Saudi Arabia has created a monster in the world of Islam, a Frankenstein monster that threatens Saudi Arabia as much as the West.
In the 1950s, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi version of Islam, a product of nomadic desert culture, was practiced by a tiny minority of Muslims — perhaps 1 to 2 percent. Then came the oil boom, and Saudi Arabia — flush with cash — spread these ideas throughout the Muslim world.
This globalized Wahhabism has destroyed much of the diversity within Islam, snuffing out liberal and pluralistic interpretations of the religion in favor of an arid, intolerant one. In the 1980s, as the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union was infused with religious fervor, doctrines of jihad flourished. In many cases, Islamic fundamentalism turned into Islamic terrorism.
In the years after 9/11, after much defensiveness and many denials, the Saudis began to reverse course, shutting down government funding for Islamic extremist movements. David Petraeus once told me that the most significant strategic shift during his time in uniform was that Saudi Arabia went from being a tacit supporter to an aggressive foe of jihadi groups. Today Saudi intelligence is a major ally in fighting al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other groups.
Yet Saudi funding of Islamic extremism has not ended, and its pernicious effects can be seen from Pakistan to Indonesia. These funds come from individuals, not the government. Still, it is hard to imagine that the Saudi monarchy cannot turn off the pipeline of money to extremists abroad and at home.
Saudi Arabia remains reluctant to take on its religious extremists for fear of backlash. Hard-line religious leaders and ideologues have significant sway in Saudi society. The kingdom is known for its vast and growing social media. Less known is that its biggest stars are Wahhabi preachers and extremist ideologues who are now spreading anti-Shiite doctrines as part of the struggle against Iran.
The central dilemma remains:
Were the Saudi monarchy to fall, it might be replaced not by a group of liberals and democrats but rather by Islamists and reactionaries. Having watched this movie in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Syria, it may be time to be cautious about destabilizing a regime that is in many areas — defense, oil, finance — a stable ally.