Saudi Arabia and the West’s right wing: A dubious alliance
By James M. Dorsey
A podcast version of this story is available on, , and .
Traditionally focussed on ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam, Saudi funding in the era of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has been streamlined and finetuned to ensure that it serves his geopolitical ambitions, primarily stymying the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and North Africa and enhancing the kingdom’s global impact.
The effort, however, has so far produced a mixed bag. Spending is down but more targeted. Saudi Arabia hasin a move designed to demonstrate its newly found moderation and reduce the reputational damage of a Saudi ultra-conservative management that had become contentious in Belgium.
Yet,that dot the Pakistani-Iranian border. The kingdom’s focus, moreover has shifted in selected countries to the , a corollary to Prince Mohammed’s crackdown on critics and activists at home.
Saudi governmental non-governmental organizations that once distributed the kingdom’s largesse to advance ultra-conservatism as well asbut have little tangible change at home to back it up.
To be sure, Prince Mohammed has lifted the ban on women’s driving, enhanced women’s work and leisure opportunities and kickstarted the creation of a modern entertainment industry but none of these measures amount to his promise to foster an unidentified but truly moderate form of Islam.
The prince’s moves, moreover, have been accompanied by an embrace of the European right and far-right as well as Western ultra-conservative groups that by and large are hardly beacons of tolerance and mutual respect.
“Saudi Arabia with MBS as Crown Prince has not been advocating Islamic religious reform,” said Middle East scholar HA Hellyer, referring to the Saudi leader by his initials.
“Thethat draws it closer to the normative Sunni mainstream, nor listen to existing Saudi religious scholars who advocate more normative and mainstream approaches. Rather, the establishment has been muzzled. MBS’s ‘reforms’ in this arena are about centralizing power—they are not about restoring the Saudi religious establishment to a normative Sunnism,” Mr. Hellyer added.
Prince Mohammed’s interest in non-Muslim ultra-conservative groups in the West fits a global pattern, highlighted by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, in which technological advances and the increased importance of soft power that lie at the root of Russian intervention in elections in the United States and Europe, have informed the information and public relations policies of multiple autocratic states.
Technology and soft power are, according to Messrs. Mounk and Foa, are.
“Indeed, China is already stepping up ideological pressure on its overseas residents and establishing influential Confucius Institutes in major centres of learning. And over the past two years, Saudi Arabia has dramatically upped its payments to registered U.S. lobbyists, increasing the number of registered foreign agents working on its behalf from 25 to 145… The rise of authoritarian soft power is already apparent across a variety of domains, including academia, popular culture, foreign investment, and development aid,” Messrs. Mounk and Foa said.
Saudi Arabia alongside other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, as well as China, have furthermore been major donors to Western universities and think tanks and developed media outlets of their own such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera, Turkey’s TRT World China’s CCTV, and Russia’s RT that reach global audiences. They compete with the likes of the BBC and CNN.
The need for Saudi Arabia to acquire soft power was driven home byon the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi effort to do so by garnering conservative, right-wing and far-right support was evident in Northern Ireland.
The ambassador, Prince Nawaf’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al Saud, was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain until.
“It may be entirely co-incidental that the man who channelled £425,622 to the DUP had such extremely high-level Saudi connections. We simply don’t know. We also don’t know whether the… Saudi ambassador had any knowledge of his father’s connection to Richard Cook,” Mr. O’Toole said.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia hasand showered at least 50 members of the government, including Ms. May, with .
One package destined for a member of the House of Lords included seaweed and garlic mayonnaise; smoked salmon, trout and mussels; and a kilogram of Stilton cheese. Others contained bottles of claret, white wine, champagne, and Talisker whisky despite the kingdom’s ban of alcohol.
In a move similar to Russian efforts to influence European politics,, according to member of the European parliament Eldar Mamedov.
Writing on LobeLog, Mr. Mamedov said the kingdom frequently worked through the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) bloc, the third largest grouping in the European parliament. Saudi Arabia also enjoyed the support of European parliament member Mario Borghezio of Italy’s Lega, who is a member of Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), a bloc of far-right parties in the parliament.
The kingdom’s strategy, in a twist of irony, although in pursuit of different goals, resembles to a degree that of one of its nemeses, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim non-governmental organization that has opposition to Saudi Arabia’s puritan strand of Islam carved into its DNA and has.
The Saudi strategy could prove tricky, particularly in the United States, dependent on the evolution of US special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 election that brought President Donald J. Trump to office.
Mr. Mueller reportedly is, its reputation in the US tarnished by the Khashoggi killing, and the United Arab Emirates, the kingdom’s closest ally, to influence American politics.
Said Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney. “I guess what Mueller has to date has turned out to be pretty rich and detailed and more than we anticipated..”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the and just published podcast. James is the author of blog, a with the same title and a co-authored volume, as well as