Review: House of Saud, episode 1

A picture showing four men, three in traditional Arabic clothing and a fourth wearing a suit and tie, walking down a red carpet away from a large aeroplane in white "Kingdom" livery with three green stripes, the thickest of them around the main row of windows.So, last night the first episode of a three-part series on BBC2, House of Saud: A Family at War was broadcast. I commented on the trailer last night as the language had been troubling me since I first saw it. However, the first episode seemed not to give out the message I had been expecting of enthusiasm for crown prince Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms which have been widely praised in the western media which has been quieter about the repression accompanying them. Instead, it focussed on ‘history’ and the implication seemed to be that MbS could not be trusted because he was still a Saudi, still a Wahhabi and still the son of king Salman. While it did conclude with a segment on the ongoing war in Yemen which it rightly said was fought using British weapons, much of it consisted of Islamophobic and anti-Arab clichés, irrelevances and veiled attacks on Islam itself. (You can watch the episode here for the next month if you’re in the UK.)

The team’s mistrust of MbS stems from the fact that he is the son of king Salman who it says was the Saudi régime’s head of fundraising for its various charities for many years, charities it claimed were dedicated to spreading their own ‘conservative’ brand of Islam. Evidence for this apparently comes from Bosnia where a large Saudi-funded mosque exists (as they do in many cities in both the Muslim and western worlds) and where Muslims were turning their backs on “more tolerant” traditional versions of Islam. The Saudis also funded foreign mujahideen fighters who were active in the country during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s in which the Muslims were targeted for mass rape and genocide by their Serbian former neighbours. A local imam said that the Saudis targeted places where there was unemployment, a fair point given where “salafism” has prospered in the UK and USA.

However, two rather stupid statements gave away the ignorance of the team. One was that the foundation of the House of Saud was a “jihadi project”. It was not; it was a rebellion against the authority of the Ottoman empire which it regarded as heretical and this view was mutual. Jihad at that time was the prerogative of the Ottoman army which, even though the empire was not a pure Islamic state by that time, was defending the boundaries of Islam; their rebellion distracted from that objective. Second, Wahhabism was said to be all about taking Islam “back to the 7th century”, a classic Islamophobic trope in which “the 7th century” is used as a byword for backwardness and barbarism. All Islamic practice stems from the practice of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and his Companions and this has not changed a great deal; a few traditions have been added but the main forms of worship such as the five daily prayers, weekly communal prayer for men, fasting in the month of Ramadan and so on, have not changed at all. Saudi Arabia no more resembles 7th century Arabia than any other Muslim country does; it has modern forms of transport and technology, schools and universities (you had no Islamic studies departments back then), hospitals and so on which were not available in that time, and you get Muslim regions much more primitive than modern (urban) Saudi Arabia (parts of Yemen, most of west Africa) in which traditional practices still hold sway. It is these traditions that Wahhabis regard as baseless innovations (bid’ah) and in some cases idolatry (shirk) and advocate the abolition of. So, it is not a “primitivist” sect or ideology at all.

A big plank of evidence against Salman was that he presented an award to the Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik, who is accused of inspiring or fomenting terrorism, again without any serious evidence. Apparently a few people who had been involved in terrorism had been influenced by his lectures; however, they were extremely popular and could be found in mainstream Islamic bookshops alongside those of Hamza Yusuf, Ahmed Deedat and others and probably still can (though many of them have closed). They had his tapes because a lot of Muslims did, as was also the case with Anwar al-Awlaki. Naik was shown saying he was “with the terrorists” because they were terrorising the world’s biggest terrorists (the Americans), a clear reference to George W Bush’s threat that “you are either with us or with the terrorists” rather than a direct advocacy of terrorist violence.

After ominously telling us that Naik’s influence had even reached this mainly Hindu village, they interviewed a Hindu woman whose son had converted to Islam after hearing some of Naik’s tapes and has since asked her to become Muslim on several occasions, though there is no apparent suggestion that he had become involved in terrorism at all, just the he’d become Muslim. It was acknowledged that Naik had no direct influence on anyone’s decision to be a terrorist and no personal awareness of their plans or actions but that he helped people in that direction, a similar claim that was made about Wahhabism itself; it’s portrayed as a “gateway” to more extreme ideologies without a whole lot of proof. Although the claim is tirelessly repeated that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, terrorists (including leaders of al-Qa’ida and ISIS) have come from all over, including places Wahhabism is not dominant. The history of political repression, torture and in some cases civil war in some of the countries they come from was not discussed in this programme.

A few minutes early on in the programme was dedicated to a lawsuit being brought by families of 9/11 victims against the Saudi government against whom they say they have pages and pages of evidence that they bore responsibility for it because the money to pay for the attack came from Saudi. However, I can lay a fairly safe bet that the lawsuit will fail because the Saudis will claim sovereign or diplomatic immunity, as they have done when sued in foreign courts over matters such as torture and discrimination. It could also fail because they may not reasonably have been able to stop private citizens donating to whichever causes they liked, especially if the money that was later spent on weapons was raised under the pretence of humanitarian aid or similar — reasonably in the sense that it does not block a lot of legitimate money transfer and cause poverty, such as happened when Barakaat, used by Somalis to send money home, was closed by the US government on the grounds that it channeled money to terrorists. The 9/11 hijackings did not require an enormous amount of finance, in any case; they used tools everyone has access to as weapons, not guns or explosives. (Michael Moore, a fairly frequent Saudi-blamer, suggested that you wouldn’t learn how to fly an airliner into a building at a small flying school in Florida but in the air force, most likely Saudi Arabia’s in their case, but they do not make that claim here.)

The programme correctly said that Saudi Arabia has its own agenda, chiefly pursuing its rivalry with Iran and destabilising régimes loyal to Iran such as that of Assad of Syria, and will support groups hostile to Assad and Iran even if they are reactionary or even associated with al-Qa’ida; there was a section on arms seized in the conflict in Syria which had been traced back to Bulgaria which had sold them ostensibly to Saudi Arabia which uses British and American weapons, not the Soviet-designed arms Bulgaria produces. It speculated that the weapons had been transported to Jordan and then smuggled over the border into Syria or Iraq, but did not answer what role the Saudis had in sourcing those weapons. It also did not really ask what Bulgaria was doing selling arms to a country which it surely knows would not use them.

This programme has a distinct ring of propaganda about it. It offers untrue tropes about Wahhabism and Islam itself and tries to rouse suspicion about the Saudis and anyone associated with them on spurious grounds but, essentially, because they are Muslims — influencing someone to become Muslim is used as proof of extremism. They play into the hands of the Hindu fascist government in India and the movement it is based in, which is a violent and sectarian movement associated with lynchings, rapes and riots and which portrays conversion to Islam as part of a “jihad” in which young people are ‘influenced’ by malign forces rather than making free choices. In its coverage of terrorism in India, it ignores the history of Indian repression in Kashmir (and BJP/RSS thuggery in India itself which was well-established by 2008) which is the source of much of the Muslim antagonism against India. Finally, it fails to even consider the role of political repression in fomenting terrorism and sympathy for al-Qa’ida, and this repression as often comes from pro-western régimes in places like Saudi Arabia itself as well as Egypt, Tunisia before 2011 and Morocco as from historically pro-Eastern Bloc governments such as in Algeria and Syria.

In addition, the caption for this episode on the BBC website says “This episode examines the leader’s commitment to end extremism and to return to moderate Islam”, but it does no such thing; it only examines his father’s deeds. I have no problem with criticism of Saudi Arabia or any Saudi royal, but do your research and criticise them for what they do, not for who they are, and remember that lingering suspicion is not proof and that repetition does not make anything true.

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