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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia staunchly follow Wahhabism, a very conservative and strict brand of Islamism that probably is the major factor of Saudi's strict policy and harsh implementation of Sharia. How did it become so? According to Wikipedia, it began by an alliance between theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the father of Wahhabism) and Muhammad ibn Saud (the founder of the Saudi dynasty), when ibn Saud tried to fight the Ottoman Empire and found the First Saudi State in the 18th centuries.

However, it's been centuries (and generations of rulers) since then, and also Wahhabism isn't very popular in most of the rest of Muslim world, but it is interesting to see that they remain strong in Saudi Arabia, supposedly influencing the decisions and policies of its absolute rulers. How did it become so?

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See What is wahabism? –  Martin Schröder Jan 28 at 11:26

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The Wahhabi ideology started as a revivalist movement (return to the roots) and quickly became strongly conservative, emphasizing intolerance not just to other religions, but to other variants of Islam. This provides a tool for dealing with the dissenters (accuse them of deviations from the party line). Also, the emphasis on the early "Rightly Guided Caliphs" justifies the (almost) absolute monarchy. Thus the ideology suites the political elite because it justifies their monopoly on power and provides the tools to keep it, so it will not be changed from above.

The people are sufficiently religious and the government is sufficiently oil-rich to prevent any attempt of a change from below (by maintaining a sufficiently high standard of living for the locals and suppressing any possible unrest among the guest workers).

Another issue to consider is that Saudi Arabia controls the Muslim holy sites, so the country have to present an "orthodox image" to the pilgrims. Wahhabism's "unpopularity with the rest of Muslims" actually helps because neither Sunnis nor Shiites have to fear that the other side takes over the holy sites.

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This doesn't answer the question. Also why does Wahabism justify the elite's monopoly for power? –  Jeroen K Jan 23 at 11:12
    
@JeroenK: I clarified the answer; please see the edit. –  sds Jan 23 at 16:42
    
Yes, much better; I removed my comment. –  Mark C. Wallace Jan 28 at 17:12
    
Wahhabi are Sunnis –  Anixx Jan 29 at 10:01
    
@Anixx: Wahhabis are sufficiently different from mainstream Sunnis; like Chinese Communists in 1970-ies: they are communists but they were not controlled from Moscow. –  sds Jan 29 at 14:29

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