SAUDI ARABIA: RELATIONS WITH MUSLIM REPUBLICS IN THE CIS AND THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
Ilia Kudriashov, Employee of the Russian Foreign Ministry Middle East and North Africa Department (Moscow, Russia)
For more than twenty-five years now, Saudi Arabian foreign policy has been focused on maintaining the Kingdom’s high level of political authority in the Islamic world with a view to making it country number one on this arena. One of the fundamental principles of the Saudi foreign policy doctrine is “taking responsibility for the fate of Muslim states and peoples.”1 This thesis has become an inviolable part of the Kingdom’s relations with the outside world.
The Gulf War in 1990-1991 did much to intensify the “Islamic accent” in Saudi Arabia’s foreign political and foreign economic activity. The vast losses incurred from financing the military operation against Iraq greatly narrowed Riyadh’s opportunities to render financial and economic aid to other states. Under these conditions, after laying an “ideological foundation” for its participation in the anti-Iraqi coalition, the Saudi leadership placed the emphasis on Islamic values in its foreign policy. In April 1994, King Fahd ultimately enforced this postulate in a speech during his visit to Medina by focusing attention on the fact that “Saudi Arabia’s leading role should not be understood in the military aspects of its foreign policy, but primarily in its religious elements.”2 In this respect, all the financial and economic aid programs and projects the Kingdom implemented in other states assumed an Islamic hue.
As a rule, the Saudis try to enhance their influence in Islamic states under the banner of humanitarian goals and Islamic solidarity. In particular, Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, the Saudi monarch’s son and member of the country’s Council of Ministers, noted that, “through mosques and religious centers, Saudi Arabia intends to realize Islam’s main calling as a religion for all races and peoples.”3
The collapse in the Soviet Union and the appearance of new independent states from among the former Union republics on the world political map immediately attracted the Saudi political establishment’s attention to Central Asia and the Caucasus. Official Riyadh is extremely interested in spreading the Islamic idea and drawing large Muslim countries, as well as Islamic communities and administrative-territorial formations, into its orbit to form the foundation for building Islam’s zones of influence in the non-Muslim world. What is more, the Saudis are striving to reduce the role of their rivals, Iran and Turkey, on the inter-Islamic political arena in these two strategically important regions.
At present the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) maintains diplomatic relations with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan, and has made its presence known in essentially every Muslim republic of Central Asia and several Russian Federation constituencies in the Caucasus. A distinguishing feature of this interaction is the fact that the Islamic spirit of the Saudi state, where religion and politics are indivisible, is having an immense impact on the essence and nature of these relations, frequently making religion a dominant element of political cooperation as well. In so doing, bilateral trade and economic relations (in the traditional sense) are essentially absent, although the Saudi side recognizes their importance. During the second half of the 1990s, intergovernmental commissions were formed on economic relations with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and the draft of a Saudi-Kazakhstan agreement is being drawn up on the stimulation and mutual protection of investments.
The significance Saudi Arabia is placing on comprehensively enhancing its relations with the CIS Muslim states is confirmed by the high level of its delegations to these countries: in the fall of 2000, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the KSA Defense Minister and third most important person in the country’s government hierarchy, made an official visit to Kazakhstan, and in the spring of 2001, a visit was made by Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the Governor of Riyadh.
The Kingdom is implementing cooperation programs with the CIS Muslim states at two levels: through official departments (the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, the Ministry of Hajj, and the Development Foundation), as well as through international Islamic structures financed by the state. These include the Islamic World League (IWL), the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the Islamic Development Bank (IBD), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and others. Tactical and organizational questions are frequently decided at the level of religious-enlightenment and charity foundations that have representative branches in the regions.
According to Saudi theologians and preachers, the Islamic element of the KSA’s foreign policy is being most efficaciously promoted by combining direct material and financial aid to Muslim states, organizations, and the Islamic diasporas with religious propaganda measures.4 Since the last decade of the 20th century, Saudi Arabia has been purposefully and rather successfully implementing this postulate in its relations with the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan, while also practicing it in several Russian regions that are densely populated with Muslims. With respect to economic assistance, the Saudis act in two main areas. First, by granting privileged credit to development programs in partner states, in some cases providing gratuitous financing of projects to build large infrastructure facilities and train national personnel at Saudi higher educational institutions.
The Islamic Development Bank plays a leading role in this area, as well as the Saudi Development Found (but to a much lesser extent). For example, the IDB has financed several projects in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (they are all members of this bank). The largest amounts of aid are being allotted to finance the project for reconstructing the Apsheron-Baku Canal (total cost of the first stage—$321 million), modernizing Azerbaijan’s fishing fleet (the IDB’s share amounts to $5 million), equipping a cardiologic center in Bishkek ($3 million), preparing a feasibility study for a tender project to build the Bishkek-Torugart Highway ($2.9 million), and so on.5 In 1997, the Economic Cooperation Organization was formed under the IDB, which plays a prominent role in forming the Bank’s financing structure in the former Soviet Muslim republics. In September 1996, this bank held seminars in the capitals of Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan, the participants of which reviewed questions relating to investments in the CIS Islamic states. In order to stimulate investment projects in these republics, a decision was adopted to form an investment company with a shareholding pool of $50 million. In 1997, a regional branch of the IDB was founded in Almaty (at present it operates in Astana).
The Saudi leadership is showing its willingness to develop bilateral investment and trade and economic cooperation with the CIS Central Asian republics, in so doing creating prerequisites for subsequent correlation between investment volumes and the level of religious and political rapprochement.
The second alternative for rendering financial aid is through international Islamic nongovernmental organizations, primarily the Islamic World League and the Organization of Islamic Conference. With the support of the last two structures, Riyadh is carrying out targeted projects aimed at augmenting the influence of Islamic ideology and creating a wide network of religious institutions in the CIS and Russian Federation Muslim republics. In particular, there are plans to build Islamic educational institutions, finance their activity, provide literature and learning tools, renovate existing and open new mosques, and provide material assistance in holding religious seminars and forums. By 2001, more than $80 million had been spent to these ends.6
It is characteristic that even insignificant financial and economic assistance is almost always accompanied by a vociferous religious propaganda campaign in the Saudi mass media aimed at popularizing Islamic ideas, consolidating Muslims, and demonstrating the supranational nature of the Muslim faith.
According to Saudi Arabian religious circles, a serious obstacle to strengthening and spreading Islam in the territory of the former Soviet Union is the low level of religious culture among the Muslims living there, their ignorance of the main dogmas, and their deviation from Islamic norms in everyday life. In this respect, the Saudis are placing particular significance on distributing Islamic literature translated into the local languages, organizing spiritual and enlightenment programs through the mass media (a radio program called The Koran is broadcast to Central Asia from stations in Riyadh and Mecca), as well as offering training and qualification-raising courses in theology and divinity at the Kingdom’s higher educational institutions. More than 1,000 citizens from Central Asian states and Azerbaijan, as well as representatives of practically all the Russian regions were Islam is traditionally practiced, have attended religion courses in the KSA. An analysis of the learning programs used shows their specific political orientation, subordination to the Saudis’ Islamization policy, and emphasis on forming a spiritual elite with a definite pro-Saudi bent. For example, more than a quarter of those currently studying in Saudi Arabia from the CIS countries are prominent religious officials. They are actively promoting the organization of propaganda activity, and in some cases are establishing direct contacts between the administration of the Russian constituencies and the KSA.
An important role in relations with the CIS Muslim republics is played by public-religious organizations, which operate under the aegis of the KSA Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The most active of them is the World Assembly of Muslim Youth.
Although it is a cultural-enlightenment religious youth organization, WAMY can be activated if needed to resolve political problems, and its foreign divisions (the Assembly has 11 regional bureaus and 13 foreign branches) can carry out the most diverse tasks not relating to its direct functions. The Saudi leadership, which is the founder of WAMY, is using it with increasing frequency to augment Saudi Arabia’s ideological influence and implement its foreign political strivings.
In April 1995, Mohammad al-Johaini, the Assembly’s Secretary-General, came forward with the initiative to render active assistance to Chechen Muslims. With the help of the Youth Committee of the CIS and Russian Federation Islamic Republics (created in 1994), in August 1996, WAMY sent the Chechen Muslims more than 50,000 copies of the Koran and other religious publications. And several dozen Islamic preachers were working under its patronage among Chechen refugees. WAMY has assumed responsibility for the upkeep of several displaced Chechen families and, in coordination with the Azerbaijan government, provided medical services for more than 250 Chechens. In 1997, on the eve of the Month of Ramadan, the Assembly directors organized a campaign in Saudi Arabia to gather donations for Chechen Muslims, after publishing anti-Russian propaganda material for this undertaking. The total amount of funds collected topped $2.7 million.7
Every year, between four and six thousand Muslim families from Chechnia, Daghestan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan obtain humanitarian aid through the Youth Committee of the CIS and RF Islamic Republics. In so doing, particular attention goes to Chechnia, where more than 100 tons of aid are sent.8
The main coordinating role in organizing propagandistic and charity activity in the CIS and Russian Muslim republics is played by the WAMY’s regional branch in Baku. In particular, in 1998-2000 it was instrumental in opening four centers in Azerbaijan for studying the Koran, and under the slogan “Blessed Medina,” a consignment of humanitarian aid was sent to Tajikistan.9
The Assembly’s directors say that all material and financial aid should be accompanied by religious and ideological support and propaganda: the reading of lectures, the distribution of printed and audio material, and so on. Therefore, each consignment of humanitarian aid that passes through WAMY usually comes with a professional lecturer who can “interpret Islam in an easily understandable way.”
One of the key areas in the activity of the WAMY Committee is the religious enlightenment of young Muslims in former Soviet republics and informing the world Islamic community of the problems which Muslims in the CIS republics face. Under the direct supervision of the KSA Ministry of Islamic Affairs, the Committee is organizing summer camps on a permanent basis for young Muslims from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, where more than 300 people are initiated in the Saudi interpretation of faith every year.
Since the second half of the 1990s, Saudi Arabia has been focusing ever-greater attention on the North Caucasian constituencies of the Russian Federation, primarily Chechnia. Since the antiterrorist campaign began in the republic, the Saudis have been sending humanitarian aid to its victims and rendering financial and economic assistance to restoring the republic’s infrastructure (primarily Islamic). The organization of these undertakings and their financing, as well as the amount, contents, delivery, and distribution of humanitarian shipments are resolved within the framework of King Fahd’s Assistance Program to the Muslims of Chechnia adopted in 1995 and implemented by the KSA Ministry of Islamic Affairs. More than ten shipments of humanitarian aid have been sent to the republic (foodstuffs, medication, school accessories), including three mobile mini hospitals, and a King Fahd hospital has been built in Grozny.
Along with this, humanitarian shipments are being made by the Charity Committee for Chechnia founded in 1995 under the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. This activity is coordinated by the above-mentioned regional branch of WAMY in Baku. Chechen students studying in Saudi Arabia’s Islamic higher educational institutions are involved in escorting the Saudi shipments.
Since 1998, the Saudi Red Crescent Society (SRCS) has been actively participating in rendering humanitarian aid to Chechnia. In the spring of 1999, this society and the Russian Federation Emergencies Ministry signed a Memorandum on Cooperation, which regulates the activity of SRCS representatives in the Chechen Republic. A SRCS representative agency has opened in Vladikavkaz. At present, it is participating in the financing and maintenance of the Satsita Chechen refugee camp in North Ossetia.
International Islamic nongovernmental organizations have conducted a number of fund-raising campaigns to help Chechen Muslims, and are distributing corresponding printed, audio, and video material. Religious agitators particularly step up their activity in the Holy Month of Ramadan and during hajj. The most significant undertaking of this kind was the 12-hour television marathon held in December 1999, during which more than $20 million was collected for Chechen needs.
It should be noted that these campaigns were often accompanied by statements from representatives of the leadership of Islamic organizations and religious officials accusing Russia of violating the rights of the Chechen people, as well as of scorning and oppressing them.10 But as the active phase in the antiterrorist campaign draws to an end and Chechnia becomes increasingly integrated in the political and legal space of the Russian Federation, this type of statement is essentially dying out.
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So it can be presumed that the Islamic factor, which is one of the most important elements in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and defines its goals and tasks, will continue to play a predominant role in the approach of the Kingdom leadership to relations with the CIS and Russian Federation Muslim republics. Riyadh will actively use this factor to increase and expand its influence in the region by creating a wide network of Islamic institutions and rendering financial and economic aid, thus promoting further development of religious self-awareness in the Muslim environment. In this respect, the power structures in these republics may need to exert extra efforts to prevent a possible increase in separatist sentiments cultivated by Islamic euphoria.
1 The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. Speech on the Occasion of the Centennial of the Kingdom, Riyadh, 22 January, 1999.
2 Riyadh Daily, 17 April, 1994.
3 Al-Jazeera, 29 July, 1995 (in Arabic).
4 Al-Daawa al-Islamia, 3 October, 2000 (in Arabic).
5 Islamic Development Bank. Annual Edition. Jeddah, 1999.
6 Al-Jazeera, 19 December, 2000.
7 Al-Mostakbal al-Islami, 9 May, 2001 (in Arabic).
10 In particular, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth Declaration, 14 March, 1999.