Saudi Arabia Ulema Roles and Influences

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Saudi Arabia Ulema Roles and Influences

Saudi Arabia is almost unique in giving the ulema (the body of Islamic religious leaders and jurists) a direct role in government, the only other example being Iran. The ulema have also been a key influence in major government decisions, for example the imposition of the oil embargo in 1973 and the invitation to foreign troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990. In addition, they have had a major role in the judicial and education systems and a monopoly of authority in the sphere of religious and social morals.

By the 1970s, as a result of oil wealth and the modernization of the country initiated by King Faisal, important changes to Saudi society were under way and the power of the ulema was in decline. However, this changed following the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Islamist radicals. The government’s response to the crisis included strengthening the ulema’s powers and increasing their financial support: in particular, they were given greater control over the education system and allowed to enforce stricter observance of Wahhabi rules of moral and social behaviour. After his accession to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah took steps to reduce the powers of the ulema, for instance transferring control over girls’ education to the Ministry of Education.

The ulema have historically been led by the Al ash-Sheikh, the country’s leading religious family. The Al ash-Sheikh are the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th century founder of the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam which is today dominant in Saudi Arabia. The family is second in prestige only to the Al Saud (the royal family) with whom they formed a “mutual support pact” and power-sharing arrangement nearly 300 years ago. The pact, which persists to this day, is based on the Al Saud maintaining the Al ash-Sheikh’s authority in religious matters and upholding and propagating Wahhabi doctrine. In return, the Al ash-Sheikh support the Al Saud’s political authority thereby using its religious-moral authority to legitimize the royal family’s rule. Although the Al ash-Sheikh’s domination of the ulema has diminished in recent decades, they still hold the most important religious posts and are closely linked to the Al Saud by a high degree of intermarriage.

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