The Magazine

The Crisis of the Wahhabi Regime

Surprising developments in Saudi Arabia.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Amid these investigations and declamations, other sporadic and confusing measures have been proposed to ameliorate public dissatisfaction with the mutawiyin. When the case of Al-Bulawi first came to light, it was announced that 380 members of the militia would be trained in "interpersonal skills," surely one of the most bizarre statements yet from the Saudi authorities. The mutawiyin further promised to create a review process for their members' practices. At the same time, however, they rejected questions about their activities put forward by Saudi human rights activists.

Moreover, recent examples of outrageous behavior by the mutawiyin abound. At the beginning of June, a certain Fahd Al-Bishi of Riyadh complained to the media that the militia had crashed their vehicle into his family car and harassed him on his daughter's wedding day because they suspected his son of drinking or traveling in the company of women unrelated to him. In March, the mutawiyin burst into Prince Salman Hospital in Riyadh and fought with security personnel while ostensibly chasing a drug dealer. A few days before that, the mutawiyin had been taught a lesson in the restive Eastern Province, whose large Shia Muslim population is subject to continual discrimination. A patrol detained a man who was listening to music, a prime offense in Wahhabi eyes. After the individual was released, he returned with several friends and beat up the mutawiyin.

Indeed, by early this year, criticism of the institution had become so frequent that the militia refrained from its usual practice of violently interrupting the Riyadh International Book Fair, which opened in February, to search for banned literature. Many Saudis saw this as another small, positive step by the circle around King Abdullah, who is at odds with Prince Nayef, and is widely believed to seek a break with the past.

Throughout this chronicle one sees the contradictory symptoms of a deepening, as yet hidden crisis of the Saudi regime. The state defends the mutawiyin while promising change, but not too much change. People speak out more candidly, but a primitive institution like the mutawiyin continues to get away with shocking acts. Trials are promised, and begin, and then are put off, under the sinister gaze of Nayef. Precisely how events will unfold is impossible to foretell, but it is not too much to say that if the mutawiyin are ever finally held to answer for their long career of oppression, the entire Wahhabi establishment may begin to crumble.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Irfan al-Alawi is a close observer of Saudi affairs based in the United Kingdom.