Sectarianism Made Super (Or: How To Tell Your Shi’a From Your Sunni)

Comments sections of various websites are filled with people who have dim, insulting, or downright horrific views on Islam, largely because the religion itself is riven with just enough differences to make it super hard to generalize it.  But what’s going on with Sunnis and Shi’a and what in the hell is an Alawite?  Let’s make this Super.

Categorize religion correctly before you go any further

The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religio,” which is a later comer than the idea of gods, spirits, and other things we typically associate with religion.  Ancient peoples prior to Christianity did not give religion the same kind of utter reverence demanded from religion today.  Sure, cults were important, and people were plenty superstitious, but there’s a fine line between the old cults and what we would consider a religion.

Julius Caesar openly manipulated the Roman state cults to make himself more politically powerful. Alexander the Great made himself a god and apparently actually believed it.  History’s had its fair-share of meglomaniacs, so in and of itself leaders making themselves gods isn’t so shocking.  What is shocking, from a modern person’s perspective, is that they got away with it.  (“If Alexander wants to be a god, let him be a god,” said a Spartan Damis when Sparta debated that motion, a position that didn’t get him exiled, crucified, or murdered one bit).

That our ancient forebears gave little more than two shits about their gods is obvious from how often they changed it to suit their tastes and perspectives and how little that bothered the common man.  Religious wars were nonsense; racist wars, sure, absolutely, but to fight to convince other people your god was the only god?  Pure idiocy.

Even Judaism fell into this category.  There might be only one God, but he was for the Jewish tribe alone.  No need to fight any wars beyond pure survival there.

Drunk, naked baby. Ancient religions had fewer qualms with that kind of stuff.

Until Christianity came along, grabbed hold of the Roman Empire, and changed the rules

The Roman government despised Christianity for a while there, but not for particularly holy reasons.  Since the Roman emperor was a god on Earth, any religion claiming otherwise undermined state authority.  Had Christianity done what so many other cults did and make room for Caesar, they’d have been less often fed to the lions.

But Christianity introduced a new concept, one directly influenced by the Roman state itself – absolutism.  Caesar was a god on Earth who could do as he liked.  Christianity posited that there was an authority higher than that – God Himself who’d sent Jesus to redeem mankind.  No pagan religion had ever claimed to be a catch-all for the species.

Thus a new rule was born: God might be in Heaven, but He’s appointed a church to deal with things on Earth.  Everything that said church did was right; anything done to it was wrong.  Crystal clear morality for the common illiterate.

The Roman state struggled against Christianity for the longest time, but eventually realized that within the religion was a powerful tool for its survival.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em – and the Roman state under Constantine grabbed Christianity and turned it into just another arm of the government, complete with publicly paid priests and legally-sanctioned holy songs.

Nearby geopolitical rival Persia, hosting a different cult, the Zoroastrians, experienced a similar change of outlook.  States that could combine the holier-than-thou attitude of a single absolutist religion could wield incredible powers.  Everything one did for the government was not just good for the state but good for the soul.

Soldiers would fight harder, taxes would be paid more regularly, and fewer would think of killing the God-appointed leader, than ever before.   Damned skippy it was a fine idea, and Persia and Rome both rushed to grab control of their suddenly uber-important religions.  Key to that was ensuring that the state religion was the only one with any real power, with anyone breaking the party line being hunted down and wiped out in whatever methods were fashionable.

And Islam was not born in a vacuum

Do remember this is not a religious website, and so religions get treated as historical entities as opposed to The Truth.  From that perspective, Islam owes a lot to the codifying and standardizing practices of nearby Persia and Rome.  Early Muslim rulers, including Mohammed himself, borrowed an awful lot of practices from these two powers.  (A fantastic book on this process is In the Shadow of the Sword, which details what influences played into the formation of early Islam).

When Muslim armies swamped the decaying Roman and Persian empires, they wisely understood they were outnumbered by the locals, and the best way to ensure compliance was to simply be less horrible than the previous governments.  The practice of standardizing a religion might sound scientific, but in reality in means stabbing people, putting out their eyes, setting both books and heretics on fire, and other nasty things you’re tempted to do when you come across people who just can’t see why your God is an awesome God.  The early Muslims merely had to back off taxes and executions to make themselves far more palatable to their conquered peoples, who were allowed to keep their religions.

These early rules were set hard and fast and remain unchallenged to this day.  Christians and Jews are special peoples when it comes to Islamic law and are treated just the same as they were in the Golden Age of Islamic rule. (Zoroastrians, however, weren’t so well treated).

As the demographic balance switched from a Muslim minority to a majority, Muslim leaders began to adopt the aggressive religious standardizing practices of the dead Roman and Persian empires.  Since the early rules had been set saying to leave the Christians and Jews alone, the victims were either pagans left out of the Qu’ran, or anyone dumb enough to think religion likes innovation.

How you might convince someone to sing the right goddamn songs. Early Muslim rulers avoided this to keep from having their subjects overthrow them.

How do you get a Shi’a from a Sunni?  Well, it begins with a pointless argument amongst the elites

The barest bones tale of Islams two biggest sects, Shi’ism and Sunnism, boils down to an argument amongst early Muslim elites, the newly powerful leaders of the briefly united Muslim empire, over who should lead.  Sunnism was markedly more democratic than Shi’ism, favoring elites chosen because of their leadership qualities and expertise in the religion.  Shi’ism favored choosing someone from Mohammed’s family, as one did in those days when choosing new rulers.

In the Sunni case, elites argued they should continue to pass on power as they did under the tribes – from one strong, wise man to another.  In the Shi’a case, it was about passing on power like the Romans and Persians did, from father to son, in order to ensure everyone understood very clearly and early on how power was transferred and who was eligible.

You then had the first fitna, or time of conflict, where the two parties went their separate ways.  Over time, elites in both groups did what was natural and started competing viewpoints about the world.  Underpinning both was the assumption that they were absolutely, utterly right – a notion they’d inherited from the Romans and Persians.

And therein lies the kernal of religious conflict

Absolutism as once embodied by Caesar has been resurrected by various Islamist parties.  They would never admit it, but they owe a lot to the those empires their forebearers conquered.  Islamist parties of all stripes favor absolutism, believing they have the Truth, and seek to spread that Truth as much as possible.  In doing so, they’re behaving in the exact same fashion as the Eastern Romans and Persians did as they struggled against one another just on the eve of the coming of Islam.

Modern Middle Eastern sectarianism has its roots in the wars fought by the Ottoman Turks and Savafid Persians and how those two governments were able to rule their people

This is where the Geopolitics of Sectarianism kicks in and gets super-duper.  Both empires competed for supremacy in the Muslim world from around 1500 until about 1750, when the Ottomans and Persians became more threatened by other neighbors than by one another and the wars cooled down.

The Safavid dynasty had an advantage the Ottomans did not – they ruled over a natural nation-state, Persia, and so could exercise authority on a deeper level than the Ottomans as they did what all states of that time did: attempted to standardize religion as a tool to be used by the government.  Thus today’s Iran is overwhelmingly Shi’a, the chosen voice of the Safavids, as are territories closest to the former Safavid military frontiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Ottomans had a more complicated and delicate task.  Like the original Muslim conquerors, they couldn’t afford to antagonize too many minorities within their empire, and so embarked on measured tolerance in places that allowed sects to survive and thrive.  Thus the Ottomans sheltered the Druze, Shi’a, Sarmatians, Christians of various stripes, and others as they tried to slowly and carefully make Sunni Islam standard amongst their Turkish peoples.  Arabs and Europeans were more left alone for fear of revolt; hence why Ottoman Europe today is not Sunni the way Safavid Iran is Shi’a.

As a result, Turkish territories – like Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon – are far more diverse.  It’s not because the Turks were happy about that.  It’s because if the Turks pushed too hard, they suffered revolts.  From 1700 onwards, the Turks were increasingly unable to balance both the forces they’d conquered with the neighbors advancing on their borders.

The three great Muslim empires of the 18th century. Ottoman territories tended towards diversity or Sunnism while Persia went Shi’a.

So that’s how the where of the Shi’a/Sunni divide got started, but why then are they going at one another now?

Within modern Abrahamic religions, thanks to Persian and Roman influence, there exists a strand of absolutism that demands obedience and complete control.  This strand gets stronger or weaker depending on the strength of the local government.  When the government of an area can’t solve social, political, or economic problems using secular and scientific methods, people naturally turn to the one other thing claiming to have All The Answers.  This strengthens the absolutists, who use their power to try to grab as much power as they can while they can.

Most of the governments set up in the Middle East were, with few exceptions, incredibly weak when Europeans left.  Within them was the legacy of Ottoman rule; diverse communities with little to unite them except their supposed shared Arabness.  Ottoman rule did not attempt to unite these places into nations, but rather to divide them against one another by tolerating and encouraging differences.

Briefly, Arab nationalism sought to be the panacea to solve the region’s ills, but repeated defeats at the hands of Israel, the United States, and one another have buried that notion under heaps of bodies.  Already weak governments have wobbled more and more, and some, as we’ve seen, have finally fallen.

Iran’s been a special case; having never been formally colonized, it’s not suffered the same cultural hangover.  Nevertheless, it’s borrowed heavily from the imperial playbook of powers long gone.

While leaders have used the sectarian card to save themselves

As the Romans and Persians learned eons ago, a state with a single religion has higher morale, greater loyalty, and can be counted to do the horrible things necessary to save a leader in crisis.  Most modern Middle Eastern rulers know this and have acted accordingly.  Doubling-down on a sectarian identity is the difference between victory and defeat.  It’s also a clean litmus test of loyalty; what’s yer name there, boy?  Omar?  Sounds like a filthy Sunni ta me.  Betta change that ta Ali.

King Khalifa of Bahrain has made it clear he’s a Sunni and his enemies Shi’a; Assad is fighting a dirty war as a Shi’a Alawite, his enemies jihadi Sunnis.  Iraq’s ongoing election is sectarian fighting by other means; few secular, pan-Iraqi parties will emerge with much.  Iran’s meddling in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria is strictly sectarian; they break the rule for Sunni Hamas in Gaza, but only because the only thing that can still sort of unite Shi’a and Sunni elites is attacking Israel.  Even that card has worn thin; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are prepared to do a deal with an Israel that withdraws from the West Bank.

Damn fine map. As you can see, former Turkish territories enjoy more colors.

The long story short (too late!): to stick around, elites will use all the cultural leverage they have left

Demands for democracy were inevitable once enough people were born in the Middle East.  Monarchies and dictatorships are too personality-focused to respond to the demands of tens of millions of people.  Old empires got away with their rule partially because of lower populations, which made problems easier to solve.  But a 90+ million state like Egypt needs power devolved in many places to run well.  Yet dictators, by their nature, don’t share.

And that goes for all elites, from tribal sheikhs to old clerics, whose roles are threatened by modernization and democracy.  To survive, they will throw every switch they have left.  Tribalism and its many sins accelerates the damage; sectarianism becomes another aspect of tribal elites jockeying for scraps as their country burns itself hollow.

Invariably, this energy will exhaust itself and the Middle East’s elites will have used up all the religious capital they have.  They will then be discarded and replaced by elites who can offer better futures.  But so long as they are around, they will play by old Constantinople’s rules, and the region will bleed accordingly.

Saudi Arabia’s Power Play (Or, the Childishness of Kings)

I’ve let my contempt for Saudi Arabia’s current governing system be known – several times.  This is because it’s a personality-centric system driven by personalities that most of you wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.  In such systems, psychology matters when understanding certain events.  Let’s take a walk through, shall we, and understand Saudi state psychology.

Mixing politics and religion is never a good idea

The primary role of religion is to answer the unanswerable; the primary role of political leadership is to organize societies into groups that can both fend off other organized societies and concurrently enrich a certain elite.  That second part there is important – political systems tilt towards earthly rewards for those at the top.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown, may as well have some virgins thrown in to alleviate, you know?  So goes the thinking.

Glaring for a reason.

Politics inherently perverts religion because the goals are entirely different.  One cannot strive for all the answers to the universe on the same day as one plots against a neighbor.  Those are very different conversations.  Because politics focuses on the earthly and immediate, any system that mixes the two pollutes religion with politics, rather than the other way around.  If a system becomes too religious, in invariably collapses because it takes the eye off the main balls – defending society from other societies and enriching the top elites.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has mixed the two to pure madness

And has created a powerful state psychology hinged on the belief that any culture or religion outside its own is hellfire waiting to happen.  Saudi security forces most likely believe all the tripe they’ve been fed and see anyone but themselves as infidels and impure.  This makes pretty much everyone on Earth the enemy.  Only Saudi royals rise above the fray and embrace infidels to save their kingdom.  Several of them – Prince Bandar especially – are quite aware the existence of the kingdom is contingent on outside support.

This creates a mentality of zero-sum thinking

Saudi state psychology is grappling rather frantically to find footing in the wake of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.  No, that deal’s not finished, and much may fuck up before the day is out, but the precedent – that the two supposedly intractable foes can agree on principles – is a massive threat to Saudi Arabia.  Anything that strengthens a heretical power – Shi’a Iran – concurrently weakens Saudi Arabia.  For those who believe the world should be more like them, there’s no reason for co-existence except when absolutely necessary.

Saudi Arabia would like to see the end of Shi’a Islam – not forcefully necessarily, but through mass conversions as millions wake up and realize Saudi Arabia and not Iran has always had the true version of Islam.  The Iranian state is in the way of that; it stands to reason that its collapse, reduction or weakening would benefit Saudi Arabia’s religious designs.

Classy ads from classy people.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia sees Iran engaged in the same game – one for the souls of all Muslims.  There can’t be a formal peace that says, you’re good, I’m good, we all good.  Even if war is eradicated, the struggle for the soul of Islam will carry on through debate, schooling, and religious foundations.  Whoever has the most money will stand a good chance of carrying the day.

And so Saudi Arabia seeks to shore up its power base by encouraging its neighbors to stop existing

In 2011, I asked my Emirati students if they liked King Abullah’s idea of a unified Gulf Co-Operation Council, which would in essence just be a “Greater Saudi Arabia.”  Some of them said they were cool with it, since they were all good Muslims and what could go wrong?  Others wanted to keep their country.  Regardless, the proposal was met with tepid, “Oh, you,” responses from most Gulf capitals, rather than outright “no.”

Now the idea has come up again.  Saudi Arabia has greater incentive than ever to absorb the Gulf states, which would, at a stroke, give it about 2/3rds of the world’s oil reserves.  Even with America coming back into the game as an oil producer, such control would force the world to make sure Saudi Arabia stays stable and protected.  Virtually any incentive to see the royals go would evaporate.  It’s a helluva insurance policy.

As if anyone wants to go quietly into the night

Oman responded with a polite, but firm, fuck off.  The Sultan probably knows his branch of Islam, Ibadism, would get short shrift in this new mega-state.  With a state history much longer than Riyadh’s, Omanis also have a sense of self that wouldn’t be so easily swallowed.

The minority vote.

As for the other states, all of them fledgling in identity (save Bahrain), the idea most likely chills their leaders to the bone.  To say no is dangerous; Saudi Arabia will only see that as a threat.  But to say yes is more so; it means the end of their indigenous development programmes, some of which are decidedly un-Islamic.  The careful nation-building that’s been under construction for over 40 years will come crashing down; moreover, if Saudi Arabia does spiral into chaos, it means these states will be sucked down into it.

It speaks volumes about Saudi Arabia’s state psychology

The rather remarkable arrogance of the move is classic Saudi royal family.  “We’re big, we’re rich, and nobody should threaten that,” is the thinking.  Co-existence with Iran is quite possible if Saudi Arabia adopts an identity based on plurality and tolerance.  But there’s approximately zero signs of that happening right now.  If anything, they’re battening down the hatches and getting even more intolerant, seeing everything as a conspiracy to undo their shaky power.

It’s also self-defeating 

Even if Saudi Arabia gets away with this power grab, it will only be a success if the United States allows it.  The U.S. could easily neuter it in its early stages just by expressing disapproval.

But say Saudi Arabia manages despite that. All they’ve acquired is a set of states with low populations and high expectations and economies based on massive capital inflows.  They don’t gain strategic depth – Iran could invade the Eastern Province just as easily as Dubai.  If anything, it means expensive semi-occupations, where Saudi Arabia has to keep on bribing their new subjects at levels even greater than their former leaders to ensure their loyalty.  And if one of them decides to quit this federation, how long ’til a contagion of revolution, secession, and state disintegration takes root?

So why bother?

Because Saudi Arabian state psychology won’t allow its leaders to sit still while Iran’s suddenly brought in from the cold.  Any idea must be entertained, even if it’s a bad one.  Alas, it’s the equivalent of a hungry kid grabbing up all the treats and gobbling them down early to prevent anyone else from eating them.  Hardly an ideal scenario for running a state in the 21st century.

Where the hell did political Islam come from?

Contrary to some true Islamophobic believers, politics and Islam have not always gone hand in hand.  Under the Ottoman Empire, most Muslim territories were going the same way as Christian Europe – faithful but modernizing, scientific but not atheistic.  Up until the 1950s, the difference in religious participation between Europeans and Muslims wasn’t that much.  Both went to their places of worship as often as they had to.  Both did not consider science as a cancellation of their faith.  Both wanted leaders who shared their common beliefs.

But something happened along the line there.  Why is there no political Christian movement akin to the Muslim Brotherhood trying to run things in the West?  Why is there no Christian equivalent of al-Qaeda, a worldwide terror organization seeking to recapture the days of the Gospel?

From the ashes of empire

Catholics have the pope; Sunni Muslims once had the caliph.  For a long time, the Ottoman sultans held that title as a binder between their disparate territories.  After World War I, however, as Turkish nationalists and secularists started to gain power, the title was seen as dangerous to their modernizing vision.  It was, after all, hero-worshipping the past that had been partly responsible for the Ottoman losses in World War I.  So the Turks abolished the title as they made way for a secular state.

Imagine Italy doing that to the pope.  You’d get a reaction.

English: Map showing the territories of the Ot...

Ottoman Empire in 1914.  Once united, now broken. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A movement called the Khilafats was among the first pan-Islamic movements out there seeking to restore lost glory.  Mostly based in British India, at first they wanted to preserve the caliphate and then, when it was abolished, restore it.  The British had no time for their nonsense and they were dispersed as a movement by 1924.

But they’d set a precedent.  The loss of the caliphate was a shock to many educated Muslims, who had to wonder why God would allow something like that to happen.

Country first

Anti-colonial movements drew on religion as a way to evict the British and French.  But it always came second fiddle to nationalism.  Especially since most of the colonies were religiously mixed, political Islam didn’t get much traction because to do so would spark the kinds of religious wars we’ve seen in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Gamal Abdul Nasser and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk were two Muslim men who put country far above God.  Both sought legitimacy by building nation-states similar to Europe, hoping that by doing so they could finally compete with the big powers in the West.  Kemal’s Turkish nationalism was never seriously challenged; alas, Abdul Nasser wasn’t nearly so lucky.

Arab nationalism was shattered by two seminal events – the failure of Abdul Nasser’s union between Syria and Egypt in 1963 and the 1967 Six Day War.  In the former, Arabs learned that even places that supposedly wanted to be united couldn’t manage it.  In the latter, Arabs learned their militaries were horrifically inferior to Western power.  Nationalism had not united Muslims nor destroyed its supposed enemies.

Praying hard

In the meantime, other movements were in the shadows, offering a different solution to the seeming powerlessness of Muslim countries.  The Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt in the 1920s, but gained little traction until after Abdul Nasser’s defeat in 1967.  To many Muslim intellectuals, the problem was not that their societies hadn’t emulated the West enough; it was that they’d emulated it too much.  Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian writer and Muslim Brother whose theories would go on to inspire al Qaeda, went hardcore after visiting America in the 1940s and, after seeing all that sex and racism, went home determined to make sure nothing like that happened in Egypt.

Enter the Saudis

This kind of thinking was still mainstream in the Arabian Peninsula, which, by the 1950s, was just starting to emerge from its thousands of years of total isolation.  There, where Bedouin societies had convinced themselves of the superiority of both their religion and culture, many political Islamists found sanctuary as nationalist dictators back home cracked down.  Muslim Brothers fled to Saudi Arabia, grew beards, and started dressing like the locals.  They bought the propaganda that the Saudi way of life was closest to the actual Prophet Mohammed’s.

English: (Islam_Is_The_Solution.jpg) arabic lo...

“Islam is the solution” – the Muslim Brotherhood’s creed.  Note there’s no stance on taxes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With Saudi cash, the Muslim Brothers and those like them went out and set up schools, radio stations, magazines, and newspapers, all with the aim to convert the rest of Islam to what was essentially a Saudi way of life.

Going backwards

As the message got out, variant forms of Islam started to be suppressed or wiped out.  A push to create a “true” form of “pure” Islam crowded out local forms.  To be a good Muslim, one should essentially look like and act like a Saudi from the 1950s.  But for most of the 1960s and 70s, these groups didn’t get much traction, and some rather imaginative retelling of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war managed to give nationalism a shot in the arm.  But then 1979 happened.


When the Shah fled, Iran was left wide open for the most organized group to grab power.  That turned out to be the Islamists, who outraced the communists, nationalists, and secularists for leadership.  Their revolutionary propaganda spread across the world; for the many listening Muslims, it was inspirational.  It drew on time-worn anti-colonial rhetoric, of course, but added a deeply religious component.  Iran’s government pushed the line that they were free of foreign influence because they worshipped God properly, who therefore protected them from the outside world.

English: Young Saudi Arabian woman wearing Isl...

More common than it used to be.

The formula made a huge amount of sense to plenty of people, causing waves. In 1979, Saudi suffered through the Siege of Mecca, where hardcore Islamists seized the Grand Mosque, the holiest place in Islam, butchered a bunch of people, and essentially called for a Sunni version of Iran’s revolution.  This was back in the days where communications could still be jammed; Saudi’s National Guard bombarded and then stormed the mosque with nary a television camera in sight.  The event convinced the Saudi royals that they too had to appear to be more religious if they were to retain control.

Finally, in Afghanistan, the Soviets came.  Here was an enemy political Islam relished; atheistic, thinking economics came before God, worshipping themselves rather than the true religion.  Saudi directed its own fanatics to the battle front.  The war energized millions and, as it became clear the religious warriors of Afghanistan were actually winning, convinced people as well as governments that the path towards equality with the West lay in the past.

Giving lip service

So even the secular tyrants started to put on airs of religion.  Mosque and state got more and more blurred as the dictators tried to forestall any religious uprising against them.  They also found it as a useful tool against the West, where it rapidly replaced anti-colonial language.  After his defeat in Kuwait, Saddam suddenly found God and plastered “Allah Akbar” (اللة اكبر God is Great) on the Iraqi flag.  In the 1970s, Anwar Sadat discovered he really liked reading the Qu’ran on television.  Even Gaddafi, the crazy bastard, changed the Libyan flag to pure green, green being Islam’s sacred color.

Whole generations of people grew up under these new rules.  Education became more and more religious; parents and teachers were convinced parity with Western powers, as well as social perfection, lay in the Qu’ran.

Of course, as soon as a political Muslim tried to actually run things, the dictators hung them up by their ankles and electrocuted them in a cellar.  In the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Hama in 1982, Syria’s Hafez al Assad slaughtered up to 20,000 people in order to remind everyone who was in charge.

Being the most pious guy in the room

For many, society redefined itself to valuing the most religious person in the room.  As nationalism waned, political Islam took its place.  By the 1990s, the corruption of the kings and dictators were all too apparent.  Political Islam started to fill the gaps left by these horrible little governments, setting up schools, hospitals, and mosques.  In the Gulf, oil money and a mass importation of labor allowed those societies to largely avoid big political Islamist groups.  Nevertheless, the kings and sheikhs there still struck a deal with the Islamists – run our schools, set up our mosques, but don’t fuck with us.

That brings us to today

In Egypt, one year of Islamist rule has badly damaged political Islam’s reputation.  Al-Qaeda’s psychopathic branch in Iraq essentially self-destructed the movement there.  The Gulf’s rulers are arresting, torturing, and exiling even the smallest groups of Islamists lurking in their borders.  Even Afghanistan’s Taliban are now reduced to little more than a Pushtun tribal faction, thanks to relentless drone strikes and the fact that they shoot little girls in the head for going to school.

Political Islamists are rapidly running out of oxygen.  For years, they managed to claim, plausibly, that if they got a shot at running things, they’d make the world a better place because God loves them so.  But they’ve yet to set order to any country; their rise is accompanied by war, oppression, and stagnation.  Since 1979, the tide of political Islam has risen more and more each year.  But this coup in Egypt may be a turning point.  Egypt was the start of it; it may well now be the end of it.

 Related articles

  • Doc’s Talk: Islam and Islamism (

Why Saudi is Fucked

Towns of hejaz arabic

Notice all the brown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even the name sounds foreign.  Hear it properly in Arabic, with its deep, swallowed sounds at center of the word, سعيدي and it’s hard to imagine a further away place.  Saudi Arabia is, on the one hand, on the frontiers of Western imagination, a closed off, secret place associated with hot weather, sand dunes, and terrorists.  It can seem baffling to an outsider, a walled off portion of the world beyond normal rules and comprehension.  But like all human societies, the rules of geopolitics still apply.  Figuring it out – and guessing its next move – is merely a matter of getting your facts down.

Arabia’s really fucking hot

Arabia is one of the most God-forsaken places on Earth. It’s a super hard place for humans to live, and ranks with Antarctica in its desolation.  That the word “Arab” and “desert” are nearly synonymous is no accident, and Arabic as a language still feels constrained to the sands, as if it’s only natural in a hot, dry place.

Its complications stem from that.  Arabia is divided into three topological zones – the vast, shitty sandy deserts, the slightly less miserable but equally dry mountain ranges, and the handful of relatively temperature mountain clusters.

And its geography makes water hard to find

In the sandy deserts, life is almost impossible.  Thanks to the oases and wells scattered under the surface, people have made do for thousands of years in clusters of tents and small villages.  The mountain ranges trap some moisture and allow a bit of pasture, but are only marginally less rough than the desert sands.

Because it was so hard to find even water, let alone food, the scattered peoples of the desert spent a great deal of time and energy finding and securing both.  They had less time to think about esoteric ideals, like wondering if rape was bad or if bad was even worth worrying about at all.  Culture was based upon chauvinistic strength as each group of people gathered into family-based tribes.  Tribes that went against this grain were quickly wiped out.  Literally, only the strong survived.

Around particularly large oases, towns and villages formed.  But if that oasis dried up, that community was fucked and everyone either fled or died in rapid order.  Water security was so difficult to guarantee that as soon as a civilization got going it fell apart because of lack of rain. The famous Iram of the Pillars (located in western Oman) was once a major trading city, but died a quick death as soon as its well went dry, consigned to the dust heap of legend.

Yemen was an exception, but may as well have been an island. Its power could never extend into the desert wastes.  Patrolling, supplying, and securing the desert was a vast sink of money and it was far better for the kings of Yemen’s various dynasties to fight one another or to go looking for slave girls in Ethiopia.  It’s for good reason that Yemen’s early history is far more tied up with the Horn of Africa than it is with Arabia.

These three zones made it goddamn hard to take over the whole thing

Arabian geography is not disposed to social or political unity.  In the west are a series of mountains in varying degrees of miserable and tolerable.  These were relatively easy to travel through and unify, but so poor it was often not worth it.

In the central and eastern deserts, communities clung to oases and wells, surviving by networks of traders bringing goods in and out.  Only in two places – Oman and Bahrain – did proper civilizations form.  Bahrain had a lovely fresh water oasis that remains in use to this day.  Oman had a set of mountain ranges that trapped moisture and recharged wells all along its coast. Both, however, were isolated by the deserts and found it far cheaper to communicate and expand via sea.  It’s no accident Oman’s empire went into Africa, to Zanzibar and Tanzania, rather than geographically closer central and western Arabia.

Imagine you’re in charge of two buildings.  You can’t call or signal the other building because they can’t hear or see you and you don’t have a phone or the Internet.  You have to physically send someone over there to find out what the fuck they’re doing and to tell them what they should be doing.  But it takes six months to get a message back and then forth.  Your messenger may well die along the way, too, and it’d take months to find that out.  Meanwhile, your second building is paralyzed with indecision – they’ve got calls only you can make.  How long until that second building says fuck it and starts doing things on their own?  How long until your appointed manager decides he can get away with start his own company and pocketing the profit himself?

Arabia is the same way.  The west, the Hejaz, was connected to the old centers of civilization up north via roads and trade routes.  An army from Syria or Egypt could come down to Yemen by land and reasonably expect not to die of heat exhaustion on the way.  But eastern Arabia may as well be on Tatooine inside George Lucas’s head.  In between, it’s even worse, more like Frank Herbert’s Dune, full of nasty shit that itched to kill travelers.

Islam created a resource where before there were none

Prior to Islam, hardly anyone bothered with Arabia.  Alexander the Great thought of conquering it on a whim before he died in Babylon.  Rome sent troops and then, like a drunk sobering up during sex with an ugly person, pulled out as soon as they got a good look.

English: Kaaba at the heart of Mecca. As the n...

The sacred Kaaba at the heart of Mecca. This thing is a major cash cow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Persia often just said, “Mine” in regards to the Gulf coast and nobody felt like disputing it.

Islam, therefore, proved to be a boom to this otherwise unfuckable landscape.  One of Islam’s main stipulations is that you must visit Mecca before you die if you can afford it.  As Islam gathered converts, more and more came to Mecca and dumped heaps of cash on an otherwise unappealing place.

The holy city, therefore, was the first must-have resource Arabia ever possessed.  Suddenly, regional powers had a reason to invade.

And invade they did

Nobody but a Muslim power could benefit from Mecca’s pilgrims and the legitimacy the city bestowed (Nothing says “God loves me” like being charge of a holy city).  Attack from the east was physically unfeasible (although, be it noted, not impossible), so only powers with bases in Syria and Egypt could move into the Hejaz.  Unfortunately for Yemen, they often kept going south until they reached Aden.  But they dared not waste their time trying to extend themselves over the whole peninsula.  Not only would their armies likely die out, but there was nothing of value out there.

Meanwhile, in the desert, the natives remained restless

Competition in the sands was fierce.  Fighting over wells and water resources sucked up most of their time.  Tribes lived by raiding one another and any settled communities to get manufactured goods like coffee pots and weapons.  But while they accepted Islam, this hardly made them any more peaceful or enlightened.  Their isolation from the mainstream discussions about Islam kept them from developing their religion in line with Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran.

This isolation also convinced them of their superiority as a culture, especially as they noticed that nobody but their culture group could survive in their desert.  All their bad (and good) habits were eventually declared to be bestowed and sanctified by God, from cousin fucking to woman whipping.  Nothing shut up the kids when they dared question their parents’ values by saying God wanted them to marry the hideous unibrow in the family.

And so it went until the 20th century

Without technology, people couldn’t get at the water deep underground.  Without water, they couldn’t afford to build cities and develop industries where they could manufacture goods for trade.  Without trade, they couldn’t get the technology to get the party started.  It was a thrilling cycle.

People did try to unify the place, but found that rather hard

Tribes organized and battered one another, occasionally achieving supremacy but always collapsing under their own weight and infighting.

And it all boiled down to the lack of water and food

A successful tribe, having driven out their enemy or, better yet, butchered them all, naturally divided the spoils amongst themselves and their allies.  These spoils were, more often than not, water and food.  This increased their survivability and made them prone to winning the next battle, since they were in better health than their enemies.

A tribe could snowball this and end up with quite a bit of territory.  But a critical breaking point was invariably reached.  Either the tribe overpopulated, and found themselves ironically weakened by all their success, or their own members started to get greedy, causing infighting rival tribes took advantage of.

Had a tribe gotten super lucky and actually put together a near-kingdom, they’d quickly pose a threat to the nearby great power occupying Mecca.  That great power would then roll into the desert, smoke out a few oases, and retreat again, leaving the tribes in disarray to start over.  So even if a tribe got to the point of nearly settling the interminable wars of the interior, some foreigner would roll in and screw it all up.

Because reading and writing outside of religious studies weren’t priorities for the tiny populations of the desert, history in the interior is fuzzy.  We know for a fact that this happened at least twice to the Saudi family, who built two kingdoms in the 18th and 19th century and then saw them collapse from internal squabbling or Turkish invasion.

English: Saudi Arabia

Saudi’s various regions. The ever-so-creatively named Eastern Province is where Saudi’s oil is located. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, outsiders carved up those bits worth carving

The Ottomans in the Hejaz developed rail lines to Mecca and Medina to help facilitate the cash flow brought by pilgrims from all over the Muslim world.  Until the 1930s, this was the only reason for a great power to bother.  When Britain fought Turkey in World War I, it outsourced the Arabian front to Arab tribes since Mecca had almost no value to them as a Christian power.

Britain, meanwhile, grabbed the east the same way as the Persians in antiquity – by sailing in and saying “Mine,” taking over with minimal effort.  A Political Agent in Bahrain oversaw the entire Gulf and his main duties seem to have been to complain about the weather and remark on how boring his post was.

But oil changed the game quite suddenly

In the 1930s, geologists found Arabia’s second must-have resource.  By this time, the Saudis had gotten lucky and had set up another proto-state, even securing Mecca and Medina. The collapse of the Ottoman Turks meant no outside power was hovering overhead, ready to intervene.

The new imperial power in town, Great Britain, had a different set of priorities entirely.  Seeing no value from Arabia, Britain desired only quiet frontiers with its mandates in Jordan and Iraq.  Anyone who ruled the interior had to provide that.  The Saudis took the hint, and when some of their more hardcore warriors, the Ikhwan, started to raid British territories, the Saudis turned on them with a vengeance and wiped them out.  Britain was duly grateful and sought not to interfere in Saudi’s nascent kingdom.

With Britain keeping neighboring powers out, the Saudi family got critical breathing space.  When oil was found, it duly set up companies and oil derricks.  Britain was not bothered with grabbing any of this up – they’d found plenty in Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, and Iran, all British holdings at the time.  Only the U.S. was willing to invest in the horrible Arabian desert.

And so the state of Saudi Arabia was born

Without oil, Saudi would no doubt have collapsed yet again into anarchy, given enough time.  Water and food are simply too scarce there to allow a proper state, which have to have dense populations, to survive.  But oil allowed the Saudis to buy up heaps of technology to come in and change the environment while at the same time buying off the tribes, families, and regions who otherwise might have challenged them.

The fact that they had more money than God made everything possible. Rebellion was a thing of the past.  The tribesmen, ever hungry, were happy to be given free meals.

And free meals led to free everything else

With each passing year, the Saudi family had to up the ante for their subjects.  By the 1970s, it wasn’t enough to just be fed, and the Saudis started to build free houses, offer free education all the way through university, and set up free health care centers.  With their small population and massive oil income, they could import all of this from the outside world.

As Britain withdrew from the Middle East in 1971, America stepped in to secure oil supplies.  Once more, Saudi could count its borders safe as America’s fleets and armies guaranteed their integrity.  In addition to oil income, which they did hardly any work for, Saudis could also write off national defense.  Everything was easy street.

But the nature of their ruling system meant they could change little else

The Saudis were blood-stained conquerors who’d won their kingdom by killing everyone who stood in their way.  Upon finishing that, desert tradition required them to dole out the spoils to their new subjects.  Rebellion was stifled so long as these spoils arrived on time and in sufficient quantity.  Change of leadership was out of the question for everyone concerned.

So the culture got frozen in time

The Saudis, too, had not gone through the same process as other Arab and Muslims states.  These had encountered foreign cultures, fought and lost wars against them, and learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t.  Saudis, many of them illiterate, had little to no memory of their failed proto-states and knew only that God have given them oil and with it shitloads of money.  They could be forgiven for suffering from cultural and religious arrogance, even xenophobia.

The ruling system was therefore entirely based on the supposedly supreme values of the desert.  Although the ruling family always came first, they had to delegate, and so power was dispersed to those most conservative and most traditional.

Quickly, this resulted in myth-making and fantasy as Saudis basically made up their own history to justify their modern decisions (and they must have been quite pleased their ancestors were mostly illiterate fucks who might otherwise have contradicted them).  What was already a hardline form of Islam became totalitarian, seizing radio, TV, press, and education.  It then started to spread to other countries, believing their superior culture needed only to be exposed to the ignorant masses to establish supremacy.

In the meantime, technology made a shitty environment rather palatable

English: Kingdom Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia....

All them goddamn lights ain’t cheap. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Air conditioning, deep well pumps, desalination, cars, airplanes – all of it made the environment less important than it had been.  Riyadh, once just a barely-there oasis (the g-string of the Arabian world) barreled into a multi-million person city, complete with malls, parks, highways, and airports.  Babies that used to die of heat exhaustion in the tent went on to adulthood.  Families that had two dozen kids expecting only five to make it instead sent them all off to free university.  The population exploded and cities appeared from the dust.

The east-west divide became far less important strategically as roads and air links allowed the Saudi government to send directives at little cost.  All modern technology was used to justify and sanctify Saudi culture and to degrade both foreign cultures and any Muslims who didn’t follow the Saudi way of life.  As we’ve seen, the buckets of cash allowed Saudi to think God really did favor them.

And a weird fucking place was formed

Saudi Arabia has all the trappings of a proper country – a single language, ethnic group, religion, etc.  It’s physically united through roads and airports and its national army can travel to and fro without harassment.  It has all the ministries a country should.

But scratch the surface, and you’ll find the desert.  In order to keep power, the Saudi royal family has, with each generation, needed to keep bribing at higher and higher levels.  By the 1980s, food, housing, education, and healthcare weren’t enough; disposable income for toys, hookers in Thailand, and maids from the Philippines was the next step.

Alas, Saudi culture doesn’t mesh well with much besides living in a desert tent.  Few Saudis knew how to do much more than pray, live in the desert, and judge people for not praying the right way.  As immigrants set up businesses and industries, it was obvious Saudis had no idea how to do these jobs properly.

So Saudi’s government made jobs out of thin air, allowing Saudis to work for – well, the government itself.  Short hours and long holidays helped empty out the office and nobody expected anything to actually be done.  Can’t read or write?  No problem! In the Ministry of Education you need only find the door.  (Oh, it’s that one over there). It was just another way of giving handouts to key tribes.  A job was a bribe; in exchange, you were loyal.

This worked for a long time because oil meant Saudi didn’t have to compete in anything

From the 1970s until the 2000s, Saudi didn’t have to be good – or even competent – at any of its supposed industries or businesses.  Everything needed could be imported from abroad.  Technology was overseen by foreign experts who took fat, tax free paychecks.  Businesses of strategic importance were managed by immigrants.  Saudis themselves needed only visit the ATM, as far the government was concerned (and the ATMs were probably installed by guys from Pakistan).

This isn’t to say individual Saudi citizens weren’t gifted and intelligent people – many of them took advantage of the free university education offered and became bright people in their own right.  The problem, these gifted folks weren’t enough to run the country. The vast majority of citizens had no incentive to learn how to do anything except spend money and give lip service to their religion and culture.  It created a skills gap of epic proportions.

The result is that the Saudi economy doesn’t know how to do anything

Saudis don’t have the education level to run their own country.  Massive numbers of immigrants keep the system humming along.  Those few qualified Saudis that exist won’t be promoted over more loyal or better connected Saudis who don’t know a goddamn thing because the royal family doesn’t value proper education.  Properly educated people would notice the Saudi ruling system is bullshit and making things worse; even well-educated Saudi royals have probably noticed that.

The staggering ignorance still doesn’t matter – for now

So long as oil remains the primary income and immigrants remain willing to come into the country to work for tax free salaries, Saudis can get away with knowing nothing and doing less.  Their regional security is still secured by the United States – Iraq’s foray into Kuwait ended the era of cross border invasions in the Middle East for at least this generation.  So they can be isolated, dumb, and indolent.

But the oil money isn’t going as far as it once did

Oil money is used by the government to purchase loyalty.  But the price is being inflated rapidly.  Food, housing, healthcare, and education weren’t enough even in the 1980s – fun and entertainment had now entered the equation.  The level of fun and entertainment have become inflated with each passing year, as well.  One car’s not enough – most people want two cars.  And not Nissans anymore.  They want Landcruisers.  Oh, also, they don’t want to pay for gas.

It’s gotten so bad that it’s predicted, by the 2020s, Saudi may actually need to import oil to cover all its losses in the energy sector.  With gas, electricity, water, and air conditioning all subsidized, it’s no wonder Saudi is a horrifically wasteful place.

As salaries for worthless government workers go up, too, so also do prices in the Saudi economy.  The workers produce nothing and don’t increase wealth – only the oil income does that.  Inflation ravages and so the government has to pump ever more generous paychecks into the system.

The Saudi government says it realize this

Economic diversification and Saudization are the key words of the past decade.  Attempts to reform this or that, to globalize education, to make Saudi workers more productive run up against the hard expectations Saudis have spent nearly forty years developing.  Saudis want a lot and to work little.  They refuse in large numbers to take jobs that offer anything less.

King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz in 2002

King Abdullah waving and saying it’s all cool.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it all stems from the fact that the most important value to the Saudi royal family is blind loyalty through blind piety

God wants the Saudis in charge, and if you love God you must love the royal family too.  Fuck everyone who says otherwise because they’re for sure going to Hell. This is the basic theme taught by the Saudi education system.

People who fail to follow these rules face immediate and harsh punishment. They’re not just going against the king, but against God, so honestly, to many religious people, no punishment is severe enough.

And so the Saudis have fucked themselves

To reform, Saudi must open the door to critical thinking to allow creative problem solving.  Alas, when you open that door, you can’t shut it again.  Critical thinking will notice asinine habits of Saudi society – like women being unable to drive, like people working very little but getting a whole lot because of family connections, like setting up farms in the middle of a sandy desert.  It will notice all these problems stem from the bribes doled out by the ruling family and that the central problem is the royal family itself.

And that’s when you get a revolution

A clever monarchy reforms itself out of power but keeps many of the privileges.  It does so at the pace its society is modernizing.  Britain did that quite well and so the House of Windsor continues to enjoy Buckingham Palace.  The French Bourbons, on the other hand, didn’t.

But unfortunately for the House of Saud, it’s impossible to tell just how quickly society is modernizing.  Normally, you can get the feel of things through a free press or pop culture or even the Internet.  But all those sources are controlled or regulated into oblivion, so even if Saudi’s government was watching carefully, they’d see nothing. It’s also happening at a pace unimagined before.  Britain had the whole Industrial Age to flip from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary one.  Saudi may have just ten or twenty years.

Worse, the currency of the realm is still conservatism.  Challenging this results in quick pushback from the religious folks, who are hardly above outright rebellion.  The Shah of Iran could tell stories of what happens to a guy who modernizes too fast for his peoples’ liking.

Right now, bribes and fear keep the locals in line

If only Emperor Palpatine had used the Death Star to destroy planets and shower them with free gift cards, he’d probably have lasted a great deal longer.  This is essentially the Saudi model.  You can be arrested for anything even remotely anti-government or anti-Islam, and once in jail you’ll be raped as much and for as long as the police like with nary a peep from the press.  But smile at the king’s portrait and say sternly conservative things about Islam and you’ll get a lovely new car.

But the regions are not as united as they appear

Coat of Arms of Saudi Arabia

Coat of Arms of Saudi Arabia. Two things the whole country has in common: knives and palm trees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saudi is still a classic kingdom, with nobles and everything.  There’s a culture divide between east, west, and center.  In the west, long attached in some form to civilization, people are more likely to realize the Saudi system is not all its cracked up to be and that Islam has variant forms.  In the east, once under Persian influence, Shi’a Muslims are well aware their government thinks they’re going to Hell and that they sit on most of the kingdom’s oil reserves.  Only in the center – in Riyadh – where the Saudis originally came from and where people were most isolated – is loyalty most assured.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Failure to introduce critical thinking into their culture will make Saudi non-competitive in a generation.  Oil money only goes so far; it’s a finite well that doesn’t have to run out to become ineffective.  As soon as Saudi cannot pay some ridiculous food or wedding bills to even a few citizens, they risk a cascade of complaints that could tear their kingdom apart.  So Saudi must do something.

But critical thinking will invariably challenge everything Saudi society believes in.  You can’t get a creative problem solving engineer who won’t notice working for a retarded royal cousin is bullshit.  Additionally, Saudi’s official brand of culture is afraid of everything and convinced anything not Saudi is evil.  Upon learning that nations don’t fall when couples kiss in public (or that flogging people is a terrible crime deterrent), Saudi citizens will reject the official culture and the government’s central legitimacy will be lost.

The likely future

Saudi probably won’t reform or, if it does, will reform poorly.  The Saudi royal family is supposed to be ordained by God to rule; they’re not going anywhere.  Saudi society isn’t ready to question their religion and culture in a way that doesn’t involve fighting, arrests, and civil unrest.  The incentives to change just aren’t there.  Forward-thinking royals will experiment here and there; one of them might be become a king.  But all of them will be thwarted by the system they themselves created.

What will happen is the oil money will start to fail to solve society’s ills.  Crime will go up; disobedience will increase.  It will be a Saudi form of the 1960s, but far worse, as Saudi is still a tribal society.  Tribes will pull away from the House of Saud as they are no longer bribed.  They’ll support tribes that they think will restore the artificially imposed balance.

And nobody will know what the fuck they’re doing

Tribes will lie to acquire power.  Saudi will either crush them, making more enemies and spiraling violence further, or will lose to them, at which point they’ll inherit all the same problems.  A new tribe won’t solve the fundamental issue: Saudis will want more and more and the oil money will be able to deliver less and less.  That attitude won’t change except after hard times realign Saudi society.

The odds are in the government’s favor – for now

The degree of violence used will entirely depend on the Saudi government.  Right now, they’re far more likely to shoot on protesters or murder their enemies than negotiate.  The National Guard, essentially a giant tribal bodyguard, is blood-connected to the ruling house and well-armed.  Regular army units are treated as yet another jobs-but-really-bribes scheme and are terrible soldiers.

But they’ve got a problem – the United States

Alas, America’s values have changed.  As the guarantor of Saudi security, America’s opinion counts.  If the Saudi government turns on its people, like Syria, America will threaten all kinds of high hell, enough so as to scare members of the military and security services.  The Saudi royal family, or at least part of it, could be shunted aside by these pro-American forces, like Hosni Mubarak was.

So the fight will be Saudi vs. Saudi

America will ensure nobody gets involved except Saudis.  It will also quickly pick a side; whether it favors stability or reform will depend on the personality in the White House.  But it will secure its interests, the oil exports, rapidly and effectively.  It may well end up securing just the oil fields and letting Saudi society atomize and rot further afield.  That alone would secure American interests.

There are, in other words, no good futures for Saudi Arabia

Saudi must reform, but can’t because to do so will probably destroy the royal family itself.  The only way to change Saudi Arabia fundamentally is through a deep and long lasting trauma.  It’s too late for the king to do anything.

Will it be a bang or a whimper?

Eventually, a trauma must realign Saudi society.  The question comes, how big?  Will it be a civil war?  A running terror campaign?  A 60s-style cultural revolution?  Will the House of Saud die at home or in exile?  Will they go peacefully or by machine gun?  Regardless, it can’t last.  Change is coming.  The Saudis can only hope to mitigate the disaster.

The timeline is also up for grabs.  One can guess in the next ten years or twenty that something big will happen there.  But it certainly will happen long before the oil runs out.  Saudi won’t suddenly wake up one day and find themselves broke.  Societies don’t work that way.  They’ll fall apart another way.