The Magazine

Valentine's Day in Saudi Arabia

Portents of change from the desert kingdom.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But while the 24-year-old al-Dosary received fulsome praise from the Wahhabis, even they had to admit his previous life was less than exemplary. Al-Dosary, according to his adulators, was a mere gangster, or, perhaps better, a "gangsta," known for drag-racing and leading vagabond youths around Riyadh to watch his automotive exploits. Wahhabi media commented blandly that "despite our brother's recklessness, he had a good background and good intentions and did not ignore his fellow-Muslims." Showering the homicidal terrorist with blessings, the Wahhabis exulted that he had become bored with street racing and turned to religion, and to gain divine forgiveness had gone north to join the jihad in Iraq. For all the rhetorical trimmings, the truth was obvious: A brainless punk had used religion as a pretext to commit a colossal and heartless crime.

Faced with Saudi complicity in the Iraqi bloodshed, King Abdullah has attempted to put on the brakes. His most recent actions include reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Iraq after a 17-year break and the arrest on February 4 of 10 individuals--9 Saudis and a Moroccan--for collecting funds and seeking to recruit youths for the Sunni terror in Iraq. To be sure, the 10 were arrested only after they had been cautioned four times to desist from their extremist activities. The day before they were detained was especially bloody in Iraq, with hundreds dead.

Furthermore, on January 27, Saudi media had reported that Iraqi prison administrators in Mosul were calling on the Saudi embassy in Syria to take Saudi terror suspects home. Saudis jailed in Iraq claimed that the Baghdad authorities were calling the prisoners' relatives in the kingdom to inform them of their whereabouts. As these events played out, King Abdullah and his circle were disclaiming any support for the Iraqi Sunnis against the Shias in a series of official statements. On February 9, according to the leading daily al-Hayat (Life), the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Sudais, a noted Wahhabi bigot, surprised the population of the kingdom when he delivered a Friday sermon calling for peaceful relations between the two sects. Al-Sudais, never known for moderation, may have resented having to preach such a message, but, at least temporarily, he fell in line with the king. Of late, Abdullah personally has twice declared that Saudi Arabia will not support the Sunnis in Iraq against the Shias, or permit efforts to declare Shias unbelievers, a position twice echoed by foreign minister Saud ul-Faisal.

While Abdullah and Saud are manifestly worried that sectarian violence in Iraq could spill across their borders, the king's attempt to disengage from the Sunni terror in Iraq is immediately significant to Americans and our coalition partners in that it can help save the lives of our military personnel in Iraq.

It should be apparent that King Abdullah's reform path is, at this point, neither clear nor firm. But at the very least, these hints of the Saudi king's desire to dismantle Wahhabi power at home and disengage from Sunni radicalism in Iraq contrast sharply with the provocative behavior of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If a serious Valentine Revolution were to develop in the Saudi kingdom, its success would have incalculably beneficial effects in the Muslim world, undermining the appeal of Wahhabism and curbing the cash flow to al Qaeda, contributing to regional stability, and providing a responsible alternative to the demagogy of Ahmadinejad and others. Certainly, it is in the direct moral and practical interest of the United States that Saudi Arabia become a normal and respectable state.

Stephen Schwartz is completing a book on Sufism for Doubleday. Irfan al-Alawi is director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation in London.