The Great Arab Homeland or a New Caliphate: Remarks on Arab Political Unity

Military-religious challenge to the Saudi dynasty from the new caliphate has cast a new light on the Saudi leadership in the Arab world.

An indicative event happened at the February 25-26 conference of the Valdai Discussion Club entitled The Middle East: From Violence to Security. One of the Arab participants said: “I’m from a generation of those who remember that the current Middle East used to be the Great Arab Homeland (al-watan al-Arabi al-kabir).” That remark was greeted with nearly unanimous acclaim by other Arab participants, who were divided over political matters and disputed with each other most energetically.

This shows that the idea of pan-Arab political unity, which was seemingly laid to rest and gradually lost serious political supporters following the demise of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, has nostalgic popularity at the very least. This popularity is obvious to experienced and often cynical political experts, let alone the general public.

Hence, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to assume that the demand for Arab political unity will be put on the agenda in the Middle East, even though the current trend is not for the integration of states, but for their dissolution. The ongoing discussions of a possible split or cantonization of Iraq and Syria into a loose confederation, the predictable erosion of Turkey’s southeastern border, and the unclear and volatile situation on the Yemeni-Saudi border have provided the background for several projects for the political re-division of the region. Paradoxically, the lifting of the ban on the issue of the inviolability of borders opens the door to resuming discussions on political pan-Arabism.

In the meantime, the Islamic State (ISIS), which is prohibited in Russia as a terrorist organization, started implementing its extremist interpretation of a “united Arab nation,” which is a dangerous alternative to secular pan-Arabism. The ISIS project of recreating the caliphate has rallied many people who are armed and willing to fight for its implementation. The ISIS ideologues focus on the universality of Islam rather than on the ethnic elements of pan-Arabism. But the immediate association is with the Islamic Caliphate of the Middle Ages.

This gives the ISIS slogans a clearly pan-Arabic dimension as the extremists’ new religious alternative to the secular pan-Arabism of the Cold War period. Unfortunately, there is considerable demand for this alternative.

There are not just purely Islamic but also purely Arab aspects in the ISIS-initiated discussions of a “fair” control over the two holy cities of Islam - Mecca and Medina. In this context, current debates on pan-Arabism and common ethnic political leadership in the Arab world are directly connected to the issue of control over Mecca and Medina. They should be therefore analyzed in greater detail.

On the one hand, the role of the Saudi king in the Arab world is based not just on oil and close ties with the United States, but also on the Saudi king’s status as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. On the other hand, the founders of the Saudi dynasty came from Najd rather than Hejaz and are, hence, historically alien to Mecca and Medina. In light of this historical fact, the Saudi kings’ claim to custodianship of the two holy cities is much weaker than the claim of the sharifs (religious leaders) of Mecca, members of the House of Hashim (Hashemites) and direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who governed the city from the 10th century until the House of Saud annexed the Hejaz region in 1925. Other claimants are Sayyids, the Shia descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

As if this complex historical background were no enough, the Saudi claim to control over Mecca and Medina has been further rocked by radical Salafi preachers, who in defiance of Saudi censorship, accused the House of Saud of excessive wealth and hypocrisy, and said that the Saudi kings do not satisfy the Islamic requirements for being the custodians of the two holy cities and that their control over them must therefore be ended.

The first debates on this issue were held at religious schools in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Other critics were diametrically opposite forces – the ultra-conservatives from the Islamic University of Medina and the relatively liberal (by Saudi standards) King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. The growing internal intellectual protest resulted in the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, a graduate of the University of Medina. It happened on November 20, 1979, the first day of the Islamic year 1400, and signified a very notable beginning of a new century.

The next stage of the Salafi radicals’ protests against the Saudi claim to the governance of Mecca and Medina is connected to Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda ideologists. Bin Laden claimed that by allowing infidel troops (Americans and their allies) to enter the Holy Ground of Arabia, the Saudi kings have lost the right to be the custodians of the two holy mosques, and radical Salafis see this concession as Saudi Arabia’s biggest sin.

The current and possibly greatest threat to the Saudi custodianship began not with the rise of the Islamic State, but when its leader Ibrahim al-Badri assumed the title of caliph and the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in memory of Abu Bakr, the first Muslim Caliph after Muhammad’s death. According to Sunni dogmas, only the caliph has the right to be the custodian of the two holy mosques. This challenge by radical Salafis has added a Sharia aspect to the already-present dissident and military-political dimensions of protests against Saudi control over Mecca and Medina.

The oath of allegiance, which ISIS terrorists started taking for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph, called to mind an old quotation from the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) on what should be done if a Muslim community has split politically and has sworn an oath of allegiance for two caliphs. The answer given in the hadith is very simple: When the oath of allegiance has been sworn for two caliphs, kill one of them. According to radical Salafi interpretations, the oath of allegiance for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has outlawed the Saudi kings and even put their lives in danger.

This military-religious challenge to the Saudi dynasty from the new caliphate has cast a new light on the Saudi leadership in the Arab world, a challenge which not just ISIS terrorists but also representatives of other Arab countries have hurried to exploit. Qatar was the first to question Saudi leadership. When Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani became the eighth Emir of Qatar in 2013 and appointed Khaled al-Attiyah as his foreign minister, Qatar launched an active independent policy in the region focused on supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which by that time was engaged in a raging conflict with the Saudi rulers. The radical groups of Muslim Brotherhood form the institutional and organizational backbone of ISIS. They brought Mohamed Morsi to power in Egypt in 2012 and clashed with al-Qaeda groups in the region, primarily Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

Although Osama bin Laden fought against the Saudi domination in the region, al-Qaeda maintained close ties with the Saudi intelligence services and some members of the dynasty before and especially after bin Laden’s death.

In other words, two rival Islamist opposition groups have come face to face in Syria – Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS versus Saudi Arabia, Jabhat al-Nusra and al- Qaeda. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were overthrown by the Egyptian military with active Saudi support. Saudi Arabia ultimately declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group in 2014. At the same time, Saudi Arabia openly accused Qatar of supporting terrorism at a meeting of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. If the radical part of ISIS started working to overthrow the Saudi dynasty, Qatar would gain the most from this process.

Regarding the above, it was not surprising that several Arab delegates at the above recent Valdai Club conference spoke about the inviolability of Saudi leadership in the Arab world and its direct connection with the status of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. They said that Saudi leadership could unite the Arab world and that political Arab unity was only possible under Saudi leadership. To me, this sounded as a well formulated and prepared ideological stance. These Arab delegates also spoke enthusiastically about the importance of developing and strengthening dialogue between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

This stance is fully in keeping with the above doctrines of political pan-Arabism and pan-Arabic leadership and looked to me as a well-planned strategy. But what surprised me most was that none of these Arab delegates mentioned Qatar and its special role.

Why didn’t they? It is possible that the dismissal of Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah on January 27, 2016 means that Saudi Arabia has cut Qatar down to size, effectively ending its attempts to become the second Arab revisionist power seeking to change the status of Saudi leadership. Another possibility is that delegates from other Arab countries, which have accepted the Saudi custodianship of the two holy mosques, were not ready to openly speak about the possibility of revision and erosion of Saudi leadership in the Arab world.

Anyway, the specter of pan-Arabism was roaming the Valdai Club’s conference room, which is highly indicative of things to come.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.