To combat the spread of Shiite Islam and ensure that the Islamic world is primarily Sunni. In recent years, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq, Yemen, and throughout the Middle East has grown more overt, bitter, and violent. Now that Iran has agreed to rein in its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international economic sanctions, Riyadh fears a newly enriched Tehran will be more aggressive in spreading its Shiite doctrine and promoting Shiite-led revolutions. A trove of Saudi diplomatic documents covering 2010 to 2015, recently released by WikiLeaks, shows a Saudi obsession with Iranian actions and Iranian influence. Saudi government agencies monitor Iranian cultural and religious activities, and try to muzzle Shiite influence by shutting down or blocking access to Iranian-backed media. Saudi diplomats keep close tabs on Iranian involvement everywhere, from Tajikistan, which has strong historical Persian ties, to China, where the tiny, beleaguered Uighur population — which is Muslim — is growing more religious.
By investing heavily in building mosques, madrasas, schools, and Sunni cultural centers across the Muslim world. Indian intelligence says that in India alone, from 2011 to 2013, some 25,000 Saudi clerics arrived bearing more than $250 million to build mosques and universities and hold seminars. "We are talking about thousands and thousands of activist organizations and preachers who are in the Saudi sphere of influence," said Usama Hasan, a researcher in Islamic studies. These institutions and clerics preach the specifically Saudi version of Sunni Islam, the extreme fundamentalist strain known as Wahhabism or Salafism.
Founded in the 18th century by Muslims seeking a return to Koranic literalism, Wahhabism is one of the strictest sects of Islam. The founder, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, sought the protection of an emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, and the two joined forces to spread the doctrine throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The cleric's daughter married the emir's son, which means the entire House of Saud is directly descended from Wahhab. The purist sect requires adherents to abstain from alcohol and drugs. The sexes are segregated, with women fully covered in public. Even other Muslims who stray from these medieval practices — such as Shiites and moderate Sunni sects — are considered infidels. Prescribed punishments for crimes — among them apostasy and blasphemy — include flogging, stoning, and beheading.
A turning point came in 1979, when radical clerics who believed the House of Saud had been contaminated with Western decadence led hundreds of armed militants to occupy the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Deeply alarmed, the royal family sought to appease the militants by reversing the steps toward modernity the country had taken. Movie theaters and record stores were shut down, and more power was given to the religious police to seek out and punish offenses. "In effect," says former diplomat John Burgess, "the seizure of the Grand Mosque sent Saudi Arabia into a 30-year time warp that cut it off from the social-development trajectory it had been on." The royal family made a grand bargain with the clerics: Riyadh would fund the spread of Wahhabism abroad as long as the extremists kept any militant activities off Saudi soil. That deal ensured that radical Islam would overwhelm moderate versions in many countries, and planted the seeds of many terrorist groups.