Saudi Arabia Reins in Its Clerics

By Frederic Wehrey

The Saudi regime may be urging stronger international action in Syria, but it is clearly wary of the recent wave of domestic agitation calling for non-official involvement in the crisis. The Al Saud worry that the anti-reform Saudi clerics behind many of the calls to action are overstepping their bounds-and that the ruling family's legitimacy and Saudi Arabia's security could ultimately be at stake.

Arabic press reported on May 29 that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia summoned twenty prominent Salafi clerics to Riyadh to ban them from soliciting donations for Syria's embattled citizenry. A number of those clerics responded by announcing on their social media platforms that they had been contacted by authorities and ordered to desist from collecting funds for Syria.

These moves come at an especially sensitive time in government-clerical relations, as King Abdullah's struggle with ultraconservative clerics who oppose many of the government's reform efforts heats up. The king recently dismissed an adviser to the royal court for publicly criticizing his reform agenda on a local radio station. And the head of the mutawa'in (morality police) was also dismissed because of similarly hardline views on gender relations.

Clerical Activism Ramps Up

The Syrian crisis has long animated clerical sympathies in the Kingdom. In most cases, clerical statements adhere closely to the official Saudi line on Syria, providing helpful theological cover for Saudi foreign policy. In Friday sermons, on Twitter, and in Facebook posts, the clerics have demonized the Assad regime and the Alawites, expressed solidarity with civilian suffering, and pushed for greater Gulf involvement, to include arming the Syrian opposition.

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Yet, the clerics have gone too far, deviating from the government's line and moving from rhetoric to appeals for non-official action. There have been more militant calls for jihad and humanitarian aid to the Syrian citizenry that deviate from the official line. A redline was crossed when a group calling itself the "Ulema Committee to Support Syria" announced its existence on Facebook on May 26, posting bank account numbers for prospective donors and organizing a fundraising drive at the Bawardi Mosque in Riyadh. Its leadership is comprised of seven prominent, non-establishment clerics, several of whom are well-known for their previous calls for militant volunteers in Iraq and their anti-reform views, including Nasser bin Suleiman al-Omar, Abd al-Rahman Salah Mahmud, and Abd al-Aziz bin Marzuq al-Turayfi.

From the regime's perspective, such exhortations for non-official involvement are problematic. They skirt the limits on clerical autonomy that were formalized by King Abdullah in an August 2010 decree that confined the issuing of fatwas (religious edicts) to the officially sanctioned Senior Ulema Council. The authorities moved quickly.

The Monarchy Draws a Redline

Just two days after the group was formed, the Ulema Committee to Support Syria announced on Facebook that it could no longer accept donations and that its fundraising drive had been cancelled by the authorities. The individual social media sites of clerics affiliated with the committee posted similar notices. The website of Nasser al-Omar reported he was no longer accepting donations because of royal intervention. Abd al-Aziz al-Turayfi, who has criticized Abdullah's decision to restrict the issuing of fatwas to the Senior Ulema Council, acknowledged that he was "stopping all donations to the brothers in Syria until further notice." And the list goes on. The popular cleric Muhammad al-Urayfi-with the highest number of Twitter followers among clerics in the Kingdom-tweeted that he was forced to sign a pledge not to raise funds for Syria. Hassan Hamid, a cleric affiliated with the committee but not part of its leadership, specifically mentioned a visit from the mabahith (security services) regarding donations.

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Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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