July 8, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia, Part Victim, Part Culprit

• Two recent security-related incidents highlight Saudi Arabia’s concern that it may be attacked on two fronts: the Islamic State to the north and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to the south

• It serves as a serious reminder the threats engulfing Saudi Arabia, the remaining pillar still standing in the ruins of the Middle East

• Without better regional cooperation to stabilize conflict zones in Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia too might be at risk.

Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned TV news outlet operating from Dubai, broke two stories last week concerning the threat to Saudi national security. The first, on Thursday, announced the Saudi army had moved 30,000 troops to guard the joint border with Iraq as it believed Iraqi units on the other side had been ordered to leave their posts; a claim later denied by the Iraqis.

The threat that concerned Saudi Arabia was that the swift advance to the south of the rebel forces of the Islamic State (IS) might not be stopped. The following day, al-Arabiya covered the attack on a border post at the other end of the country by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), following it up on Monday with photographs of the attackers and the damage they had done.

These two news items, reported by the semi-official TV outlet, showed the level of official concern in Saudi Arabia about what is going on around the kingdom. On the face of it, the likelihood of IS sweeping into Saudi Arabia on a non-stoppable rampage from Mosul was always too small to quantify, and the Saudi army will have been in a good position to make an accurate assessment of the threat. They will have known it was neither immediate nor serious, even though it was reported on Monday that three shells fired from Iraq had landed in a residential area of the Saudi city of Arar.

Likewise, with the attack on the border post at al-Wadia, an area known for smuggling on the frontier between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni province of Hadramaut. This was a newsworthy incident in that the attack appeared to have been mounted from both sides of the border, leaving five security personnel and five assailants dead, two of who blew themselves up after a chase and possibly a siege as their deaths appeared to have taken place on the following day. Al-Arabiya published pictures of the corpses and then followed up with stills of the raid including two Saudis extremists who participated, that were issued subsequently by al-Qaeda. The circumstances of the raid are still unclear, though more may emerge as Saudi authorities managed to capture one of the attackers alive. But this was not a major threat to Saudi Arabia’s security that merited two days of front-page coverage.

It would be wrong to read too much into the reporting of these two incidents, but they help the Saudi authorities to remind their people—as well as the rest of the world—that the kingdom faces a risk from externally-based terrorist groups on both its main land borders. It also demonstrates that it is ready and able to protect itself and will keep its borders secure. But a further consequence of the coverage is to present Saudi Arabia as ever nearer to the front line when it comes to threats to the stability of the Middle East.

Syria is a mess; Iraq is in turmoil; Egypt is only just beginning an uncertain recovery; Yemen still struggles to find a way out of its past into a terror free future; the Palestinians are seething with resentment at policies the Israelis show no sign of changing; Lebanon is perennially on the brink of serious fracture; and Jordan is – well Jordan, held together by a great deal of US-funded string. Which leaves Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf monarchies as the only building blocks on which recovery might be built, leaving aside of course Iran.

This may on the one hand encourage the major powers to support Saudi Arabia as the key regional power, to the disadvantage of Iran, but on the other hand, it will also raise the question as to why the Middle East is in such dire straits at this time.

Much of the fault lies at the feet of the great powers and their Pollyannaish assumptions about the durability of the post-WWI divisions of the region. But more recently, the countries themselves have done much to accelerate the descent into chaos. One factor is the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although this may be less immediately consequential than was the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein, it may have longer-term consequences. If taken to its logical conclusion, sectarian fighting can only stop when each side is contained within hard borders that the other side also recognizes. After centuries of inter-mingling between Shi’a and Sunni, the region lacks that sort of divide. Furthermore, sectarianism has a nasty way of getting out of control. Light the fire and suddenly you find yourself with an upstart Caliphate on your border. Worse still, you find that sectarians who should be on your side turn against you for not being sectarian enough.

The leadership of the most violent extremist groups in the Middle East have so far stuck with al-Qaeda rather than pledging baya’ to IS and Caliph Ibrahim al-Badri, aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, perhaps assessing that it is an ephemeral front for more serious military secularists and former Ba’athists who are pulling the strings. But even if they are right and IS disappears as quickly as it has emerged, it will leave many people behind who are not prepared to stop fighting and will find some other leader. Many will rejoin al-Qaeda. There will be many Saudis among them, and whether they come from the north or the south, some will find their way home. Without regional partners, Saudi Arabia may find that it takes more than redeploying two or three divisions, or relying on alert border posts to stop a new wave of terrorism from spilling into the kingdom.



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