In this case, who will bow to whom?
For the first time since Atatürk deposed Abdülmecid II nearly 100 years ago, there is a Caliph. Not one formally recognised in the modern context, but certainly in a way that would have been familiar to the Romans (particularly the 3rd Century AD). But if he is the Caliph, the heir to Muhammad’s Empire, then surely the next stop after consolidation must be Saudi Arabia? His claim of descent from Muhammad doesn’t seem to be particularly convincing, and I can’t imagine a better way to gain legitimacy than to control the Hedjaz.
On face value, King Abdullah has a stronger claim to the title. Even though he is not a Hashemite, the House of Saud is established, powerful, and wildly wealthy. There is no civil war in Saudi Arabia, and his generally good relations with the US seems to confirm his position. Even with the notorious religious police, many Saudis are modern, wealthy people who enjoy Western comedy.
But there is trouble on the horizon. Abdullah has had an annoying habit of outliving his crown princes (who, for some bizarre reason, are his brothers and half-brothers rather than his sons), and when the (almost) 90 year old finally passes away, I can certainly imagine a succession crisis. If ISIS continues to make gains, there is no way on Earth Saudi foreign and religious policy will have had any effect other than to bring a civil war to their door. Saudi nationals formed the backbone of the September 11th attack and the broader al-Qaeda organisation, and this was the result of the strict Salafi Islam practised by the kingdom. When ISIS was still just ISI, the Saudis were providing support for their fellow Sunnis fighting against the Alawite Shi’a government of Bashir al-Asad.
(Incidentally, we owe a debt of gratitude to Agathocles deSyracuse for this excellent map of theterritory held by the various combatants in the Middle East)
So when the revolutionaries come knocking on the door of the Saudi King, will he bow to the Caliph as a client, or will he have claimed the position for himself? Because, as it stands, there don’t seem to be too many other options. If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is successful in uniting the Sunni ummah under a Caliphate, maybe it’s not just Hindu eschatology that is looking close to fulfilment.