On October 2, Arab media reported that a Kuwaiti radical Muslim television preacher, Tareq Suwaidan, was prohibited from visiting Saudi Arabia. Suwaidan had sought to go to Mecca to perform “umrah,” a shorter version of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
The hajj, which takes up five days of rituals, will begin on October 13-14. Its timing depends on sighting of a new moon, marking commencement of the hajj month, or Dhu l-Hijjah, which is the last month in the Islamic lunar calendar. Umrah, involving only a part of the full hajj ceremonies, may be performed at any time, and is popular with Muslim believers who can afford the journey.
Suwaidan, one of an array of prominent Muslims considered imitators of Western tele-evangelists, is a man of parts. Supplementing his televised sermons, he is a motivational speaker and management consultant. He is ambiguous about certain topics, but admits to membership in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). He has appealed for dialogue between Muslims and the West, and praised American schooling—perhaps unsurprisingly since he was educated at Penn State and the University of Tulsa, earning a doctorate in petroleum engineering at the latter institution.
But Suwaidan distinguished himself by his unsuccessful support for a European law against “insult to religious figures” during the 2006 controversy over cartoon depictions of Muhammad, and he has incited suicide terrorism against Israel. Last year, he complained to the Al-Quds television station, affiliated with Hamas, “I can change the positions of some Westerners, but at the end of the day, power lies with the politicians, who are influenced by two things only: money and the media, both of which are controlled by the Jews. . . . The most dangerous thing facing the Muslims is not the [Arab] dictatorships. The absolutely most dangerous thing is the Jews. They are the greatest enemy.”
The Kuwaiti may therefore stand as typical of the MB’s exponents. He merges an idiom of enthusiasm for modernization and democracy with a defense of extremist violence. But Saudi Arabian tolerance of the MB and its ideology has become visibly exhausted. The exclusion of Tareq Suwaidan from participation in a religious observance on the soil of the kingdom is merely the latest expression of a high-level Saudi desire for distance from radical Islam, and especially from the MB.
The Saudi action against Suwaidan’s entry came six weeks after his dismissal from Al-Resalah (The Message), an Arabic-language, religious television and Internet medium. Suwaidan’s removal from Al-Resalah programming was ordered by the channel’s owner, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who condemned Suwaidan’s relationship with the MB. In a letter terminating Suwaidan’s employment, Alwaleed characterized the MB and its political stance as “deviant” and said there was no place for MB advocates on Al-Resalah.
While Suwaidan’s name will be unfamiliar to most non-Muslims, Alwaleed is well-known and disdained widely by Westerners, if only for the objectionable manner of his offer, after the al Qaeda atrocities of September 11, 2001, of a $10 million check to then-mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani. The “relief donation” was accompanied by a declamation against American support for Israel, and Giuliani refused the money. Alwaleed then aggravated the offense by denouncing, in Saudi media, “Jewish pressure” as the motive for Giuliani’s action.
The rich Saudi’s grossly offensive attitude after 9/11 along with his contributions to Islamist causes and Arabocentric Western academic programs—including $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown in 2005—have overshadowed his undeniably-reformist attitudes and actions within Saudi society. Just as Suwaidan’s incoherence reflects the confused nature of the MB, Alwaleed’s varied initiatives reveal the internal contradictions of Saudi reality.
Alwaleed has invested in such Western enterprises as News Corporation, Citigroup, and Twitter. He created an ambitious entertainment company, Rotana Holding, which introduced Saudi television viewers to movies previously inaccessible to them. In doing so, he defied the desert monarchy’s Wahhabi religious establishment and its opposition to depiction of living beings. Following Wahhabi strictures, Saudi Arabia has no motion picture theaters at present.
Rotana and Alwaleed scored a blow both for Saudi women and for Saudi freedom of expression with this year’s release of Wadjda, the country’s first female-directed film, co-produced with German financing. Remarkably candid about the problems of girls and women in the kingdom, Wadjda was the first Saudi feature ever submitted for an Oscar as the Best Foreign Language Film.
The best-known in a group of Saudi “media princes,” Alwaleed is the son of Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, who headed a one-time reform faction in the royal family known as the “Liberal Princes” or the “Free Princes.” Some of them were briefly appointed to the royal cabinet by King Saud Bin Abd Al-Aziz, who reigned from 1953 to 1964. Having served eight years before as Saudi minister of communications, Talal was named finance minister after 1960. Prince Talal favored a written constitution in place of the Koran, which is still Saudi Arabia’s sole “constitutional” authority, and an independent judiciary instead of religious courts run by Wahhabi bigots. He criticized the king for failing to keep promises of political and social change, lost his government post, and was exiled to Egypt. He was even nicknamed “the red prince,” suggesting absurdly that he had Communist sympathies. But Talal returned to Saudi Arabia in 1963 and since then has devoted himself to business interests.
By refusing support to the Egyptian MB administration of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, Riyadh has found itself allied with Egyptian liberals and secularists, in apparent incongruity with its fundamentalist Wahhabi legacy. In addition, Saudi Arabia is more outspoken than any other Arab country in challenging Iranian ambitions. Both postures are often characterized by Westerners as driven by raw fear—in the first instance, by worry that the rebellions of the Arab Spring would spill across Saudi borders and threaten the ruling caste, and, in the second, by Saudi Sunni rivalry with Tehran’s Shias, as claimants to global guidance for Muslims.
But in nearly three years since the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia has been untouched by any significant upheaval, while King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz has proceeded with small but undeniable reforms in education and religious life, as well as in the status of women.
Alwaleed gave a televised interview, reproduced with English subtitles by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), at the time of his firing of Tareq Suwaidan in August. Alwaleed endorsed fervently King Abdullah’s reform course and commented bitterly about the negative impact of the MB and Iran on today’s Muslims. He said that the issue of women driving cars on the roads and in the cities of Saudi Arabia (now banned, although women often drive in the countryside) is “a done deal,” meaning that its inevitability as a woman’s right is settled. He decried the presence of a million foreign drivers for Saudi women as an imposition on the privacy of Saudi families and an economic hardship for them.
Calling for a guarantee that promised elections would be held, Alwaleed condemned the lack of power of the country’s Shura Council, an appointed, “consultative” legislature. He supported a demand for the Shura Council to review the national budget, and argued for a separation of powers between independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the state. While he endorsed the democratic demands of the Arab Spring, he criticized the outcome of political change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, with new leaders failing to fulfill the aspirations of their citizens.
Declaring boldly “there is an MB smell in Saudi Arabia,” Alwaleed was told he had been accused of supporting the Brotherhood, and answered, “God forbid”—then pronounced the words twice more. He warned, “several Saudi sheikhs reek of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Asked how Saudi Arabia should get rid of the “smell,” he replied that the monarchy must “meet more of the people’s demands, to avoid giving [the MB] the opportunity to take advantage of the poverty, the housing problems, or the cost of living.”
Alwaleed accused Iran of “evil intentions”—another phrase he repeated for emphasis—and of meddling in Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and even in Mauritania and Morocco. “Iran has destructive, not merely expansionist, designs,” he cautioned. Questioned about the flirtation between Iran and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he declared, “I do not trust Iran.”
Saudi anxieties over the Muslim Brotherhood, the failed Arab revolutions, and Iran should not be dismissed by cynical Westerners as mere expressions of anxiety over the permanency of Saudi royal power or reflections of intra-Muslim competition. As the world has seen, but too many refuse to acknowledge, the MB, the rapid dissipation of the Arab Spring, and Iranian aggression have indeed aggravated the problems of the Muslim lands, and, by implication, those of America and the other leading powers. We should not need to be reminded of these realities by Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, but neither should we disregard his opinions—especially on reform of Saudi Arabia.