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Why Saudi Arabia is not an Isis That has Made it

They may share the same ideology, but Islamic State’s raison d'être is to remake the world by restoring the "caliphate". The 47 executions and Riyadh's fears

Just like after September 11, the gestures of jihadist Islamism, this time in the form of Islamic State, have shifted the focus of the media onto Saudi Arabia, which is often accused of being the main promoter, organiser and financer of jihadist terrorism. The execution of 47 prisoners on 2 January, including the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, further strengthened its image as the main instigator of the violence in the Middle East.



The same literalist approach to the scriptures



The Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has found himself in good company comparing Saudi Arabia to Islamic State. Last year more than one observer highlighted the similarities between the State of the Sauds and that of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: the same Wahhabi ideology, the same literalist approach scripture, and the same penal system inspired by an extremely strict interpretation of sharia. According to an op-ed in the New York Times from 20 November, Saudi Arabia is merely "an Isis that has made it."



There is certainly no shortage of similarities between the kingdom of the Sauds and the neo-caliphate, as evidenced by the involvement of many young Saudi jihadis in the Syrian-Iraqi conflict, who are eager to put the religious zeal they have learned at school into practice. But the differences between the two entities, as duly recognized by Stéphane Lacroix, an expert on Saudi Arabia and lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, are no less significant. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, though hegemonic in the Sunni world, while Isis claims to be the Islamic State par excellence, the universal "caliphate" which all the Muslims of the world should potentially obey. The Saudi system is two-headed, based on the dualism between political power, exercised by the Sauds, and religious authority, held by the ulema, custodians of the Hanbali-Wahhabi doctrine. By contrast, the "fanaticism of the One" in its most extreme form reigns in Islamic State. Saudi Arabia was formed as a jihadist and subversive state (its conquest of the Arabian Peninsula in 1920s was a struggle fought "on the path of God" against Muslims considered to be "deviant"), but as the Tunisian scholar Hamadi Redissi wrote in Oasis, over time it "quitened down" and established itself as a neo-traditional authority. The Islamic State rejects any compromise with the existing order because its raison d'etre is to remake the world by restoring the caliphate. Doubtlessly, the Islamic State wants to "make it", but not in the same way as the the Saudi Kingdom, which is also going through a very delicate phase of its history.



The messages of the executions



It is necessary to start at this critical moment to understand the reason behind the executions with which Saudi Arabia inaugurated the new year. By focusing on the elimination of the Shiite Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr and forgetting the other 46 sentenced to death, many commentators have unilaterally interpreted the gesture by Riyadh as blatant provocation of Shiite Iran. In reality, the message delivered by the Saudi rulers is much more complex, as highlighted by the twitter page of Madawi Al-Rasheed, one of the foremost experts on the Gulf country. The 47 executed individuals actually included civil society activists and several members of al-Qaida, notably the ideologue Faris al-Shuwail, who was arrested after a series of attacks carried out by the jihadist organisation in 2004. More concerned about Sunni dissidence than the Shiite dissidence, the Saudi rulers wanted to send a warning to their more uncompromising co-religionists and home-grown Islamists, while at the same time reassuring them with the execution of the influential Shiite leader Nimr al-Nimr. The reaction of Iran, which, as evidenced by the performance of its own executioner (289 executions in 2014 according Amnesty International), can easily compete with Riyadh in terms of brutality, not only does not concern the royal house, but provides the surplus of "confessional" legitimacy that it was seeking at a time when its power is proving to be particularly vulnerable, amid falling oil revenues and poor results in regional conflicts.



Under these conditions the fatal combination of the recklessness of the Saudi family and rigour of the Wahhabi clerics seem more beyond reform than ever, given that each of the two subjects is probably unable to survive without the support of the other. And it is hard to imagine peace in the Middle East as long as Saudi Arabia is enforcing its fundamentalist teachings on the rest of the Arab-Sunni Muslim world.