The Monolith

Flag of Saudi Arabia

Flag of Saudi Arabia

What with all the turbulence wrought by the so-called Arab Spring, what is the likelihood that Saudi Arabia will be affected? So far, there have been no large-scale demonstrations, though the monarchy has jailed a fairly large number of people of opposite political stripes.

If Saudi Arabia were to follow the example of Syria, it would have the effect of destabilizing anew the whole Muslim world. Why? Because it is the obligation for every able-bodied Muslim to perform the hajj at least once in a lifetime by visiting the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina. The thought of this pilgrimage being curtailed in any way would be enough to cause widespread panic from Morocco to Indonesia, from the Muslim inhabitants of Europe to the Sahel in Africa. Just to see how international this movement is, click on the website of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj.

Islam cannot easily change its doctrines the way that Christianity, both Western and Eastern, could. There is no unified figure or body that decides what Muslims are to believe. Ever since Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, Islam has been substantially without a head. Although the religious leaders in Saudi Arabia would like to think they are in charge, that extends mainly to maintaining order during the massive influx of pilgrims (three million in 2011) during the annual  week of the Hajj, which changes from year to year because it is based on the lunar calendar.

I can only conclude that any major changes in Saudi Arabia will be cataclysmic on a global scale. As of 2010, there were an estimated 1.62 billion Muslims, comprising some 23% of earth’s total population. Both the United States and Britain have over 2.5 million adherents each. To see how the Islamic population is distributed across the nations of the earth, click here.

We tend to believe that tomorrow’s crises are basically the same as today’s, except possibly more so. A global Muslim dust-up would be qualitatively different.