Creating Frankenstein: The Impact of Saudi Export Ultra-Conservatism in South Asia

34 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2016 Last revised: 29 Jul 2016

See all articles by James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey

Nanyang Technological University - S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; University of Wuerzburg - Institute of Fan Culture/Institute of Sport Science

Date Written: July 24, 2016


Continued doubts about the longevity of the Saudi ruling family are fuelled by its Faustian bargain with Wahhabism, a conservative, intolerant, discriminatory and anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam.

It is a bargain that has produced one of the largest dedicated public diplomacy campaigns in history. Estimates of Saudi Arabia’s spending on support of ultra-conservative strands of Islam, including Wahhabism, Salafism and Deobandism, across the globe range from $70 to $100 billion. Saudi largesse funded fund mosques, Islamic schools and cultural institutions, and social services as well as the forging of close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations. In doing so, Saudi Arabia succeeded in turning s largely local Wahhabi and like-minded ultra-conservative Muslim worldviews into an influential force in Muslim nations and communities across the globe.

The campaign is not simply a product of the marriage between the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis. It is central to Saudi Arabia’s soft power policy and the Al Sauds’ survival strategy. One reason, albeit not the only one, that the longevity of the Al Sauds is a matter of debate, is the fact that the propagation of Wahhabism is having a backlash in countries across the globe, as well as on Saudi Arabia itself. More than ever before, Wahhabism, and its theological parent, Salafism, are being put under the spotlight due to their theological or ideological similarities with jihadism in general, and the ideology of the Islamic State (IS) group in particular.

Attitudes fostered by Saudi funding, as well as Saudi Arabia’s willingness to look the other way when its youth leave the kingdom to join militant groups, undermine Saudi Arabia’s international image and its efforts to create soft power.

The problem for the Al Sauds is not just that their image is under attack and that their legitimacy is wholly dependent on their identification with Wahhabism; it is also that the Al Sauds since the launch of their Islamist campaign, have often been only nominally in control of it. As a result, the Al Sauds have let a genie out of the bottle that now leads an independent life and cannot be put back into the bottle. Wahhabi and Salafi-influenced education systems played into the hands of Arab autocrats, who for decades dreaded an education system that would teach critical thinking and the asking of difficult questions.

The current backlash of Saudi support for autocracy and funding of the export of Wahhabism and Salafism, coupled with the need to radically reform the kingdom’s economy, means that the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis are nearing a crunch point, one that will not necessarily offer solutions, but in fact could make things worse. It risks sparking ever more militant splits, that will make themselves felt across the Muslim world and in minority Muslim communities elsewhere, in multiple ways. One already visible fallout of the Saudi campaign is greater intolerance towards minorities and increased sectarianism in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia.

A key to understanding the Saudi funding campaign is the fact that while it all may be financed out of one pot of money, it serves different purposes for different parties. For the Wahhabi ulema, it is about proselytization, about the spreading of Islam; for the Saudi government, it is about gaining soft power. At times the interests of the government and the ulema coincide, and at times they diverge. By the same token, the Saudi campaign on some levels has been an unparalleled success, on others, success is questionable and one could argue that it risks becoming a liability for the government.

Keywords: Islam, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Religion, South Asia, Middle East, Education

Suggested Citation

Dorsey, James M., Creating Frankenstein: The Impact of Saudi Export Ultra-Conservatism in South Asia (July 24, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

James M. Dorsey (Contact Author)

Nanyang Technological University - S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies ( email )

S3 B2-A28 Nanyang Avenue
Singapore, 639798
91689117 (Phone)

University of Wuerzburg - Institute of Fan Culture/Institute of Sport Science ( email )

Sanderring 2
Würzburg, D-97070

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