Saudi Arabia and terrorism

One of the West’s key allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, is in a way an odd choice for a friend.  On the plus side, the Al Sauds have provided a modicum of stability to the Arabian Peninsula for decades, served as swing producer of oil (is that a good thing?) and bought enough weapons systems to keep Western arms plants humming forever.  On the not so plus side, the regime is beholden to a hateful and intolerant version of Islam we call Wahhabism and is (probably) unnecessarily fixated on Iran and Shiism in ways that sometime defy reason.

What then to make of yesterday’s mass executions where 47 people were killed by the regime, including an Al Qaeda leader and a major Shia cleric?  It can’t be easy to kill 47 people in one fell swoop (some were beheaded and others were shot by firing squad), can it?  Not that executions are rare in the Kingdom: according to Amnesty International 151 individuals received capital punishment in 2015, the highest number in 20 years.

There is no question that Saudi Arabia faces a significant, elevated terrorism threat.  Thousands of Saudi citizens are radicalised and Saudis are often at or near the top of nationalities fighting in others’ jihads across the Middle East and west Asia.  Saudi security forces regularly round up hundreds of “extremists” and the government has responded in part to the epidemic of terrorism by creating a well-known de-radicalisation programme (the success of which remains debatable).  And there have been serious and bloody terrorist attacks dating back to the Al Khobar bombing in 1996.  The government certainly has a lot on its plate.  AQ, IS and others regularly cite the Saudi family at the top of their hit lists.

But is Saudi Arabia in part creating – or worsening – its own problem?  In two ways, yes.  The influence of fundamentalist and arrogant Salafism (i.e. Wahhabism) on terrorist ideology cannot be underestimated.  As I have often argued, while very few Salafists are terrorists, most religious extremists are Salafists.  Extremists take a lot from the way the Salafis see Islam and translate what they read into justification – and divine sanction – for violence.  So, the Saudi promotion of this particular interpretation of Islam is anything but helpful.

The second way is related to the first and concerns the vehement hatred Wahhabis have for the Shia.  Dating back to the late 18th century, and continuing to the present day, the followers of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al Wahhab see Shiites as heretics and traitors to Islam.  As a consequence, they have marginalised the Shia population at best, and killed them at worst.

Because of this belief, the Shia majority population of eastern Saudi Arabia has been both underdeveloped and discriminated against for decades.  These policies have led on occasion to violence and terrorism, and have invited brutal regime responses that lead to never ending cycle of killing.  It is from this environment that the executed Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr arose.  On top of that is the supposed Iranian-Saudi rivalry for dominance in the Islamic world (is each side truly seeking to impose its version of the faith on the Ummah?) and Saudi accusations of Iranian meddling in and co-opting of its confreres along the Persian Gulf coast.

I have no idea if Al Nimr is a terrorist or not.  But I do know that some of what Saudi Arabia stands for and promotes is counter-productive.  So, while we cannot not work with them – they are too large and too important to ignore – we have at the same time to recognise that some of what they are doing only makes things worse.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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