The empty Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, March 2020
Ganoo Essa / Reuters

In late February, Saudi Arabia abruptly suspended all visas for umrah, the year-round pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Umrah is less important than the hajj, a pilgrimage that happens in the last month of the lunar year and is required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lives, but it still draws nearly eight million annual visitors.

Today, the kingdom’s two holy cities, Mecca and Medina—which give the Saudi king his royal title, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques—are on total lockdown. Even Saudi citizens are banned from visiting as pilgrims. Saudi authorities will likely cancel the hajj, which is set for late July this year, for the first time in over two centuries. (Though the cancellation has not been officially announced, the Saudi hajj minister is urging people to hold off booking trips, suggesting that a formal announcement is imminent. The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah did not immediately comment as to when it will make the final call.) Riyadh has moved more swiftly in responding to the pandemic than other Muslim-majority states and religious institutions. It took Egypt’s famed Al-Azhar University until late March to finally suggest that Friday prayers, which tend to convene large crowds in close quarters, should be optional. Other Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia and Morocco have only recently begun to shutter their mosques.

Despite the obvious public health benefits of suspending the umrah and hajj, Saudi Arabia will pay a heavy cost for its prudence. Pilgrims bring in billions of dollars to the country every year, so the Saudi economy will suffer as long as the crisis lasts. Another loss is less quantifiable, but just as significant: pilgrimage remains one of the kingdom’s most important soft-power instruments after two decades during which its public image has deteriorated. By interrupting yet another transnational flow that was long taken for granted,  the novel coronavirus reveals the dwindling clout of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world. In the Middle East, as it is elsewhere, the pandemic is accelerating ongoing historical trends: in this case, the end of Saudi Arabia’s bid for pan-Islamic leadership and the emergence of a multipolar Muslim world.

WANING GLOBAL AMBITIONS

Ever since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has tried to reshape the Muslim world in its image. The globally minded King Faisal, who ruled from 1964 to 1975, pioneered a foreign policy driven by al-tadamun al-Islami, or Islamic solidarity, a bold ambition for a nation-state that came into being only in 1932. Over the next few decades, various actors in the kingdom—from a ministry dedicated to religious affairs to global charities such as the Muslim World League to individual royals and businessmen—threw vast resources at dawa, or the call to Islam, across the Muslim world. Their call was to the Saudi state-sponsored brand of conservative Wahhabi Islam, a literalist Sunni tradition that frowns upon idolatry, shrines, and folk practices and virulently opposes minority groups such as the Shiite and Ahmadiyya sects.

The global Saudi project reached its apogee during the Cold War, when the United States found Saudi Arabia useful in its competition with the Soviet Union. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote approvingly of the kingdom in his memoirs: “Often I found through other channels a helpful Saudi footprint placed so unobtrusively that one gust of wind could erase its traces.” With Saudi help, the United States backed the guerrilla Afghan mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, drawing foreign fighters from all around the world.

Saudi global ambitions waned just as other nations began promoting their own brands of Islam.

But after the September 11 attacks (in which 15 of 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia), Saudi dawa suddenly appeared as a dangerous force, a frightening wellspring of terrorism. Yes, the proselytization apparatus from the era of “peak dawa,” from 1973 to 1990, continued to chug on in more than two dozen countries, through educational outlets, embassy-affiliated religious attachés, and wartime relief charities in countries such as Bosnia and Kosovo. But with greater international scrutiny trained on the kingdom’s financial outflows, these venues have lost both resources and clout.

Recipients of Saudi dawa in Indonesia, Kosovo, and Nigeria all noted a drop-off in funds after 2001. Dr. Fadl Khulod, the head of the Nigerian branch of the Muslim World League—a Mecca-based, international nongovernmental organization that oversees dawa activities ranging from distributing Korans to building mosquestold me how his organization’s funding dried up for a full decade as Saudi Arabia subjected its charities to external investigation. He had to fire nearly every single employee. Today, he runs MWL Nigeria by himself. 

Riyadh also grappled with declining oil revenues in the second decade of this century, culminating in the 2014 oil price crash. Saudi global ambitions waned just as other Muslim nations began promoting their own national brands of Islam. Turkey is a good example of this trend, with its vision for soft power based on historical ties to former Ottoman territories in the Balkans and, increasingly, in more distant theaters such as Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. So is Iran, which maintains low-key soft-power outlets focused on Persian culture in dozens of countries, including Indonesia and Bosnia, alongside its more well-known support for certain armed groups in the Middle East.

HAJJ DIPLOMACY

Although the strength of its call has diminished in recent years, 1.8 billion people still pray in the direction of Saudi Arabia every day. The obligatory pilgrimage remained a trump card in Saudi Arabia’s pocket, even as its soft power steadily decreased. For instance, Saudi Arabia affords Indonesia the world’s largest annual hajj allotment of about 230,000 people per year. Increasing that number is a perennial, top-agenda item for Indonesian officials in bilateral relations with Riyadh, sometimes to the detriment of actual economic investments. Jakarta has rarely pushed back on Saudi proselytization efforts in previous decades because it doesn’t want to imperil its hajj quota. Some Indonesians wait up to 20 years for their chance to undertake the pilgrimage.

But Riyadh’s entanglement in recent regional disputes has begun to politicize even the hajj. Imams in both Libya and Tunisia have called for boycotts of the pilgrimage owing to Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war. The Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar, went so far as to issue a fatwa in 2019 banning the hajj on human rights grounds, citing Saudi human rights abuses in Yemen.

The hajj has not been completely shut down since Napoleon invaded the region in 1798.

This year’s potential cancellation of the hajj comes in the wake of these controversies. Although several pandemics, sieges, and wars have disrupted pilgrimages to Mecca from the eighth through the nineteenth centuries, the hajj has not been completely shut down since 1798, when Napoleon’s invasion of the region made it impossible. The ripple effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic may affect the pilgrimage’s resumption next year and potentially in years to come. As it is, the hajj is famous as a reservoir of sickness; pilgrims frequently return home with respiratory illnesses, known colloquially as the “hajj cough.”

The disruption of the hajj and of the travel of Muslims to and from Saudi Arabia imperil long-standing planks of Saudi foreign policy. Pilgrimages and person-to-person exchanges in the kingdom have been key to the Saudi proselytization efforts across three continents. The ostracized Indonesian founding father Mohammad Natsir, for example, was a frequent visitor to Saudi Arabia, won the favor of King Faisal, and in 1967 started the Indonesian Islamic Propagation Council, which became a conduit for Saudi funds. The council endowed a boarding school in Central Java, where several of the perpetrators of the 2002 Bali bombings studied. Likewise, a young Nigerian scholar named Abubakar Gumi, who worked in Jeddah as a hajj officer, was entrusted in 1965 with channeling King Faisal’s funds into Nigeria, where he promptly embarked on a vigorous anti-Sufi campaign. Gumi went on pilgrimage to Mecca every year between 1955 and 1965, and it was there that he recruited Nigerian collaborators such as Khulod, whom he personally tapped to run MWL in Abuja.

COVID-19 shutdowns may also affect student exchanges, another important arm of Saudi dawa. The ambitions of the Islamic University of Medina, which opened in 1961 with the goal of turning foreign students into Salafi missionaries, depend on travel. IUM alumni have become influential in postwar Kosovo, where they created a new class of Salafi scholars within two decades, and in Nigeria. Jafar Adam, the most charismatic Nigerian Salafi of this century, studied at IUM, and his most famous disciple was Mohammed Yusuf—the founder of the group now known as Boko Haram. The closure of Saudi borders freezes these vectors of religious and ideological proselytization.

A NEW ERA

Riyadh may be able to accept the losses that will inevitably come with the disruption of pilgrimage and other travel. The kingdom is trying to move away from its late-twentieth-century global religious project. Vision 2030, the flagship modernization program of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, does not foreground religion. Only one of the 13 “realization programs” of Vision 2030 mentions religion at all. Officials at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawa, and Guidance indicated in 2019 that the ministry had received fewer resources since the crown prince came to power.

As Saudi efforts recede, other Muslim countries assert their own religious programs. Gulf dawa today is a much more crowded field, with countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates all engaging in robust proselytization of their own. The UAE has funded Sufi groups and institutions abroad, while Qatar has been supporting Muslim Brotherhood–style Islamists. Particularly since the Arab Spring, Qatar has backed a variety of Islamist actors in the wider region, including the Free Syrian Army and Hamas. The Doha-based International Association of Muslim Scholars, founded in 2004, is a group of over 90,000 scholars who promote Islamic jurisprudence and fatwas in line with Muslim Brotherhood principles. The UAE, meanwhile, organizes international conferences around popular Sufi clerics such as the Mauritanian Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah. In the Balkans, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, known as Diyanet, supports the restoration of religious sites and organizes pilgrimages to Mecca for nearly all the region’s Muslims.

None of these government-backed initiatives will have quite the transformative impact of the twentieth-century Saudi project, which cemented the place of Salafism, mainstreamed anti-Shiite and anti-Sufi sentiments, and planted the seeds of Salafi jihad in many countries. And in the post-COVID-19 era, it will be extremely difficult for any single Muslim-majority country to facilitate the critical mass of international exchanges that enabled Saudi success in the twentieth century.

The coronavirus puts in perspective the decline of Saudi Arabia’s standing in and hold over the Muslim world. Six weeks after the suspension of the umrah—and the unforgettable accompanying images of an empty and desolate Kaaba in Mecca, the most sacred site in Islam—many Muslim countries did not fall into line behind Saudi Arabia. In Indonesia, homecoming for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which could see up to 20 million people on the move, is still scheduled for May. In Pakistan, people continue to pray in larger gatherings in mosques. Rather than bringing the Muslim world together, COVID-19 shows its heterogeneity and how difficult it is for Saudi Arabia, or any other country, to lead by example.

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  • KRITHIKA VARAGUR is a journalist and the author of The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project (Columbia Global Reports, 2020), from which this essay is adapted.
  • More By Krithika Varagur