Phuket, Thailand, 29 December 2014

The entire Arab world is situated within the region now called the Middle-East. However, the Middle-east is not exclusively Arab; there are numerous non-Arab minorities resident in the region and there are three major non-Arab nations that straddle it—Iran, Turkey, and Israel. Even so Saudi Arabia, the richest nation in the Middle-East, has for long been trying to become the uncontested leader of the Arabs, and more importantly of the region. The first ambition, to assume the leadership of the Arabs has been questioned and contested by Egypt traditionally and in more recent times by the emerging power of Qatar and some of the emirates in the Persian Gulf region. The leadership of the region is even more vexed and a futile vision—the sectarian divide between the Shias and the Sunnis that make Iran averse to any such move combined with the ambitions of Turkey put paid to the Saudi dream. The power struggle is endemic.

It is in the wake of this under-the-surface power struggle that the Islamic State (IS) erupted into the collective consciousness of the Middle-East. On 24 November 2014, IS related Islamic jihadists attacked a Shia village, Husayniyya, in Saudi Arabia killing at least nine people. The Saudi interior ministry was quick to react, tracking down, capturing, or killing the jihadists who finally numbered 77, most of whom were Saudi citizens. This was one of the largest jihadi network that had been unearthed and, more importantly, captured in the Saudi kingdom. It was also reported that this group had maintained frequent contact with the IS in Iraq and Syria and that the attack was meant to create a schism between the Sunni and Shia citizens of Saudi Arabia. The most noticeable factor in this entire episode was that the Saudi interior ministry reacted with such alacrity, because it is not often take Saudi authorities initiate steps to protect the rights of its Shia citizens, mostly preferring to look the other way when atrocities are perpetuated against this religious minority.

Saudi Arabia has condoned and even sponsored a number of such attacks on the Shias in the past. So what was different in this particular case? At the outset it is clear that the reaction was not because of any love of the Shiites. It was the jihadists’ connection to the IS that made it imperative for the authorities take immediate action. Official statements mentioned that the IS was trying to ignite sedition and create a sectarian divide within the kingdom by creating a climate of discord between the Sunni and Shia communities. The statements went on to say that all Saudis stand as one to fight such nefarious activities. These statements cannot be taken at its face value and must be discounted as the official releases meant for the consumption of the international community because the Saudi Arabian Government has no love lost for the Shia sect.

The next factor is that Saudi Arabia has been a major sponsor of jihadist groups for a number of years, even being named ‘frenemy’ by some US statesmen who are fed up with the duplicity in Saudi dealings with religious extremism. So why has IS, also a jihadist group albeit a particularly virulent one, become a threat to an extent where the kingdom has joined the military coalition that is fighting it so promptly? Saudi Arabia has always supported, mainly through the disbursement of resources, a sectarian Sunni-led pan-Islamism. These movements were all local entities with limited vision and ambition—a sort of contained emirates—and suited the Saudi hubris of being the global supporter of such organisations. For example, the Taliban in Afghanistan wanted to rule Afghanistan, as a caliphate, with almost no further global ambitions. Therefore, Saudi Arabia had no problems supporting them and in fact, the Saudis were one of the first to recognise the Taliban Emirate in the 1990s.

The IS is different. Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wants to expand the war against the Shias into Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Nations. While the Saudis have been fighting al Qaeda or its affiliates for a decade or more within their kingdom, this is the first time that they have faced the threat of IS. Saudi Arabia has over the past several years taken for granted that they are the de facto global leaders of the Sunni Muslims. The arrival of the IS and its claim to the moral right to lead the Sunni Caliphate directly questions that assumption. In the last month alone it is estimated that around 2500 Saudi citizens have joined Sunni extremist groups, mainly the IS and the al Qaeda-backed Jabhat al-Nusra to fight in Iraq and Syria. The government has banned travel for its citizens to join these groups only early this year—a clear case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted.

The Fractious US-Saudi Relations

The Saudi support to Sunni initiated sectarian violence outside the kingdom has long been a source of friction with the US, and these tensions were escalated by the Saudi actions during the process of what was optimistically termed the Arab Spring. However, it must be mentioned clearly that the US also did not cover itself in glory during the heydays of the Arab Spring. It displayed blatant double-standards—supporting the Muslim Brotherhood against Mubarak in Egypt, touting the ideals of democracy; and remaining completely silent when a pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain, the home port of the US Fifth Fleet, was ruthlessly put down by the ruling regime with the help of Saudi Arabia. While the US actions in Egypt was a concern for the Saudi ruling family, the silence in Bahrain was probably a salve to their rising concerns.

Then came two other issues that rocked the region—the Civil War in Syria and the rise of the IS. First, the US administration refused to intervene on behalf of the rebels in Syria, much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia. This hands-off attitude created conditions conducive for the rise of Iran and the emergence of Russia as important factors in the simmering Middle-Eastern cauldron. The US non-committal, or at best weak commitment, to the ouster of the Assad regime in Syria was viewed in Saudi Arabia initially with concern and then with hardly suppressed anger. The low point in the Syrian issue was in August 2013, when President Obama did a complete volte face on his personal promise to King Abdullah that the US would act if the Syrian regime crossed the now-famous ‘Red Line’. After going back on their commitment the ‘US word’ does not carry the same weight as before, and has lost its purity. The US has so far refrained from initiating any action against the Assad regime in Syria for fear of offending Iran and the Saudis want Basher al-Assad removed as quickly as possible. Irreconcilable differences are clearly visible in the US-Saudi relationship.

Second, the US is interested in rehabilitating Iran as a front line state against the IS. The US containment policy against Iran is now near collapse and the Saudis feel that Iran will be permitted to become a nuclear State as a quid pro quo for its anti-IS stance and actions. If the Iranian dream of becoming a nuclear power comes to pass, it could well spell the complete breakdown of US-Saudi relations. The on-going rapprochement between Iran and the US is one of Saudi Arabia’s primary concerns and is undermining the trust between Washington and Riyadh. Currently Saudi Arabia feels embattled with the rise of Iran, the enlargement of the IS-controlled areas, and a simultaneous new wave of populist Islamic democratic politics, all of which affect the well-being of the Saudi Royal family.

The US needs both Saudi Arabia and Iran to contain the IS, which is the biggest threat to US interests in the Middle-East that has arisen in more than two decades. However, while the current administration has admirably shifted away from the unilaterism that it inherited from the Bush administration, the current foreign policy regarding the Middle-East seems to be vacillating between pragmatism and liberal intervention. Policy confusion prevails in the administration and is amplified in the minds of US allies in the region. Perhaps, as a first step, the US needs to go easy on its insistence on promoting democracy and concentrate on de-escalation of the conflicts raging in the region.

Saudi Arabia envisages circumstances of enhanced insecurity and in the absence of a strong working relationship with the US, the chances of cooperation to face common threats diminish. The US-Saudi relationship, if not already going south, is definitely facing south—rapidly moving from one of mutual trust to mistrust. Under these conditions it will be impossible for the US to even broach the only sensible way forward—a dual engagement policy that could gradually bring the two giants of the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, into an amicable relationship.

The Saudi Dilemma

The Saudi Royal family is now on the horns of a policy dilemma. On the one hand, al-Baghdadi and his IS have become existentialist threats to the Royal family’s rule, especially with the argument that the Saudis are actually the usurpers of the two holy cities, which should rightly be controlled by the Caliphate that the IS represents. This means that the IS has to be fought at the fundamental ideological level and defeated. However, the IS has struck a sympathetic chord with the Saudi population, especially after its spectacular military successes in Iraq and Syria. Generations of Saudis have been brought up on a steady diet of fundamentalist Islamic ideas, a commitment to the Sharia Law, and the underlying ethos of the pan-Islamic movement that wants to create Islamic States across the world. In a perverse manner, the same teachings have now come home to roost, creating support for the IS.

On the other hand, the Royal family has joined a Western-led coalition that is fighting the IS, thereby assisting the Shiite governments of Iraq, Syria and Iran. Iran has a greater hold on the governments in Iraq and Syria and therefore, strengthening them will only solidify Iranian control and enhance its stature. This is anathema to the Saudis who have been locked in a power struggle with Iran for influence and hegemony in the region for a number of years. In the throes of this dilemma and with very limited alternatives available, Saudi Arabia blames President Obama for the imbroglio. However, this is more as an excuse for the untenable position that it finds itself in, than as a solution to the challenge.

Until now, when their home-grown Wahhabi ideology has come back to haunt them, the Saudi Royal family has been the principal supporters of a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic interpretation of the religion. The history behind this is the pact that the founder of the al-Saud family enacted with the Wahhabi religious leader that he would support the propagation of Wahhabi Islam in return for support to the al-Saud family in their unification of the Arabian Peninsula into one kingdom and subsequent rule. For a long time Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of funding the creation and continued maintenance of religious institutions teaching a particularly virulent form of fundamental Islam, especially in the developing countries. The only way out for the kingdom from this peculiar self-inflicted wound is for it to revisit the pact that was made with the religious teachers and move forward with the times. [Currently as far as the preaching of Wahhabi Islam in the developing world is concerned, nothing has changed in Saudi Arabian national policy.] This will have to be followed by the second step of stopping State sponsorship for the sectarian violence raging in the region. Both the steps are easier said than done—particularly taking into account Saudi Arabia’s track record so far.

The fundamental challenges that face the nations of the Middle-East—Arab and non-Arab—emanate from the political borders drawn by the infamous Sykes-Picot arrangement cut across tribal territories. However, tribal kinship and loyalty are still called upon to claim resources, provide trustworthy support when required, and also facilitates cross-border smuggling and other criminal activities. The post-colonial leaders of these nations have asserted the trans-national connections of the tribe, and promised action to unite tribes divided by erstwhile colonial powers. Simultaneously they have supported the entrenchment of the same artificial borders in order to stay in power, despite the pan-Arab rhetoric. Saudi Arabia countered this Egypt-led pan-Arabism of the 1950s and 60s that flourished in the immediate aftermath of the departure of the Western colonializing powers, through the introduction of a pan-Islamic movement. The concept of pan-Islamism diluted the Arab dimension of the movement by introducing non-Arab Muslims into the Middle-Eastern concoction. The idea was for Saudi Arabia to become the leader of this much broader and all-encompassing movement culminating in an Islamic Caliphate.

Saudi Arabia, for self-serving reasons, wanted to bring in a globally homogenous Islamic creed as opposed to Arab unification. It is this concept that the IS led by al-Baghdadi has completely hijacked. The IS promises to eradicate the artificial colonial borders that divide the region and seeks to create a multi-ethnic military-led Caliphate with all citizens having only one single Sunni Islamic identity. As is being witnessed, all local, cultural, linguistic and ethnic identities are rapidly subsumed into the one form as soon as an individual joins the IS. The absolute surety with which the IS has moved forward with this ideology has frightened Saudi Arabia—after all this was their concept, albeit to be applied selectively. Therefore, the scramble to contain, defeat, and destroy the IS. It is an interesting side story that even at this juncture when the viability of the Royal family as a ruling entity is threatened as never before, and when they possess the largest and most potent military force (at least on paper) in the region, the Saudis are relying on Western forces to fight their battles and wars for them.

Can the Saudi monarchy survive? A truthful answer would have to be ‘just about’—if they recalibrate their State ideology in a sensible manner. Being a ‘frenemy’ will no longer help. By decree and practice they will have to support diversity and jettison the entire concept of Islamic homogeneity, sectarian differences will have to accepted, and they will have to reconnect with the people, while providing for increased participation of the common man in the governance of the nation. In other words, they have to clearly differentiate themselves from the religious ideology and pan-Islamic concepts that the IS is vociferously and violently advocating. Otherwise, Saudi Arabia will sink in the flood, sooner rather than later, and the first to drown will be the Royal family. After all, the Western coalition currently holding the IS tide in check have their own countries to go back to, Saudi Arabia is already at home.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)


  1. Hey Sanu, Glad to see you are alive and kicking and writing well. Jimmy sent me your article.

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