Press commentary from both independent and pro-regime sources has approved of the donation ban. Pro-regime press suggested that the ban was meant to prevent funds from reaching militant jihadist organizations, urging that any response to Syria from Saudi Arabia had to occur through "official channels."
A column in the daily newspaper al-Jazirah obliquely condemns senior clerics who use their prestige and reputation to extract money from their constituents for uncertain purposes. It goes on to warn that "history will repeat itself," citing parallels between the Syrian crisis and the Saudi experience in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq. There, ostensibly charitable donations proved a slippery slope for the recruitment of Saudi youth to fight in these conflicts and also ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda militants who later attacked the Kingdom.
On Twitter, sources affiliated with the Ministry of Interior applauded the charitable impulse of the clerics and citizenry but emphasized that aid had to proceed through official channels. In contrast, the popular cleric Salman al-Awda tweeted an apparent criticism of the ban, arguing that donations to Syria are not dependent on a particular channel and that those who are committed to sending money will find a way.
But the regime went further still. On June 7, it followed up on its ban on donations with an edict from the Senior Ulema Council that expressly prohibited calls for jihad in Syria outside of official channels. A clerical member of the Supreme Judicial Council asserted that support to the Syrian people had to be "consistent with state policy" and that unauthorized calls for jihad were an "embarrassment to the state."
Broader Concerns About Clerical Power
As true as those concerns may be, there are larger issues at play here. This is part of a broader struggle between the reform-minded King Abdullah and hardline clerics who oppose his efforts. For instance, Abd al-Muhsin al-Ubaykan, the ultra-conservative cleric and adviser to the royal court who criticized the king's reform agenda on the radio, had long been a source of embarrassment to the royalty. His polarizing remarks on gender relations in 2010 were a key impetus for Abdullah's subsequent ban on non-official fatwas.
Increasingly, anti-reform clerical figures have been using social media sites to get around those government restrictions on fatwas and sermons. The regime likely sees the call for donations and jihad as yet another venue for hardline figures to circumvent the king's authority by appealing to an issue that has electrified the Saudi public.
Less explicitly, the ban illustrates the Al Saud's concern that hardline, non-establishment clerics might use the Syrian crisis to critique the ruling family's legitimacy by highlighting its passivity in the face of Syria's mounting bloodshed. The hardliners took precisely that tack during the Iraq war and the 2006 Lebanon war. It is a situation that the Saudi government is keen to avoid.
Other events in the region may have spurred the ban. The monarchy may be concerned about the contagion effect of the Egyptian elections on Saudi domestic politics. And a number of influential clerics have posted tweets applauding the imminent victory of the Muslim Brotherhood or hinted obliquely that Egypt's democratic experiment should be replicated on the Arabian Peninsula. The struggle is bound to continue.