July 2, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia: In the Firing Line of the Caliphate

• Recent advances by the Islamic State increase the regional threat from terrorism—this will concern Saudi Arabia

• Saudi Arabia’s response will be on several fronts: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and internally
• But the most important area for policy development will be towards Iran
• It is only through Saudi-Iranian rapprochement that the region can regain some stability.


Most countries will ignore the pretentious June 29 declaration of a Caliphate by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), now rebranded yet again as the Islamic State, but one country that will have to give it at least some consideration is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Even though the Islamic State's Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s July 1st statement, in which he claims to be ‘leader of the faithful’—amir al-mu’manin—and talks of widespread Western plots to suppress Muslims, suggests that he is increasingly delusional, the renamed Islamic State threatens the Kingdom in two fundamental ways: terrorist attacks and subversion of the role of the monarchy. The king of Saudi Arabia is commonly known as The Custodian of the Two Holy Places (Mecca and Medina); this is not just some fine sounding title that reminds people of the religious significance of the country; it is a reflection of the king’s primary duty to protect and preserve the holy cities and make them available to all Muslims. One of the five pillars of Islam is the duty (for all who are able) to perform Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, once in their lifetime; and together with al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina are the most important Islamic sites in the world.

By declaring a Caliphate and ‘accepting’ his nomination as caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has challenged the authority of all leaders in the Muslim world; but his actions are particularly offensive to Saudi Arabia. As he does not believe that the Saudi Kingdom—or any other government except his own—is legitimate, he is obliged as Caliph to try to bring the holy places under his control. But even were the Islamic State to take over all Syria and Iraq’s oil production, and amass an arsenal of weaponry, this would still be a daunting task. The tactic therefore will be to promote internal unrest and try to chip away at the foundations of state power. He will try to fan the flames in Syria and Iraq, and drive them further south.

Apart from dismissing the Caliphate as illegitimate nonsense, the Saudi reaction to the increased terrorist threat posed by the so-called Islamic State is likely to be twofold; first, addressing it abroad, and second, shoring up security at home. Abroad, Saudi Arabia is likely to focus on three regional countries and think very carefully about a fourth.

In Syria, it is likely to try to drill down still further to distinguish between good rebels and bad rebels. It has learned the hard way that however widespread a popular movement may be, and however united its objectives may at first appear, time will expose its internal divisions and allow separate agendas to take hold. Initial Saudi support for the rebels was fairly indiscriminate on the assumption that the immediate task was to overthrow the Assad regime and that this could be achieved quite quickly. The immediate objective is now to maintain the security of the Kingdom and restore the stability of the region, neither of which is so easily achieved. The appointment on July 1 of Prince Khalid bin Bandar to head the General Intelligence Department (GID), which has been coordinating Saudi support for rebel forces in Syria, appears to signal a further recalibration of the forward policy adopted previously. Prince Khalid, an experienced and steady military officer and administrator, will likely take a more measured approach to the Syrian civil war.

The spread of the fighting to Iraq should not have come as a surprise to GID, which would have had Iraq high on its list of priorities and could therefore see better than most the impact that the constant attacks by opposition groups of all stripes was having on the government. GID will also have been aware of the inherent weaknesses of the Iraqi armed forces. So far, Saudi Arabia has not responded to the advances made by the Islamic State and its allies in Iraq, but presumably it is well placed with the non-extremist elements of the Sunni opposition and may still calculate that the threat from the Islamic State can be contained once the Nuri al-Maliki government has gone. They will keep this calculation under constant review.

Yemen has seen a fall-off in the Qaeda threat as a result of a determined assault by Yemeni government forces, helped by external partners. While al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will remain a preoccupation for Saudi Arabia, the split between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State may reduce its strength. Already there have been some members of AQAP who have declared their support for al-Baghdadi. For many years, Saudi Arabia has seen the threat of terrorism from Yemen as a domestic issue and under the leadership of Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) has been particularly proactive against the threat posed by AQAP.

As the threat from elsewhere in the region becomes more acute, and as an opportunity to see the back of an opponent has become an increasing risk to the stability of the state, the transference of lead responsibility from GID to MoI is likely to accelerate. One area of policy that will occupy every member of the Saudi government however, is the relationship with Iran.

Iran was the main beneficiary of the Iraq war and despite the current turmoil in Iraq and Syria, and threats to the stability of Lebanon, Iran regards itself as the new regional power. If Iran manages to conclude a nuclear agreement with the P5+1, it will see the way cleared to consolidate its gains and call the shots in any regional rearrangement of spheres of influence. But Iran will well understand that the various problems and tensions that face other parts of the region could have consequences. Iran may also worry that if sectarianism goes too far, or if the Islamic State really does manage to establish sustainable control over areas of Iraq and Syria, it will need to move from enjoying the discomfort of its rivals to shoring up regional stability.

Recent security-related events in Lebanon have already shown that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are prepared to work together against terrorism through their proxies. The next step will be to formalize this cooperation through closer government-to-government links. A visit to Riyadh by the Iranian Foreign Minister will be the best sign that the two regional powers that most need to cooperate to end the war in Syria and address the threats of extremism in Iraq are finally seeing a coincidence of interest that trumps their fundamental animosity.


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