Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Coming Home to Roost

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 13, 2015 --  

The Islamic State's attacks on Saudi Arabia are a problem of the kingdom's own making.

As American diplomats wring their hands about the impact of Russian intervention in Syria, a far more troubling foreign policy disaster looms in the region. Saudi Arabia, America's long-term regional ally, is facing threats that could one day tear it apart. In August, a suicide bomber killed 15 people in a mosque for by Saudi Arabian security forces, with the Islamic State claiming responsibility.1 In May, the same group claimed responsibility for a bombing of a Shiite mosque on the country's Persian Gulf coast that killed 21.2

These attacks shatter the myth that the dictatorial Saudi regime maintains absolute control over the kingdom. In order to fight infiltration by Islamic State fighters, the country is building a security wall on its desert border with Iraq, complete with triple fencing topped by razor wire, guard towers, and bases for rapid response units3 But as the bombings show, the wall has not proven effective. This may be because the bombers were citizens of the kingdom.

The Islamic State targets mosques in Saudi Arabia's Shiite east because it considers Shiite Muslims apostates, and it knows that such attacks can create sectarian strife within the kingdom. Could such attacks inflame Saudi domestic hatreds? A high birth rate in Saudi Arabia means that there are a huge number of young men, a large percentage of which are unemployed and idle. While the government doesn't calculate such unpleasant statistics, a 2014 World Economic Forum report put the youth unemployment rate at 28 percent.4 As oil prices have dropped from $80 per barrel to less than $50 per barrel since then, the problem is undoubtedly worse today.

The Saudi government has belatedly recognized the threat from Islamic State militants on its border. In addition to building the wall, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its cooperation with the American-led coalition pounding the islamic group from the air. Retaliation for this support may be what motivated the August attack against its security forces. And there is no doubt that the self-proclaimed worldwide caliphate has its eyes on control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The irony of the Islamic State's challenge to the Saudi Kingdom is that the Islamic fundamentalist movement is of its own making. The Islamic State is an adherent of Salafist Islam, an extreme puritanical variant of Sunni Islam that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, where it is known as Wahhabism. This form of Islam was once an unusual variant, far outside the mainstream, peculiar to the formerly nomadic tribesmen who inhabited the Arabian deserts.

But Saudi Arabia's oil boom after World War II changed all that. The Saudi government and its wealthiest citizens have funneled vast sums of oil profits to charities building Wahhabi mosques around the world. Oil money has has spread this once strange form of Islam across the globe like a disease. Fundamentalist Sunni Islam first got the world's attention during Taliban rule, and a few years later by al-Qaeda's attacks on America in 2001. It was widely noted that 15 of the 19 hijackers who attacked America on September 11, 2001 were citizens of Saudi Arabia.

Remarkably, an angry America turned its guns not on Saudi Arabia, but on Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, Saudi charities kept sending oil money to Salafi mosques around the world that preach the same intolerant, hateful ideology that led to the attacks on America. The Islamic State is but the latest movement that has coalesced around this Saudi-backed ideology.

Attacks on Saudi Arabia by the Islamic State are merely the chickens coming home to roost. An apt student of Salfi teachings, the Islamic State makes no excuses for the Saudi ruling family's transgressions -- it's military alliance with the crusader state of America, it's cooperation with the Jewish state of Israel, and its economic modernism driven by oil wealth. Many Saudi citizens are sympathetic to both these criticisms and the Islamic State, and could help undermine the Saudi government if push comes to shove.

To date, the threat to the Saudi government is still manageable -- there is no near-term risk of the regime's collapse. Should Saudi Arabia's position eventually erode in favor of the militants, the consequences for the West would be extreme. If Saudi Arabia were to implode from attacks by Islamist militants or an internal uprising based on the same, it would send violence spilling over its borders and cause oil price shocks around the world. The silver lining to this scenario, if there is one, could be a long-overdue end of the worldwide propagation of the regime's extreme and intolerant ideology.

Related Web Columns:

Running Out of Time, July 21, 2015


1. The Guardian, Islamic State Claims Suicide Bombing at Saudi Arabian Mosque, August 6, 2015

2. CNN, ISIS Says it Bombed Saudi Mosque; 21 Reported Dead, May 23, 2015

3. The Telegraph, Revealed: Saudi Arabia's 'Great Wall' to Keep Out ISIL, January 24, 2015

4. World Economic Forum, Rethinking Arab Employment
A Systemic Approach for Resource-Endowed Economies
, October 2014