Is This Saudi Arabia’s Laboratory for Religious Influence in Europe?

Why you should care

Growing Saudi influence in the liberal Muslim nation is sparking concerns over whether it could emerge as the European laboratory for Wahhabism. 

The Bosnian national flag and the banner of the country’s Muslim community both flutter proudly above the spacious school and mosque of the Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Bihać, a small city in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina. But it is a marble board in the yard that reveals the institution’s roots. It’s named after Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the current king of Saudi Arabia, who funded the institution’s construction.

It’s one of a growing set of symbols of Saudi Arabia’s increasing influence in the southeastern European nation that’s sparking a debate over whether Riyadh is attempting to reshape the country’s traditionally liberal Islam with its own ultraconservative Wahhabi version. It’s a charge Saudi Arabia has faced in the past in Asia and Africa. Is Bosnia and Herzegovina, beset by weak state institutions, a struggling economy and a history of foreign influence, now emerging as Saudi Arabia’s laboratory for religious influence in Europe?

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People are seen walking on the streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Source Hristo Rusev/Getty

The share of the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation’s investments here has tripled since 2007, according to Bosnia’s Foreign Investment Promotion Agency. In just 2017, Riyadh invested $22 million in Bosnia — a significant figure in a country with a GDP of $20 billion. From Sarajevo’s two biggest shopping malls — the Sarajevo City Center and BBI — to Poljine Hills, a luxury apartment complex on the outskirts of the capital where house prices go up to $555,000, Saudi Arabia is behind some of the biggest infrastructure projects today dotting the Bosnian landscape. Both malls come with strict rules about not serving alcohol or pork products. 

It’s almost public knowledge that their money is a precondition for religious teaching.

Leila Bičakčić, Center for Investigative Reporting

Saudi Arabia is also Bosnia’s biggest arms purchaser — buying $42 million worth of arms and ammunition in 2018, out of Bosnia’s total military exports of $111 million. But it’s also exercising softer influence, in the form of tourists. Nearly 40,000 Saudi tourists visited Bosnia in the first six months of this year, more than double the number over the same period in 2018, according to the Bosnian statistical agency. That’s why in 2019, FlyBosnia, the country’s flag carrier, established direct flights between Sarajevo and Riyadh. 

These economic benefits are attractive for Bosnia, which has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate — 55.5 percent, according to the World Bank. But Riyadh’s growing clout is also leaving many Bosnians uneasy. A 2018 survey in the country by the market research firm Ipsos on perceptions of foreign influence found that 27 percent of Bosnian respondents said they had a “mostly negative” opinion of the Saudi role in their nation. Only 10 percent had a “mostly positive” view of Riyadh’s influence. The numbers for Saudi Arabia are worse than Bosnian perceptions of influence from the U.S., Russia and Turkey — the other foreign countries respondents were asked about.

 

“It’s almost public knowledge that their money is a precondition for religious teaching,” says Leila Bičakčić, who heads the Sarajevo-based Center for Investigative Reporting.

That’s not an assertion Muharem Štulanovic, the Saudi-educated dean of the Bihać Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy, agrees with. “We don’t engage in political life,” he tells me at his office. A fierce critic of the U.S. and the Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian War in 1995, Štulanovic rejects suggestions that the institution has any links with Wahhabism. “Wahhabism is a virtual thing, a form of hostile propaganda directed against us by the West and Shiites,” he says. The faculty is a state-run institution and receives no financial support from the Saudis, he says, adding that he doesn’t “see any evidence of Saudis meddling in Bosnia whatsoever.”

Indeed, the growing flow of tourists to Bosnia suggests an increasingly organic interest from Saudi Arabian citizens — and not a state-sponsored plan. In Europe, only Albania and Kosovo have a higher percentage of Muslims in their population — 50 percent of Bosnians are Muslim. “The Saudis find Bosnia cheap, culturally close and not too far to the sea,” says Sarajevo-based researcher and writer Harun Karčić. “The idea that they spread radical Islam between sightseeing, shopping and partying is ridiculous.”

But Bosnian concerns that the recent investments and tourism might hide a religious agenda are rooted in the past. During the war in the 1990s, thousands of foreign mujahedeen came to Bosnia to fight (and some stayed) against Croatia- and Serbia-backed rebels. Several Bosnian Muslims went to study in Saudi Arabia. Even then, though, Bosnia took steps to shield itself from extremist influences — including from supposed friends in the war, such as Saudi Arabia. It banned a Saudi charity organization accused of spreading terrorist propaganda.

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Muslims perform the Eid Al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) prayer at Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Source Elman Omic/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Today, Riyadh’s influence in the nation makes it much more dangerous, suggests Bičakčić. She claims that the King Fahd Cultural Center — another major Saudi investment in Sarajevo that offers classes in Arabic and fitness — also promotes Wahhabism, a charge the institution denies. When I requested permission to visit the center, also one of Europe’s largest mosques, its spokesperson asked me to seek approval from the Saudi embassy — which didn’t respond to my emails or phone calls.

For Bosnia, the debate over Saudi influence comes at a particularly challenging time. Around 300 Bosnians had joined the ranks of foreign fighters for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, among the highest per capita rates from any nation. Now, many of them have indicated they want to return, and Bosnia is grappling with the question of what to do with those former fighters.

To be sure, it’s not clear that radicalization is linked to Saudi Arabian influence. “There has clearly been a conservative turn among Bosnian Muslims,” says Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnian political scientist. “But it is rather connected to the country’s poor economic situation and postwar trauma from the genocide than to the Middle East.”

For the most part, Bosnian Muslims continue to subscribe to the country’s liberal and secular traditions. A 2018 report by the Sarajevo-based research organization Atlantic Initiative found that only 2.5 percent of Bosnian Muslims supported their compatriots traveling to the Middle East to fight there — five times less than the number of Bosnian Serbs who support Bosnians fighting in Ukraine. Many ordinary Bosnian Muslims find their lifestyle also at variance with the demonstrative opulence of Saudi tourists, and some have complained about disrespectful treatment. Given how much Saudi Arabia is investing in the country, “we can safely say that Bosnian Muslims proved to be resilient to their efforts,” says Edina Bećirević, a security expert at the University of Sarajevo, adding that the nation hasn’t seen a single major terrorist attack.

In fact, some experts caution that fears of a perceived Islamic threat could be used by Serb and Croat nationalists in Bosnia and politicians in Serbia and Croatia to interfere in Bosnian affairs again. “The 1990s are not a remote past,” says Bećirević. “I remember well how a similar narrative of ’defense against the Islamic threat’ served to justify genocide.”

The truth “is somewhere in between,” says one Western diplomat in Sarajevo who requested anonymity. Bosnia is no bastion of terrorism in Europe, the diplomat says. But its economic crisis and growing security worries mean it can’t rest easy. “If nothing changes,” the diplomat says, “actors like Saudi Arabia are deep-rooted enough and know how to use it.”

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