The state as an identity racketeer: the case of Saudi Arabia

2017-02-27T05:21:35Z (GMT) by Rich, Ben
Although the close link between the Saudi state and the religious revivalist movement commonly known as “Wahhabism” is well known, little scholarly effort has been made to apply social or political theory to better interpret this relationship. This thesis seeks to begin to fill this gap, asking the question “how has the Saudi regime employed revivalist Islam as a system state of legitimation?” and seeking to answer it through a synthesis of sociological and political theories proposed by Catarina Kinnvall and Charles Tilly. In adopting this approach, the thesis outlines a broad system of state “identity racketeering,” in which the Saudi state seeks to shape and stoke an exclusivist, Islamic identity in many of its citizens and then exploit the metaphysical insecurities intrinsic to this identity towards its own political ends. It demonstrates that this behaviour is not modern and has existed across the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, over three distinct periods of Saudi rule, under increasingly consolidated conditions of statehood. Throughout these periods, the system has displayed remarkable consistency, tarnishing political rivals of the regime as enemies of Islam, while emphasising the state’s necessity in ensuring the religious purity of the revivalist community. The findings of the thesis are far from historical curiosities and continue to have important ramifications in contemporary times. Despite the advent of the oil era and the powerful welfare state this produced, efforts to maintain and expand racketeering efforts where possible remain a central tenet of the House of Saud’s governing strategy, most recently evident in its response to the Arab Spring. From the Islamic State, to women’s right to drive, to the subordinate status of the Kingdom’s Shi’a, the effects of such identity racketeering remains pervasive and profound at many levels of Saudi politics, society and security today.