THE NORTHERN CAUCASUS IN SAUDI ARABIA’S FOREIGN POLICY: ISLAMIC SOLIDARITY CONCEPTION
Raziat Kazimova, Leading specialist, Institute of Religious and Communication Studies (Makhachkala, the Republic of Daghestan, Russia)
Vladimir Altunin, Expert, Consultative Council at the Southern Okrug Administration, Ministry of the Press, TV, and Mass Media of the RF (Maikop, Republic of Adigey, Russia)
The Arabs say: “If I want my neighbor to hear me, I talk to my daughter-in-law.” This is the best possible description of the way Saudi Arabia treats events in the Northern Caucasus and especially in Chechnia. Its attitude is full of political hints, metaphors and all sorts of combinations. Experts in Russia and other countries agree that certain aspects of this treatment defy a straightforward assessment. This uniform approach is probably based on the idea that the Saudi foreign policy has been formed and is functioning amid a clash of ideas and opinions.
A retrospective analysis of Saudi Arabia’s policy in the Caucasus reveals certain thought-provoking transformations.
Saudi Arabia’s Interests
An article by Igor Dobaev, “Radical Wahhabism as an Extremist Religious-Political Ideology”1 stands apart amid a host of recent writings on the subject. The author offers a well-argumented analysis of all sorts of opinions about the way Saudi Arabia is exploiting Islam as a powerful weapon of realizing its strategic plans on the regional and global scale. The article identifies two opposite analytical approaches. According to Igor Dobaev, supporters of one of them insist that Saudi Arabia while using its unique position in the Muslim world to strengthen its geopolitical positions does not extend state support to radicalism and extremism. Their opponents are convinced that the Saudis are promoting an export of the ideology and practice of aggressive Wahhabism. Dobaev points out that both assessments are logical and well substantiated while the truth, as usual, lies in the middle. One finds it hard to agree with this, though his desire to find an answer to the question whether the Saudi regime exports ideology and practice of religious extremism is quite understandable. Still the “yes and no” answer can hardly be accepted. One can talk about the policy’s dual nature and its development according to the changing foreign and domestic policy thinking in Saudi Arabia that has become obvious in the last several decades.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. At the 1927 All-Muslim Congress in Mecca Ibn Saud, the first in the Saudi dynasty, was proclaimed the patron of the Muslim sanctuaries in Mecca and Medina. It is this fact that the kingdom is trying to fully tap in its domestic and foreign policy. The Saudi state was developing and strengthening as a tribal conglomerate consolidating into a monarchy. Armed detachments of Ikhwans, who prophesied the Wahhabi idea of jihad, played the key role in the process. An agreement between the Saudis and Wahhabis is still regarded as the central event in the Saudi history.2 This explains why Islam as a legal system and religion still plays an important role in the functioning of the Saudi political system contrary to what P.J. Vatikiotis, a prominent scholar of Islam, says about 150 years of pitiless and consistent attempts to push Islam to the background of the country’s state affairs, economy, and international relations.3
The Saudi organizations active on the international scene have been for a long time successfully exploiting the ideology of Islamic solidarity based on the idea that all Muslims living on earth belong to one family and therefore should be united in one Muslim state. The Islamic World League based in Mecca is an important center of the ideology and propaganda of Islamic solidarity; the state supports it with an annual sum of $1.6 billion. The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), an interstate structure that brought together over 50 states and the PLO, was set up on a Saudi initiative as the movement’s political center. The Organization had the Islamic Development Bank, the Islamic Solidarity Fund, the Islamic Fund for Scientific and Technological Development, the Islamic Center for Development of Trade, etc. under its aegis.
One can say that the kingdom staked on the permeating and transnational nature of Islam and Muslim solidarity: its Ministry for Islamic Affairs set up 25 Islamic centers abroad through which several thousand preachers in about 90 countries plant Wahhabism.4 This suggests that in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy Islam is a relatively independent imperative.
When extending its support to Muslim communities in other Muslim and non-Muslim countries and defending their rights at the international level, Saudi Arabia refers to the OIC Charter that declares the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of sovereign states and defends their Muslim minorities. This refers to India, the Philippines, and Bulgaria. The idea of Islamic solidarity is promoted in the international Muslim press that writes a lot about the idea of a “single Islamic nation,” the Caliphate as a single Muslim state or the “United States of Islam.”
The proponents of these views believe that these ideas should progress through several stages before they can be fully realized: at first the Muslims of each country should embrace the Muslim way of life through self-perfection and removing everything that is not Islamic from their thoughts and deeds. (The most radical supporters of the idea believe that those involved in the movement should fight all influences of “non-Islamic” ideas on the Islamic minds in the Islamic countries.) Mosques should promote the process by their more active involvement; the educational system and culture should become totally Islamic. Later (or even synchronously) the Shari‘a should be introduced in all Muslim countries. Still later all Muslim states should be united either into one state or a confederation.
The latest wide-scale measures were designed to strengthen the positions of Islam not only in Muslim countries but also in the areas with Muslim minorities: Muslim laws were adopted in Pakistan and Iran while some other countries are preparing to follow suit; Islamic centers, mosques and educational establishments are mushrooming at an unprecedented scale in Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. In Saudi Arabia these measures are seen as steps toward the desired aim.
The country and its international organizations explain their activities by a consideration that the Muslim communities in multi-confessional states are still part of the global Muslim community called Ummah. Developments in Somalia, South Yemen, Pakistan, and Sudan have demonstrated that support extended for religious considerations to one of the fighting groups proves to be an important or even decisive factor in power struggle and an instrument of political changes. In this way the kingdom finds itself involved in ethnic, religious and regional conflicts, and civil wars similar to those that happened or are going on in Lebanon, on the territory of former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.
Anti-Soviet activities of the ruling dynasty are well known: back in 1971 King Faisal offered $100m to the then University Rector Sheikh Al-Azhar Abd-al Halim for more active anti-Sovietism. In 1973 Saudi Arabia obtained a permission from the Egyptian government to set up and fund “Islamic committees to fight atheist Marxism” in Egypt.5 In 1978 Saudi Arabia was actively involved in creating an international organization of freedom of the press housed in Cairo with an official aim of fighting atheism in the Soviet Union. There were several Saudi princes among its leaders.6 In an effort to create an Islamic model of the world order Saudi Arabia initiated a permanent General Secretariat of the Mass Media of Islamic Countries based in Mecca within which there were structures oriented to the Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries. These activities inevitably left their imprints on the relations between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union and explain long gaps in diplomatic relations between the two countries.
In 1972, in Jiddah, a conference of foreign ministers of the OIC members passed a decision to create a fund to pay for a jihad against Israel.7 Recently Saudi Arabia acknowledged its support for the families of Palestinian shahids and insisted that the money was not meant to promote violence. Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign policy advisor to the then Crown Prince Abdullah stated: “It is true that our country allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to help Palestinians, yet we were not concentrating on the families of the dead shahids. We gave money to all who lost breadwinners during an uprising against Israel.”8 In July 2002 alone Saudi Arabia transferred $46.2m to bank accounts in the Palestinian autonomy. According to Minister of Finance and National Economy of Saudi Arabia Ibrahim Al-Assaf, the money was intended as “additional support” while the total amount of Saudi assistance to the Palestinians in the last six months of 2002 allocated within the League of Arab States program reached $61.6m.9
In the 1980s the kingdom was strengthening its influence in the Middle East thanks to its role in OPEC and allied relations with the United States. It was in that period that the Saudis launched an open support for the politically minded radical Islamic movements. They employed this foreign policy scheme with good results when the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan. Starting with 1980, Saudi Arabia was actively working against the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Its efficient support for the radical Islamic opposition in Afghanistan looked like an ideal combination with the principles of Muslim solidarity. George Ioffe in Internationale politik (published by the German embassy in Moscow) has written that in 1984 head of the special service of Saudi Arabia Prince Turki al-Faisal invited Osama bin Laden to head a bureau designed to recruit mercenaries (that became a precursor of terrorist organization al-Qa‘eda created somewhat later, in 1989). According to certain sources Ioffe uses in his article, the bureau recruited over 4,000 in the Medina Islamic University alone.10
A trend toward greater geopolitical activity that Saudi Arabia betrayed in the early 1990s was a response to the new challenges: disintegration of the U.S.S.R. and the Soviet bloc, uniting Europe, regional integration in various corners of the world, shifting the main contradictions from the East-West to the North-South plane, etc.11
When the Soviet Union disappeared, Saudi Arabia turned its gaze to its Muslim regions. It exploited the growing interest in religion there to promote the ideas of Islamic solidarity on the new territories, the Northern Caucasus included. The Saudi Arabia’s activity is also explained by the fact that the Soviet Union and the socialist system left a zone of influence to be divided anew. Riyadh is quite willing to take part in the process not only for economic but also for political reasons in an effort to impose its development model on the new independent states and to include them in regional structures that are taking shape.
In his article “How Daghestan Is Opposing Religious Extremism” Garun Kurbanov wrote that restructuring the entire religious life in the Northern Caucasus coincided with opening in Moscow embassies of certain Arab countries and with restoration, in 1990, of diplomatic relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi missions in Russia corrected to a great extent tactics of North Caucasian Islamic organizations, centers, and parties.12 One can identify several trends these pro-Saudi structures are following: they are actively developing contacts with the international Islamic centers under the aegis of departments for Islamic affairs of the Saudi Arabia embassy. The North Caucasian republics were flooded with religious writings distributed free among the local people: in was in that period that the Committee of Asian Muslims and its OIC-funded Moscow bureau published over 170 titles of books and leaflets, with a total circulation of about 4m copies. The Saudi Islamic organizations signed contracts on building mosques and Islamic centers, paid for pilgrimages, training, etc. New religious schools appeared in Russia’s Muslim regions such as Muhammadia in Kazan. In 10 years over 100 thou pilgrims from Daghestan alone visited Saudi Arabia.13
Obviously, Wahhabi organizations could not let the chance of using the restored diplomatic relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia for their own purposes slip between their fingers. The Wahhabi movement that reflected the feeling of alienation typical of many social groups of Saudi Arabia and that appealed to political radicalism of the former “Afghan” mujahideen found itself in the hub of events even though it tried to downplay its role in the eyes of the public.
The Saudi embassy exploited Russia’s openness to set up groups of supporters among local Islamists and to invite all sorts of Muslim foundations and organizations to Russia and the Northern Caucasus. Jamiaa muslimi, Islamic Solidarity Organization and others opened their branches in Grozny, Makhachkala, Baku and elsewhere in the Caucasus in an effort to lure the Muslim autonomous republic into international Islamic structures. The emissaries who gave money to the Islamic Revival Party were mainly Wahhabis. Some of them belonged to the Islamic World League based in Saudi Arabia. This active and fairly influential organization with branches in 38 countries is one of the harshest critics of Russia over the Chechen issue; it extends its aid to the so-called Chechen refugees. One of its structures, known as an International Islamic Organization Al Igasa (Salvation) collects money and promotes Wahhabism. This activity presented as humanitarian aid is designed to help the Aid for the Caucasian Muslims Organization based in Saudi Arabia.14 Between November 2001 and January 2002 it collected over $100 thou.
The book Les Dollars de la terreur published in 1999 by Grasset in Paris was an eye-opener. Its author, a Swiss journalist Richard Labévière says that Islamism and its more radical form was created by Saudi Arabia and its allies. He cites many examples of “organic ties” between the major Islamist movements and the financial power of the Saudis.15
The Salvation Organization mentioned above headed by Saudi subjects Ali Al-Amudi and Abdel-Hamid Jafar Dagistani is one of the best known in the Northern Caucasus. In his time Abdel-Hamid Jafar Dagistani even headed the Russian section of Al Igasa back at home and was an imam of a mosque in Medina. Both of them are officers of the Saudi special services acting in Russia under Salvation structures.16 In 1994 the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Moscow was notified that their continued stay in Russia was undesirable. It was under the Salvation aegis that Saudi Arabia tested its newly invented technology of destroying the regional spiritual administrations of the Muslims, planting the ideology of Wahhabism, funding religious extremists, setting up separatist structures, etc. The Benevolence International Foundation (BIF)17 was one of such structures operating in the Republic of Daghestan. It was connected with the Salvation Organization. BIF branches were created to make control by the law enforcement bodies less efficient. The League was set up on the money of Abdel-Hamid Jafar Dagistani and the Pakistani Lashkar-e Tayyiba organization. According to the Western press, the latter is connected with bin Laden. BIF used the bulk of the money to promote Wahhabism in the Northern Caucasus, to support detachments of religious extremists in Daghestan and Chechnia.18 According to Chairman of the Qatar Charity Sheikh Abdullah Dabbagh, its eight offices have been acting in the Caucasus (including Daghestan and Azerbaijan) since 1995. It should be added that for the first two years the Daghestanian branch was acting illegally and was officially registered as late as in March 1997. Between 1996 and 1999 the Charity spent about $1m for its projects in Daghestan.
In this context it is interesting to look at what a Saudi charity Ikraah and its leader Serwah Abid Saad educated at the Al-Azhar University are doing in Daghestan. The charity published Wahhabi literature in the Kiziliurt and Khasaviurt districts.19 Officers of the Federal Security Service Administration in the Republic of Daghestan discovered that Serwah maintained close contacts with Saudi subjects Ali Al-Shahri, Halez At-Taher, Abu Jafar, Al-Sheaybi, Abdel-Hamid Dagistani and Ali Al-Amudi. It is interesting to note that nearly all reports to the Ikraah head office addressed personally to individual people were dispatched through the Saudi embassy in Russia.20
Another regional charity, Al-Hairiya, the head office of which is found in the UAE, is working according to a similar pattern. It is headed by Adam Muhammad Adam Osman who used to work at the Salvation Organization.
In the Northern Caucasus the separatists are supported through structures registered in other countries such as the Islamic Relief set up in 1984 and based in Birmingham, U.K. It has branches in Azerbaijan, Albania, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United States, and Uzbekistan. In September 1997 its head Hany El Banna illegally visited Chechnia and met Maskhadov. Late in 1999 the organization operated a branch in Kabardino-Balkaria (registered on 16 January, 1999 with the Ministry of Justice of Russia under No. 3473) funded by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Early in 2000 Islamic Relief opened a mission in Nazran headed by Magomed Ali from Saudi Arabia. According to special services, the terror structures in the Russian Federation receive every month from to 1.3 to 2.5m pounds sterling from the Persian Gulf states (Saudi Arabia among them).21
In 1997 the International Islamic Organization Al-Harameyn was actively funding the Daghestanian religious Wahhabi extremists with an aim of destroying the republic’s constitutional order, creating an “Islamic state” in Daghestan and Chechnia, and removing them from the Russian Federation. The Organization’s General Director is Sheikh Akil bin Abdul Aziz, its headquarters are in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Al-Harameyn instituted the Foundation Regarding Chechnia, a branch of which was opened in Azerbaijan late in 1999; it is using Al-Baraka bank for its financial transactions.22 Today, its emissaries who call themselves Saudi subjects Abdel Latyf bin Abdal Karim-Darian (who is working in Maskhadov’s headquarters), Abu Omar Muhammad As-Seif, Abu Sabit, Abu Salman Muhammad, Ad-Dakhshi, and others are active in the detachments of the most influential Chechen field commanders.
The above testified that the present and possibly future state of the relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia, despite superficial calm, cause serious concern. A chance to improve them that presented itself as soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated was not used mainly because the Saudis were not prepared to accept radical changes. Today Saudi diplomats are doing their best to convince the rest of the world that the Islamic charities have nothing to do with terror. Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign policy advisor to the then Crown Prince Abdullah, said that the kingdom had become a target of a scandalous campaign that “bordered on hatred.” He announced that his country planned to create a commission to control all charities and banned transactions in cash between banks. “We mercilessly persecute terrorists and punish them cruelly,” said Al-Jubeir. Over two thousand suspected terrorists were interrogated, about one hundred of them were detained; three cells of al-Qa‘eda were routed and 33 bank accounts to the total sum of over $5.5m were frozen.23 At the same time, Michael Chandler, Chairman of the U.N. expert panel monitoring sanctions related to Afghanistan, declared: “We can prove that bin Laden received one large sum of money from Saudi Arabia. To be more exact from one of the country’s most influential families.”24
The above does not allow us to conclude that Saudi Arabia will try to correct its North Caucasian policy along the lines leading to foreign policy changes so that to fit without much trouble into the changing world. It seems that in conflict and crisis situations the kingdom will remain dedicated to the idea of Islamic solidarity and the methods of political, diplomatic, and financial pressure it is executing while remaining “behind the wings.”
Much time has passed since the day the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia restored their diplomatic relations, yet new types of relations between them have not yet appeared. It should be added that the void created in this way is filled in not in the best of ways.
* * *
It is hard to overestimate the role Islam is playing in Saudi domestic politics, which is explained by the state’s ethnic and religious nature. The Islamic movements there are the political product of a very specific situation inside the country.
In recent times the Saudi Muslims have been actively developing contacts with Muslims abroad (including Russia) and have been actively exporting there untraditional theological and ideological concepts that influence in a very contradictory way the minds of the North Caucasian Muslims and their political activities. The idea of the worldwide Islamic Ummah, Islamic solidarity and complicity developed in Saudi Arabia is channeling political activities inside and outside the country.
In fact, an ability of the ruling Saudi regime to remain effective and able to preserve domestic stability as well as its ability to oppose radical Islamic groups will depend on its political and moral principles. If the Saudis prefer to vacillate between punishing and supporting such groups, they risk alienating the world community and arousing its mistrust.
1 See: I. Dobaev, “Radical Wahhabism as an Extremist Religious-Political Ideology,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 4 (16), 2002.
2 See: Z.S. Arukhov, Wahhabizm i dukhovenstvo v politicheskoi strukture saudovskogo obshchestva, Makhachkala, 2002, p. 57.
3 See: P.J. Vatikiotis, “Islamic Resurgence: A Critical View,” in: Islam and Power, ed. by A. Cudsi and A.E.H. Dessouki, Kroom Helm, London, 1981, p. 172.
4 See: Korolevstvo Saudovskaia Aravia: proshloe i nastoiashchee, Moscow, 1999, p. 77.
5 N.V. Zhdanov, A.A. Ignatenko, Islam na poroge XXI veka, Moscow, 1989, p. 79.
6 See: A.V. Korovikov, Islamskiy ekstremizm v arabskikh stranakh, Moscow, 1990, p. 137.
7 See: N.V. Zhdanov, A.A. Ignatenko, op. cit., p. 256.
9 [lenta.ru], 3 December, 2002.
10 See: G. Ioffe, “Tumannoe budushchee Saudovskoi Aravii,” Internationale politik, No. 3, 2002, p. 29.
11 See: V. Dontsov, “Islam v mezhdunarodnykh otnosheniakh,” Diplomaticheskiy ezhegodnik (Moscow), 1997.
12 See: G. Kurbanov, “How Daghestan Is Opposing Religious Extremism,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 5 (17), 2002, p. 124.
13 See: Ibidem.
15 See: “Otkuda islamisty berut dengi na jihad?” [http://www.africana.ru/news/pain/terrorism/Economica.htm].
16 See: I. Maksakov, “Islamskiy ‘missioner’ v Dagestane,” Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 6 December, 2002.
17 On 3 January, 2003 the U.S. State Department blacklisted it as an organization cooperating with al-Qa‘eda.
18 See: I. Maksakov, op. cit.
19 See: A. Chelnokov, “Wahhabity v Tobolske,” Sovershenno sekretno, No. 10, 1999, p. 8.
20 See: I. Maksakov, op. cit.
21 See: The Guardian, 5 December, 2002.
23 [lenta.ru], 3 December, 2002.
24 La Stampa, 9 December, 2002.