February 10, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia’s Major Domestic & Foreign Policy Moves

• Saudi Arabia’s royal decree banning travel to foreign battles or involvement with extremist groups is unprecedented in its modern history

• The impact for counter narratives to violent extremism has extraordinary potential

• Saudi Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayif is the key mover of this major policy shift

• With Turkey and Iran talks on regional security as backdrop, King Abdullah’s move indicates course change on Syria.

• The law penalizes:

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     On February 3, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia decreed that anyone who violates the new law would serve three to 20 years in prison, with the penalty increased to five to 30 years if the perpetrator is a member of the Saudi armed forces.

Royal decrees are rare in Saudi Arabia, and this one is doubly important because it not only suggests King Abdullah has lost patience with people in the kingdom who preach radicalism without any thought for the consequences, but also because it may signal from the very top a shift in Saudi Arabia’s policy towards Syria.

Saudi Arabia remains firmly opposed to Bashar al-Assad, but the king has shown notable wisdom in putting a limit on what individual Saudis should do in support of this policy. The kingdom has clearly seen the risk that a whole new set of its citizens may become radicalized abroad, albeit fighting for a government-supported cause, only to make problems when they return home. Saudi support for the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan led indirectly to an internal security crisis that lasted from 2003 to 2006, and still reverberates through the Saudi members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now based in Yemen. No one would want a repeat of that.

The Saudi Interior Ministry estimates that there are about 1,200 Saudis fighting with rebel groups in Syria, while the rebels themselves and other commentators believe there are many more. Saudi nationals therefore make up a sizeable chunk of the estimated 7,000-10,000 foreign fighter contingent engaged in the war.

The king’s decree also follows public concern at the way radical clerics in Saudi Arabia have encouraged young men to take up violent extremism by appealing to their emotions and exploiting their inexperience. A popular phone-in program on a Saudi-owned TV channel in mid January 2014 featured a moving call from a distraught mother whose 17-year old son had gone to Syria. The program host berated the clerics who had persuaded him to do so, and since then there has been almost unprecedented coverage in Saudi media, YouTube, and other social media of radical clerics who have urged young men to go to their deaths—and reports suggest that as many as 250 have died in Syria already—while they themselves enjoy trips abroad and picnics with their families.


Potent Counter Narratives, Extraordinary Voices

The new law could signal an effective antidote to the terrorist narrative. Mothers’ voices and the exposure of hypocrisy are two weapons that can be leveraged with great effect. So too is the rehabilitation program for extremists offered by the centers set up in Saudi Arabia by the Interior Minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, and the stories that come out of them. The Saudi government has said that fighters in Syria may return to their families via the halfway houses of the rehabilitation centers, and 200-300 have already done so. This will provide the authorities a good idea of the threat these young men may pose in the future.

Prince Muhammad has been involved in the fight against terrorism in Saudi Arabia for many years and was the target of an al-Qaeda assassination attempt in 2009, which he was lucky to survive. He is uniquely qualified to deal with the threat posed by extremists returning from Syria, as well as to identify the main proponents of extremism within the kingdom itself. It will be interesting to see if he launches a crackdown on the preachers of radicalism when the royal decree comes into effect in early March.


Regional Road Ahead

But beyond the consequences from this shift in policy for Saudi Arabia, there are also consequences for Syria. The fighting there cannot come to an end before outside powers withdraw their support for the protagonists. Turkey and Iran have begun to speak again about the issues of regional security, and this move by King Abdullah is a clear signal that Saudi Arabia also notes the possible broader consequences of the Syrian civil war. Saudi Arabia and Iran may be a long way still from resolving their differences, but perhaps they have both begun to see the disadvantages of doing so through Syrian proxies.


  • The number of young men returning home as a result of the decree will be a bellwether of how loudly the message has resonated

• The new law heralds change within the kingdom and may signal a reshuffling of the leaders behind the kingdom's Syria policy

• The last few weeks may indicate a trend towards an unprecedented and exceptional public discussion in Saudi Arabia concerning religious figures—many famous in Middle East and Muslim societies—and their incitement of others to die in foreign battles.



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