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Political Islam in Saudi Arabia


• The Concept of Political Islam
• The House of Saud
• A Moment of Choice: the Golf War of 1990-1991
• Religious Opposition - The Saudi Ulema
• Ideological Point of View: The Holly War
• Saudi Arabia’s Relations with Other Countries
• Saudi Arabia’s Special Relations with the United States
• Conclusions

The Concept of Political Islam

Political Islam is a concept that defines the way in which Islamic religion is influencing politics in Islamic states. In this study I aim to establish to what extent the Islamic-thinking affects politics and especially Saudi Arabia’s internal and foreign policy. In order to do that, we need to know how powerful the Islamic ideology is in this particular country.

The population of Saudi Arabia is 90% Muslim Arab of the Wahhabi sect (a branch of Sunni Islam), although there is a small percentage of Shiites, mainly in the Northeast. Islam is the only officially recognized religion, and other faiths are not publicly tolerated.
The states resulted after the First World War were cursed to have a very harsh life. The geographic delimitation was mainly the result of the arbitrary division according to foreign interests. Twentieth Century’s Middle East is, in reality, an Anglo-French creation and had little to do with the dynamics of that specific region.

The House of Saud

As the Ottoman Empire dissolved after World War I, Ibn Saud of the House of Saud worked quickly to consolidate his family 's power over the Arabian Peninsula. Ibn was a despot of old type. He was aided materially by the British who were interested in destroying the Ottomans. Ibn Saud gave birth to a modern and powerful dynasty by having numerous children with his many wives. Today there are, depending on the source, some 3000-4000 or 7,000 princes in the House of Saud with eight or ten new ones born each week. Women and girls do not count so there are no princesses. Saudi women are among the most harassed on earth.
Ibn Saud belonged to Sunni part of the Wahhab sect representing an extreme interpretation of the Qu 'ran and Hadith. Wahhabism soon became the state religion and became just as oppressive as the Taliban. Since WW II especially, Wahhab Mullahs began preaching against Western thought and influence, which was exported to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The House of Saud is now ruled by King Fahd, but, because of his poor health, Fahd is now only a titular leader. His brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, actually runs Saudi Arabia. Both are over 70.
The Saud dynasty is supported by oil revenues, which have increased although the wages of the working class decreased at almost 50%. It is said that Each Prince is awarded some $500,000 annually for expenses. The Saud family receives some two-three billion dollars annually, even as the state budget runs annual deficits. This is aside from diversions of state funds that they have been accused of. At the same time, aside from the military, the Saud Dynasty has done little to modernize Saudi Arabia. Saudi women remain terribly oppressed.
This data shows us that the House of Saud has had a very great political and economical power and that it is well established at the rule of the country. Practically, most of the people that live today in Saudi Arabia were born under Saud rule and they can hardly imagine another ruler. This tells a lot about the chances of the system being overtaken. Still, there were some revolts and we shall see their causes and their results.
On the other hand, these features have led some commentators to predict that the end of the dynasty is near. During the last decade the income per capita has severely decreased while the national debt got bigger and bigger. Despite much official requests about democracy and human rights, there can be seen the 'permissive ' attitude of the West towards the House. As regional dictators like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qadhafi are punished for arbitrary imprisonment, mistreatment of minorities and elimination of any opposition, the House of Saud is seen as a pillar of regional stability. The reasons are clear enough: religion and oil.
Saudi Arabia also holds 25 per cent of the world 's known oil reserves and plays a moderating role in OPEC by manipulating supply to keep prices down. This is why the House makes the object of only occasional warnings in the West. However, after the September 11 attacks and the anticipated rise of Russia as a strong world oil producer, this might change .
Syed Saleem Shahzad, editorialist at “Asia Times”, points out that the contradictions in the policies used by the House of Saud are weakening the regime. He reminds to the readers that in 1979 a group of religious fanatics occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca. They questioned the legitimacy of the Saudi government, claiming that it was not “Islamic enough”. The government reclaimed the mosque, and the group’s leader and most of his followers were executed. However, even though the protestors were killed, the government adopted the very ideology for which they gave their lives. After the Mecca incident, the Saudi authorities began to impose strict rules. Women were banned from appearing on television, music was not allowed in the media, stores and malls were closed during the five daily prayer sessions, and the religious police were granted greater powers to monitor people’s lives. Similarly, four years ago, in Buraydah, a city of about 150,000 people fundamentalists raised the flag of Islam on minarets in protest against the House of Saud for 48 hours before the Saudi National Guard was able to subdue them. Shahzad argues that these incidents proved that “the extremists were in fact dictating terms”. I wouldn’t go that far. Considering that there are only a few of this kind of events in a such big period of time, I’d say that this proves only that the fundamentalists were still active and that they didn’t agree to the policies of the regime.

A Moment of Choice: the Golf War of 1990-1991

The “both ends” strategy of the leaders from Riyadh has had some important consequences. Osama bin Laden’s exile is one of them. Bin Laden broke with the Saudi monarchy over the first war against Iraq, in 1990-1991 and now eagerly seeks its overthrow. In 1990, bin Laden proposed to the Saudi defense minister to let him mobilize veterans of the 1979-1989 Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, in order to defend Saudi Arabia against Iraq. Probably the rulers feared that by letting bin Laden to gather troops they would lose control over the country and so the Saudi government rejected the offer, preferring an US-led coalition. The US sent 500,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. This happened only after US secretary of defense Dick Cheney (now vice president) promised King Fahd that the troops would be removed after the war. Still, more than 5000 are still present in the country. Ever since, bin Laden has resented the presence of “infidel troops” on the Holy Land where the Prophet Muhammad founded Islam in the 7th century. The first of 1990-1991 put the rulers from Riyadh in a situation in which they had to choose out of two evils, and they thought US is the smaller one. This was the only option in which they could hope to continue to stay in power. Thus, it was proved once again that defending religious convictions was not a priority to them.

Religious Opposition – The Ulema

Since the eighteenth century, the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula have shared power with their religious contemporaries, and this is still the case in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today. The monarch is technically the country 's supreme religious leader and custodian of Islam 's two holiest mosques of Mecca and Medina. In fact, he shares authority with a powerful group of spiritual leaders, the ulema. For nearly 300 years, the Al Saud has controlled the state while the Al ash-Sheikh, the descendants of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) has controlled the religious institutions. This cooperative and consensual relationship has provided the kingdom with one of the most stable societies in the region and has allowed it to avoid the war and revolution that has affected nearly every one of its neighbors.
The Ulema has no formal control over policymaking and is this fact that makes some Western observers miss the power of the ulema. Nawaf Obaid argues that the influence of the Ulema is far greater that the Western annalists consider, and that it has been extending to the political sphere also. He states that “the ulema exercise their sway in subtle, silent ways” and he nominates four political decisions , to support this:
1. In 1973, following the attacks by Egypt and Syria on Israel, Saudi Arabia imposed an oil embargo against the United States. This took completely by surprise the policymakers in the US.

2. In 1990, Saudi government agreed to host troops of the US-led coalition against the threatening Iraq who had massed troops along the Saudi border. On this occasion King Fahd needed the consensus of the Ulema and so, in exchange for their approval, he had to make some concessions. There was enormous domestic opposition. At first, the proposition of the king was disregarded, but after presenting satellite images of Iraqi troops closing on, the religious leaders agreed. Specialists anticipated that in the eventuality of an attack, Saudi Arabia could not defend itself against Iraq. King Fahd called together 350 Islamic leaders and scholars to Mecca to debate this topic. This effort resulted in the following edict (fatwa), issued by Sheikh bin Baz:

“Even though the Americans are, in the conservative religious view, equivalent to non-believers as they are not Muslims, they deserve support because they are here to defend Islam”.
But the ulema also extracted several agreements from King Fahd in exchange for their blessing. He had to offer assurances that non-Muslim troops would respect the traditions of the kingdom and that, once no longer needed, those troops would immediately leave. In particular, they won more authority for the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Propagation of Virtue, better known as the morality police.

3. After the war was over, the Americans left more than 5000 troops in the country, in spite of Islamic demands that there should not by any non-believers on holy land. The negative impact was not only long term and theoretical. The depth of these feelings was shown in the bombings that followed. First in Riyadh on November 13, 1995, at the Saudi National Guard communications complex, killing five American military trainers and two Indians. A second one was in Dhahran on June 25, 1996, at the Khobar Towers, an U.S. military housing compound, killing nineteen American servicemen. Following the Kuwait war, most of the senior ulema resisted the presence of U.S.
4. Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban regime and provided it with resources and ideology, in spite of their lack of interest towards human rights and their harsh authoritarian regime.

The journalist tries thus to show that Ulema is actually the ultimate decision-maker in the Saudi Kingdom and that the Western politicians don’t understand this. I shall argue against his hypotheses. First, the decision of imposing an oil embargo is not necessary a decision taken out of religious reasons. It had such of justification, but there were also other reasons, such as economic ones. It was an excellent opportunity for the leaders from Riyadh to prove their economic power, and the dependency of the Western societies on Saudi’s oil. By doing so, House of Saud gained at both national and international power. They increased their popularity by opposing to Western interests and won more financial power by eventually rising the oil price; not to speak about winning the sympathy of the fellow Islamic countries. Also, history is full of examples in which countries imposed embargoes on former allies. For instance Romania imposed joined embargo on Yugoslavia. Secondly, allowing or not allowing foreign troops into the country is a great dilemma for every state that faces this problem. It doesn’t matter if it is Islamic or not. It is a question of national security and people’s pride. Again, we don’t need to look too far as Romania offers us good examples. There were numerous discussions about providing help to allied troops when bombing Yugoslavia and then allowing Russian planes to fly over Romanian air space. Also, we have to take into account that many Islamic countries provided help of different type to the American-led coalition in the second war against Iraq.
Thirdly, there is no wonder that the Saudi regime provided help to Talibans, as it was itself an authoritarian regime. Indeed, Western idees had begun to spread in Afghanistan and Pakistan and this threatened the stability of the area. But the support of the Taliban regime was not for the sake of the religion itself, but because of the fact that along with instability in those countries the House of Saud was facing the danger of losing control of the country. Moreover, the Americans themselves helped the Talibans and the mujahedins in order to repel the Soviet aggression. And this was not done due to ideological or religious, but merely due to geo-strategically ones.
I think that the right conclusion out of the four examples given by the Arab journalist is that the people indeed think and act according to Islamic beliefs, as they did when planing terrorist attacks. But the rulers, the superior social classes are not very religious people and are making use of this extremely powerful tool when need to justify some of their actions.

Ideological Point of View: The Holly War

The war, in the opinion of Ibn Khaldun, Arab historian (1332-1406) : “Wars never ceased to exist, since the beginning of the world. At the origin of wars it’s the desire for revenge. Each adversary is sustained by its own clan, the thirsty of revenge is usually due to jealousy, envy, adversity, religious excess or devotion to the sovereign’s cause and to the attempts to establish a dynasty. The first type of war brakes out usually between neighboring and rival tribes or families. The second one, provoked by adversity, is the one of the peoples’ from wildness and the desert, like the nomad Arabs, the Turks, the Kurds and those alike. They find support in the top of their pikes and live rubbing the others [ . ]. The third type of war is the one that the religious world calls it “holly war” (jihad). The fourth is the dynastic type against the heretics and the rebels. The first two kinds of war are unjust and infamous; the other two are just and holly”. In other words, war is not excluded as a means of solving problems between the Islamists and the infidels, on the contrary, it is encouraged. This is well known in the Muslim world due to the fact it has been evoked ever since the beginnings of this religion. What is more questionable is who decides whether a war is holly or not. Of course, there is the religious elite who assumes the role of interpreting the teachings of the Koran, but the fact that the Muslims don’t live in a single state makes the problem extremely complicated, as the interest of the specific states enters the game.
It is very difficult to establish who is in reality the decision making party within a state, the state officials or the religious leaders. In what concerns Saudi Arabia, it seems that neither has complete control and the result of a certain policy is the vectorial result between the two. Some political analysts say that political Islam developed along with the domination of the West, becomes more violent along with it, and will weaken when Western domination will also weaken. This means that there is a direct connection between Western involvement in the area and the influence of Islam over politics. It’s the same as in the case of nationalism in Europe or other parts of the world.

Saudi Arabia’s Relations with Other Countries

Saudi Arabia agreed to give $140 million a year to Egypt and Jordan, which were devastated after the 1967 war with Israel. Saudi Arabia denounced the 1979 agreement between Israel and Egypt and terminated diplomatic relations with Egypt. Saudi leaders opposed both the leftist and radical movements that were growing throughout the Arab world, and in the 1970s sent troops to help quell leftist revolutions in Yemen and Oman.
Saudi religious interests were threatened by the fall of Iran 's shah in 1979 and by the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. As we have seen above, in November 1979, Muslim fundamentalists calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government occupied the Great Mosque in Mecca. After two weeks of fighting the siege ended, leaving a total of 27 Saudi soldiers and over 100 rebels dead. Sixty-three more rebels were later publicly beheaded. In 1980, Shiite Muslims led a series of riots that were put down by the government, which promised to reform the distribution of Saudi wealth.
Saudi Arabia supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War throughout the 1980s. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, King Fahd agreed to the stationing of U.S. and international coalition troops on Saudi soil. Thousands of Saudi troops participated in the Persian Gulf War (1991) against Iraq. The country took in Kuwait 's royal family and more than 400,000 Kuwaiti refugees. Though little ground fighting occurred in Saudi Arabia, the cities of Riyadh, Dhahran, and outlying areas were bombed by Iraqi missiles. Coalition troops left Saudi Arabia in late 1991; however, more than 5000 U.S. troops remained in the country.

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