Security Studies Program Seminar

Explaining the Absence of Islamist Revolutionaries in Saudi Arabia

Thomas Hegghammer
Senior Research Fellow, Norwegian Defense Research Establishment
and Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University

April 7, 2010



Q. Al Qaeda has several goals: (1) remove the infidels from the Arabian peninsula, (2) establish a caliphate, and (3) remove governments that resist (1) and (2). Isn’t the Saudi government one of their targets under (3)?
A. Those goals are not equal in status. The caliphate aim is long-term and has very little predictive value. The proximate, short-term aims are more important – whether groups fight the “near enemy” or the “far enemy.” These are not exclusive categories; all militant Islamists are critical of Arab regimes and hate America. But they differ on where they rank those priorities, and this determines their behavior.

Q. One possible hypothesis to explain the recent increase of anti-regime violence in Saudi Arabia: The Saudi government invested in the pan-Islamist movement. Perhaps people believe that the pan-Islamist movement has not delivered, and perhaps that has led to the slow emergence of revolutionary Islamism?
A. It is hard to say what has caused the recent increase in regime-targeted violence. One reason is simply that the police are coming after AQAP more than before. It is hard to say if that is a measure of waning support for pan-Islamism. But there are many indicators that extreme pan-Islamism, of the kind that advocates attacking American civilians, is decreasing in support and has been since the mid-2000s. This is partly because it is difficult now for pan-Islamists to conduct operations that kill only Westerners; Muslims are often collateral damage. Has this decline in pan-Islamism’s effectiveness been accompanied by more revolutionary activity? To some extent, and certainly in Yemen.

Q. Does the internal “near enemy” vs. “far enemy” debate in these Islamist groups explain the variation in intrastate Saudi violence better than the actions of these groups?
A. Among the groups’ strategists, thinking about targeting is more instrumental – some in Al Qaeda view attacks on Westerners as a way to get to the regime (if you expel the foreigners, the regime will fall). But the fact that Saudi entrepreneurs have concealed these preferences is in itself interesting, because it questions the assumption that all Islamist militant organizations are alike.

Q. Regarding why grievance against the Saudi state is so low, isn’t it because Saudi Arabia is more of an Islamist state than the Arab republics (like Egypt)?
A. The secularism of the Arab republics is clearly an important grievance there, so the Islamist nature of the Saudi state certainly limits the supply of anti-regime recruits.

Q. The most violent actions taken against the Saudi state have originated very close to the ruling elite (i.e., King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew). To what extent are these more Shakespearean disputes worth taking account of, in terms of threats to the Saudi regime?
A. The most important factor in predicting the future of Saudi Arabia is something we know almost nothing about: the internal dynamics of the royal family.

Q. What are the policy implications of your work? It seems that precision in the application of repression is important. Why are the Saudis able to be so precise and discriminate in their repression?
A. Many Saudi state actions are not as transferable as people think, i.e. their demobilization program that emphasizes soft pressure from family and tribe. The importance of family and tribe is not necessarily universal, and this would be an impractical strategy in Guantanamo (or its successor) because the families and tribal leaders cannot be brought in.

Q. What do you make of Saudi Wahhabism? Are they really the good guys here? Or are they the most extremist, xenophobic sect of Islam?
A. Wahhabism is much less important than people have assumed. It does not explain the variation in activism over time or within the population. Non-Wahhabis are actually much more violent than Wahhabis. What we see as the exportation of Wahhabi militants from Saudi Arabia to other states is a measurement error – we are actually seeing the exportation of pan-Islamism. There appears to be a substantial disconnect between what top Wahhabi scholars say and promote and what militant Islamists say and promote. Wahhabi scholars are focused on social conservatism and individual behavior, not international politics.


Rapporteur: Nathan Black

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2010