Saudi Arabia and Oman possess differing national identities, varied social and cultural roots, and divergent approaches to tolerance that may explain their different experiences with extremism.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Sultanate of Oman share significant characteristics: language; basic religious heritage; geographic proximity; a remarkably rapid growth in economic development and prosperity; a dependence on oil and gas income; and elements of Bedouin and tribal culture.
However, there are significant differences. And it is those differences, when viewed in light of those foundational similarities, that may account for the two countries’ differing experiences with violent extremism.
The importance of these nations to and of their relationships with the United States and the West is well-known. Moreover, those relationships with the US are historic. With Saudi Arabia, these ties date back to just a few years after the founding of the modern state in 1932, while Oman’s began just a few decades after the founding of America.
The assessment and comments offered here are intended neither to criticize, nor applaud either nation. Rather at a time when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is aiming to capitalize on the turmoil in Yemen, and hundreds, if not thousands, of Gulf citizens are fighting for the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, it is vital to offer an explanation of some of the complex, multifaceted circumstances that may give rise to terrorism, especially Islamist-inspired terrorism today.
The State of Terrorism in Oman and Saudi Arabia
To get a basic understanding of the terrorism and counterterrorism situations of the two nations, it is vital to start with some basic data. Statistics, especially when it comes to subjects like terrorism or terrorists, are often vague and difficult to come by. Actual figures, outside the governments themselves or intelligence agencies, may be non-existent. However, in the case of these two countries, the differences are so stark that precise figures may not be necessary.
In Saudi Arabia, there have been approximately 60 terrorist incidents since 2000, in which either citizens or foreign residents were killed or injured. These include such headline-making incidents as:
1) the May 2003 Riyadh Compound suicide bombings that killed 35 and wounded over 200
2) the November 2003 truck bomb explosion at an Arab housing compound in Riyadh that killed 17 and injured 120
3) the May 2004 so-called Black Saturday rampage at a petroleum complex in Yanbu that left seven people dead (all but one a foreigner) and wreaked havoc on oil markets subsequently
4) the June 2004 beheading of American Paul Johnson in Riyadh, which would set a gruesome precedent for the Islamic State ten years later
5) the December 2004 al-Qaeda attack on the US Consulate in Jeddah that killed five of US government employees and wounded 14, including ten of the consulate’s staff
6) an April 2005 attempt by male terrorists to enter the holy city of Mecca dressed as women – four were killed, two terrorists and two Saudi security officers
7) a February 2006 attempted suicide attack on the Abqaiq oil facility, the largest in the world, which was foiled by Saudi security authorities but left two Saudi security officers and two of the suspects dead and several employees wounded
8) the February 2007 murders of three French nationals during a desert outing near the ancient city of Mada’in Saleh
9) an August 2009 attempt on the life of Saudi Prince and then-Counterintelligence Chief – and current Interior Minister and Deputy Crown Prince – Mohammed bin Nayef by an al-Qaeda operative killed in the attempt
I was present in the kingdom when many of these as well as other incidents took place, and I witnessed firsthand the fear that gripped the country during that period.
In Oman, according to the US Congressional Research Service, there have been no terrorist incidents where individuals have been either killed or injured.
With respect to foreign terrorist fighters, various experts and media have reported that hundreds, if not thousands, of Saudi foreign fighters are engaged in conflicts as close as Syria and Iraq and as far away as Morocco and Chechnya. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals. At the height of the war in Iraq, the US estimated their numbers into the hundreds. Moreover, approximately 130 Saudis have been incarcerated at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although there are none today.
By contrast, there are few known Omani foreign fighters. During my time in Iraq, there were several suspected, but it is unsure whether they were actually Omani or had merely spent time there before leaving the sultanate for jihad. No Omanis have ever been detained at Guantanamo Bay. Moreover, no Omani has been convicted of a violent act of terrorism and imprisoned in Oman or outside.
On the financing of terrorism, there are claims that Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest financier of terrorism. Some of these claims are based on information revealed in State Department cables released through WikiLeaks. This may be a bit too sweeping, especially given Iran’s well-known funding of violent extremist groups in the region and elsewhere. Nevertheless, both the 9/11 Commission report and the 2005 US Government Accounting Office (GAO) report attest to significant Saudi-based funding of Islamist extremism and terrorism in the Middle East, including of al-Qaeda.
These and other reports claim that private Saudi individuals and organizations operating through local mosques — as well as formal charitable organizations such as the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation and two of Saudi Arabia’s largest, the International Islamic Relief Organization and the World Muslim League — have provided substantial support to extremists and terrorists, including al-Qaeda.
Recently, the Iraqi government and others have claimed that Saudi Arabia or individual Saudis support IS, despite Riyadh’s known antipathy for the group. A 2013 Brookings report indicated, however, that of the many millions of dollars reaching the Islamic State through donors in Kuwait, where restrictions on such activity are lax, a significant portion may be coming from private individuals in Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, these reports as well as numerous subsequent public reports and US government statements have stopped short of accusing the Saudi government of direct involvement in financing extremism or terrorism. Of course, the term extremism can be relative. But there can be no doubt that individual Saudis are channeling funds of uncertain amounts to extremist groups around the region.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that Saudi Arabia, with strong US and international backing, passed fairly strong laws against such financing after 9/11. Its government signed the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, and established its Anti-Money Laundering (AML) / Combating the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) regime.
The picture in Oman is quite different. For example, in 2014, the Basel AML Index – an annual ranking by the Basel Institute on Governance assessing country risk regarding money laundering/terrorism financing and focusing on AML/CFT frameworks and other factors – ranked Oman 134th globally; the country with highest risk (Iran in 2014) is ranked as number one. Saudi Arabia ranked 87th among the 162 countries covered.
The Financial Actions Task Force reports that the Sultanate of Oman has set up an AML-CFT system that is essentially in line with international standards, robust and effective. Oman has also signed and acceded to the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.
In 2009, Oman convicted and sentenced to life in prison an Omani businessman for helping to plan terrorist attacks in the country and to fund a Pakistan-based terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
This represents the basic situation in each country. They are considerably different. What accounts for the dramatically different situations? How is it that extremism and terrorism and the ideology that promotes them have been able to find a footing in Saudi Arabia but are practically absent in Oman? While both maintain strong security forces whose presence can, at times, be fairly visible, neither is a police state with an overwhelming security force presence.
I would like to posit three factors that I believe can explain, at least in part, why the experiences of these two countries have been so different.
A Unique National Identity
The first significant difference between these two countries is their differing national identities.
Oman’s identity as a definable nation dates back to the pre-Islamic period. In the 4th century, Omani traders were sending trade missions to China. These were repeated in the 8th century. In those second voyages, it is said that the Omanis introduced Islam to eastern China.
Throughout much of its history, Oman was divided. There were coastal, trading Arabs whose land was sometimes identified as Muscat and governed by a sultan. And there were the interior, tribal Arabs governed by an imam. Either both or at least one has been variously governed since the 12th century by three main dynasties — the most current of which, al-Said, has governed since 1744 when its founder expelled Persian occupiers.
Omanis were among the first of the region to convert to Islam, having done so during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. By the mid-8th century, Ibadi Islam, a moderate conservative sect of Islam, took root in Oman and became the basis for the imamate established in the interior. Today, Oman is the only majority Ibadi Muslim nation in the world.
Oman was also the first Arab nation to send an embassy to the US and second, after Morocco, to establish diplomatic relations with the Americans.
What this unique history has given Oman and its citizens is an identity distinct from many other Arab nations and unlike any other Gulf State, most of whose identities and borders were established in the post-World War II period. Its leaders, including the currently reigning Sultan Qaboos bin Said, refer to this identity and count on it to engender the kind of patriotism that comes with a longstanding national identity.
One of the significant achievements of Sultan Qaboos has been his ability to elevate Omanis’ identity as citizens of a single nation, while balancing tribal culture and loyalties where they still exist. Islam is a significant component of Oman’s identity but is one of many characteristics that define its identity.
In essence, Omanis know who they are and, therefore, are less likely to fall prey to the depredations of external actors seeking to woo Muslims based on some new, extremist ideology. Omanis’ national identity coupled with the moderation of their Ibadi Muslim faith has inspired a sense of loyalty, even when they may disagree with certain policies. Extremism is not only avoided, it is condemned.
The history of Saudi Arabia is very different. For most of its history, it was ruled by a patchwork of leading tribes, clans and families. While the roots of the ruling al-Saud family go back to the mid-18th century, the modern Saudi state was not formally established until 1932 under the aegis of the family’s scion, Abdul Aziz al-Saud, or Ibn Saud.
Throughout their governance dating back to 1744, the Sauds were ideologically tied to the preaching of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which became known as Wahhabism.
Wahhabism is a strict, fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam. As he was establishing control of the Arabian Peninsula, Ibn Saud allied himself with a Bedouin army known as the Ikhwan, or Brotherhood, ardent followers of Wahhabism and bent on purifying the Muslim faith and uniting all Muslims. While he eventually had to put down an Ikhwan revolt, Ibn Saud preserved the foundational principle of Wahhabism that endures to this day.
The claimed mission of “purification and unification” of the Ikhwan may sound familiar to us today. It is the same Salafist claim made by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and virtually all other Islamist extremist organizations.
Today, the modern state known as Saudi Arabia is named after a family and maintains a foundational ideology based on a particular version of Islam. The governing al-Sauds have worked hard to establish a national identity in the kingdom beyond just Islam.
But creating such an identity is problematic, given the country’s guiding principle and history. Its tribal culture, disparate tribes and the unique and indispensable linkage of Wahhabism to their unity under the solitary leadership of al-Saud make it difficult, if not impossible, to conjure an alternative identity to serve the same unifying purpose.
That guiding principle of Wahhabism, of course, can be hijacked. Many, if not most, of today’s Islamist extremist organizations have adopted a similar guiding philosophy and use it to argue in favor of Islam superseding national identity. Al-Qaeda has been trying it even within Saudi Arabia since Osama bin Laden returned after the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Any governing institution based on a religious belief is, by definition, exclusive. Therefore, as it attempts to become more inclusive, it will inevitably fall prey to criticism that its adherence to that faith or pursuance of the faith’s objectives is deficient, corrupt and contrary to the faith.
Indeed, these are criticisms that have been leveled by a number of today’s extremist groups like al-Qaeda and IS at the governing al-Sauds. So, if the foundation principle of the Saudi state, as instituted by the Sauds, is viewed as corrupt or even illegitimate by others claiming to be the champions and real “purifiers and unifiers” of fundamentalist Islam, then what is the consequence for that state’s national identity?
The second characteristic that may account for the two countries’ differing experiences with extremism and terrorism is their divergent social and cultural roots.
Both nations share a Bedouin and tribal heritage. They are similar in many ways for that part of the world. But they also are significantly different in some important ways.
Westerners have lost almost all of the elements of tribalism we once had – at least those of European heritage. In Europe, tribalism was effectively eliminated beginning with Rome’s conquest of present-day Europe and continuing with the empires and monarchies that succeeded it.
For Americans and other Westerners, therefore, our scant knowledge of tribal culture comes from what we might know about Native Americans or other indigenous groups. Otherwise, we most often identify our so-called tribe by our political affiliation, favorite sports team or even the university we attended. None of those begins to approximate tribalism in the Middle East and especially in the Arabian Peninsula.
Tribal cultures tend to be suspicious of the other — the outsider. Outsiders are not necessarily unwelcome; in fact, Arab Bedouins are rightly famous for their hospitality. But an outsider is always such and can never be treated as a member.
If you want to understand just a bit of what Arabian Peninsula tribal cultures and customs are like, I heartily recommend reading the great 20th century explorer, Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s book, Arabian Sands. In it, Thesiger recounts his repeated expeditions across the Rub al-Khali desert of Arabia in the mid-20th century. He wrote of some Bedouins having to protect him from others because he was a non-Muslim foreigner. His protectors were Omanis.
The aforementioned difference between coastal Omanis and desert Omanis is becoming vaguer with time. The insular, tribal nature of the desert Omanis became tempered by the tolerance and moderation of Ibadi Islam. In addition, the coastal, seafaring Omanis also had an impact on the overall character of the nation.
By virtue of their livelihood, traders and seafarers come into contact with all sorts of people unlike themselves. Omani seafarers traded and dealt extensively with the people of Persia, eastern and interior Africa, India, the Southeast Asian islands and, as mentioned earlier, China. All of that was before they came in contact with Europeans in the 15th century. Of course, they traded extensively with their interior, desert-dwelling compatriots as well.
In the mid-19th century, an Omani “Indian Ocean Empire” controlled areas within present day East Africa, India, Iran and Pakistan and most of the major ports of the Indian Ocean.
Oman became an outward-looking nation early in its history by necessity. Its survival both as a people and a nation became dependent on its abilities to interact with others. As such, familiarity with and acceptance of racial, ethnic and cultural diversities became a defining quality of Omanis. In many ways, it is integral to the national identity of Omanis I referred to earlier.
Boldly proud of their unique national identity but also an avowedly Muslim nation, Omanis accept and even embrace “the other.” That has mitigated the otherwise exclusiveness of their rich tribal culture, which is still very observable today.
In such a cultural and social environment, it is much harder for extremism to take root. Stability and comity, as opposed to rigid adherence to an ideology, require a degree of religious as well as cultural and social tolerance.
The evolution of Saudi society has been much different. Save for the many Muslims who came from around the world on hajj to Mecca, few foreigners and even fewer non-Muslims ventured to Saudi Arabia until the early 20th century. The geography was forbidding and the land was thought to hold little of value. In terms of foreigners, the country was left to explorers like Thesiger and a number before him.
That was until oil. With the arrival of British and then later American geologists and petroleum experts in the 1920s, Saudis saw the potential for oil in what had been thought to be a desert waste land. Those visitors and the development they eventually engendered — and the Saud’s desire to build a modern state — began Saudi Arabia’s introduction to the rest of the world.
But the country’s strict religious and tribal cultures, which reinforce one another, greatly circumscribe and restrict its social and cultural evolution. Ibn Saud astutely used the strict Wahhabism — and his many marriages to various women of different tribes — to ultimately unite the disparate tribes in the 1920s and 30s, effectively inculcating the two identities into one another. The suspicious nature of tribal culture and Wahhabism’s censure of non-Muslims and non-Wahhabi Muslims complement and buttress each other. Not surprisingly, the government today still strictly controls who and how many foreigners may visit. The suspicion of Wahhabism and the tribal culture still prevails.
Note that I am referring to different cultures and the diverse ideas and attitudes that they spawn. I am not referring to actual ethnic diversity. Both countries are predominantly Arab with small minorities of non-Arabs. But the experiences of the two societies in terms of exposure to and acceptance of other cultures are very different.
The historic absence of human interaction and cultural exposure until very recently may account in part for some of the challenges that Saudi Arabia as a nation and Saudis as a people have faced in accommodating themselves with the outside world and even with many within the kingdom’s own borders. Addressing that challenge manifests itself in both positive and negative ways, including extremism.
The Key: Tolerance
The final and critical defining difference is the two countries’ approaches to tolerance.
Because Omanis practice a more tolerant form of Islam, Ibadism, other religious faiths — both Muslim and non-Muslim — are accepted in the country. Shiite and Sunni mosques and even Christian churches and Hindu temples all exist in the country; although the activities of the latter are somewhat circumscribed, especially in the area of proselytizing.
In my own experience in Oman, I sensed that Omanis identified themselves with their country, its history and culture, and their tribe as opposed to their religious sect. The sultan, in particular, has been careful to avoid singling out any specific Muslim sect when speaking of the unity of the nation and has purposely cultivated a policy of tolerance, for example, by including Sunni and Shiite in various government posts and donating land for the construction of Christian and Hindu places of worship.
Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia explicitly prohibits public worship within any faith but Wahhabi Islam. Saudi Shiite, for example, who number between 1.5-2 million, must worship in informal mosques known as hussenias. There are no formal Shiite mosques. Nor are there Christian churches for the estimated 1.5 million Christian foreign workers living in the kingdom. Private services are permitted in foreign embassies and may also take place in private homes, as long as the Saudi religious police — the deservedly maligned mutawa or mutaween, formally known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — are ignorant of them. The very existence of such an organization begs the question of tolerance.
Saudi police, for example, carefully monitor foreigners who enter the few embassies that offer religious services. To be sure, there is a necessary security element to their presence; Christians in Saudi Arabia face risks by going to worship. But the police are also there to ensure that no Saudi enters to attend such services. Furthermore, anyone attempting to conduct a private religious service of more than a handful of worshippers in his/her home, for example, would be arrested and, in all likelihood, deported or imprisoned.
In Oman, by contrast, Omani police direct traffic outside massively attended religious services on special occasions such as Christmas and Easter — much, in fact, as police do in the US for larger places of worship. The same is done for Hindu special religious holidays. Omanis are free to attend such non-Muslim services, though few actually do.
In short, religious tolerance is accepted by the majority of Omanis and formally promulgated by its government and the sultan. It is not in Saudi Arabia.
The late King Abdullah tried to promote greater understanding of the “other,” as non-Sunni Muslims are sometimes referred to. But in the current tense religious environment in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East, there has been limited progress to my knowledge. His efforts, for example, to reach out to the country’s Shiite population, were thwarted by the perceived growing threat from Shiite-dominant Iran, especially after the election of the controversial and outspoken Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president in 2005.
With the recent death of King Abdullah and the assumption of the throne by his half-brother, Salman, it is impossible to predict in which direction the country might turn. King Salman has been viewed as largely pro-Western and supportive of the kingdom’s efforts to play a more prominent role on the global stage and burnish its image abroad. But when he was governor of Riyadh, he was also generally viewed as the family enforcer — the one responsible for keeping the many members of the royal family in line. One thing is clear: If the country is to set itself on a path of greater tolerance, the new king must lead it.
His course will not be easy. The institutional and cultural obstacles to tolerance are still great. Religious dogma and the unwritten alliance between his ruling family and the religious establishment effectively inhibit the country’s political leadership from modifying in any significant way its religious practices.
Unchangeable Circumstances of History
National identity, social and cultural roots, and tolerance form the basis, therefore, for the differing experiences of these two nations of the Arabian Peninsula. They are part of the countries and the peoples who populate them. They are circumstances of each country’s history, geography and development.
We cannot change them. However, what is possible, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia, is that leaders can influence significantly the policies of government as well as attitudes of the people. We have seen that in Oman. The Saudis will have to do so in their own way, however. It will have to be an approach that takes into account their unique history, culture and religious faith.
Outsiders, especially other Muslims and Muslim nations, can be helpful. But the change that is necessary will have to be organic. Outsiders are most helpful when they quietly but firmly encourage and support change from within and provide assistance when it is requested.
There may also be times when a problem appears so overwhelming that external initiative may be necessary. I am thinking of the centuries-old tensions between Sunni and Shiite, which are often manipulated by opportunists for political advantage. We see that today in Syria and Iraq or even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In fact, promoting and advancing greater tolerance of and respect between Sunni and Shiite among all Muslims may be a good place to start. Oman may be a good example of how to go about such change.
Ultimately, all governments must be held accountable. That includes governments, officials and organizations whose policies and behavior fall short of the actions necessary to end extremism and the violence it promotes.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.