Wahhabism - A Unifier Or A Divisive Element.
One major problem standing in the way of union in the GCC bloc is Wahhabism, a reformist movement for Sunni Islam founded in the 18th century by Shaikh Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab. Established in Najd, the tribal heart of the Arabian Peninsula (being the heart of today's Saudi Arabia), Wahhabism was the most puritanical strain in Sunnism.
Shaikh Abdul-Wahhab was able to spread his order in association with Prince Muhammad al-Saud, founder of the first Saudi dynasty whose forces managed to unify the Arabian tribes and conquer a major part of the Arab world. But today, most of Saudi Arabia's GCC partners - mainly Oman and Qatar - fear that King Abdullah's proposed union could lead to the Wahhabisation of the entire peninsula, as well as other parts of the Muslim world. Qatar's official sect is a branch of Wahhabism opposed to the Saudi reforms.
As Makkah and Madinah (the cradle of Islam) are parts of Saudi Arabia and as this country is the globe's largest oil producer, the Saudi kingdom leads the Sunni front in the Muslim world. The Sunnis account for almost 90% of the 1.5 billion-strong Muslim world, with the Ja'faris being part of the minority.
From the association of Shaikh Abdul-Wahhab and Prince Muhammad al-Saud emerged three Saudi dynasties. Since coming to the Saudi throne in 2005, however, King Abdullah has been modernising Wahhabism under a programme of gradual reforms which will be pursued by his successors, beginning with Crown Prince Salman who now is the defence minister and one of the brightest sons of King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud - founder of the third Saudi dynasty.
King Abdullah, aged 89, has for years championed an international campaign for a world inter-faith dialogue. He has repeatedly offered dialogue with the Shi'ites and other Muslim sects, with important meetings held in Makkah. One of his international inter-faith dialogue conferences was held under UN auspices in New York.
As a result of Riyadh's measures, AQAP has been forced to move its HQ from Saudi Arabia to south-eastern Yemen. AQAP is one of the most dangerous units of al-Qaeda Central (AQC) which is based on the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan. AQC has a Neo-Salafi ideology, which is a mix of extremist militancy from the Egyptian MB and an excessively radical strain of Wahhabism - both being strongly rejected now by the reformed Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi government has defeated numerous attempts by AQAP to establish a base within the kingdom. It has foiled many AQAP terrorist attacks and a number of its surviving members are in prisons. In parallel, the government has established a successful programme of rehabilitating many Saudi operatives of al-Qaeda, getting them to turn against Neo-Salafism and re-integrate into the Saudi society which is being modernised.
The direct descendants of Shaikh Abdul-Wahhab, grouped in a clan called Aal al-Shaikh (the house of the late founder), now are far more tolerant of modernism and liberal concepts of education than their predecessors. Members of this clan are traditionally in charge within the religious establishment and in the sectors of religious endowments, education, and other fields.
Aal al-Shaikh and the House of Saud are also tied by marriage. For example, the mother of the late King Faisal ibn Abdul-Aziz came from the Aal al-Shaikh clan. And so are many other members of the Saudi royal family.