment of their own societies.

Systematic promoters of intolerance

In many ways, the chicken is coming home to roost. The structure of the Saudi funding campaign was such that the Saudis ultimately unleashed a genie they did not and were not able to control. It has turned against them.

The net impact of the Saudi campaign is greater intolerance towards ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, increased sectarianism and a pushback against traditional as well as modern cultural expressions.

This is most clearly visible in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali and Bosnia Herzegovina.

Target: Pakistan

The fallout of Saudi- and government-backed ultra-conservatism has been perhaps the most devastating in Pakistan. There are a variety of reasons for this, including:

  • the fact that Pakistan was founded as a Muslim state, rather than a state populated by a majority of Muslims,
  • the resulting longstanding intimate relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia
  • the devastating impact of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets on Pakistan; and
  • Pakistan’s use of militant Islamist and jihadist groups to further its own geopolitical objectives.

From the Saudi perspective, Pakistan has special significance because it borders on Iran and is home to the world’s largest Shiite minority in any country (accounting for roughly a quarter of Pakistan’s 200 million people).

The result is that, with the exception today of Syria and Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990s, Pakistan is the only country where Saudi funding strayed beyond support for non-violent groups.

In Pakistan, the Saudis were at the birth of violent groups that served their geopolitical purposes, many of which are theoretically banned but continue to operate openly with Saudi and government support.

The impact of those groups is felt far and wide, including in Britain as was evident with the recent murder of an Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow. These groups often have senior members residing in Mecca for many years to raise funds and coordinate with branches of the Saudi government.

These groups as well as Pakistani officials have little hesitation in discussing Saudi Arabia’s role, as I found out recently during a month of lengthy interviews with leaders and various activists of various groups.

These include Sipaha-e-Sabaha, Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat, the remnants of Lashkar-e-Janghvi (whose senior leadership was killed in a series of encounters with Pakistani security forces), Lashkar-e-Taibe and Harakat al Mujahedeen as well as visits to their madrassas.

Is the end nigh?

The Saudi campaign may be coming to the end of its usefulness, even if its sectarian aspects remain crucial in the current environment. Nonetheless, I would argue that the cost/benefit analysis from a Saudi government perspective is beginning to shift.

This is due not only because of the consequences of ultra-conservatism having been woven into the fabric of Pakistani society and government to a degree that would take at least a generation to reverse and that threatens to destabilize the country and the region.

It is also due to the fact that the identification of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism with jihadists like the Islamic State has made the very ideology that legitimizes the rule of the Al Sauds a target.

As a result of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism increasingly being in the crosshairs, efforts to enhance Saudi soft power will increasingly be undermined.


The Saudi export and support for religiously driven groups goes beyond Wahhabism. It is about soft power.

The Saudis unleashed a genie they did not and were not able to control. It has turned against them.

Pakistan is the only country where Saudi funding strayed beyond support for non-violent groups.