Are the Saudis really on our side in counter terrorism?

One country that remains a mystery to many is Saudi Arabia.  A relatively new state – it really only dates from 1930 – this desert land sprang from an odd mid 18th century agreement between a very conservative religious tradition, Wahhabism, and the rule of a single family, the Al Sauds.  The Wahhabis care for (and dictate behaviour for) Saudis’ souls while the Al Sauds care for Saudis’ more mundane needs (roads, jobs, etc.).  Complicating things, in 1945 then US President Roosevelt signed an agreement with then King Abdel Aziz in which the US got Saudi oil in return for providing ‘protection’: that deal more or less still reigns.

The Saudis portray themselves as victims of terrorism and as important partners in counter terrorism.  They have indeed cracked down on many plots within the Kingdom and developed interesting – if unproven – deradicalisation centres.  And there is no doubt that many Saudis have been killed in terrorist attacks such as the 2003 incident in three compounds in Riyadh in which many foreign workers were also killed.

At the same time, the Saudis appear to be aiding and abetting terrorism.  After all, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis.   That conservative version of Islam referenced above – Wahhabism – shares many characteristics with the hateful faith promoted by extremists.  What many see as an aberration of Islam shows little sign of weakening and is dominant throughout Saudi society.  Wahhabis and extremist ideologues cite the same sources and use the same language.  No, I am not equating the two, but there are links.

But it is in the Saudi apoplectic hatred for Shia Islam that much criticism can be laid at the feet of the Kingdom.  To the Wahhabis – and Islamist extremists as well – the only good Shiite is a dead one.  Terrorist groups such as Islamic State and the Taliban do a horrifically good job of killing the Shia in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan respectively.  The Saudis are no slouches in this department either.

Saudi Arabia is involved in two anti-Shia conflicts simultaneously.  In the country’s eastern province and the governorate of Qatif there have been simmering clashes for years.  As it turns out, that province has a significant Shia population.  Hardly a day goes by without some death or injury of the locals by Saudi security forces.  Yes, there are some people in Qatif that are violent but the state response has been disproportionate.

The other campaign is in Yemen where Saudi troops have been engaged in that country’s civil war for months.  Saudi’s chief enemies there are the Houthis, who happen to be – you guessed it – Shia.  The war has made Yemen, already a basket case, even worse and diseases such as cholera are now rampant.  Yemenis are seeing little benefit from the ‘intervention’ of their northern big brother.

Much of this has a lot to do with Iran. Saudi Arabia is convinced that Iran, a majority Shia country, is bent on creating an ‘arc of influence’ by supporting Shia populations through Iraq and into Lebanon.  Even if there is some truth to this – there are arguments on both sides of this issue – it does not justify Saudi Arabia’s unhealthy obsession with Iran. The Kingdom sees Iran’s unwanted hand everywhere, including in Qatif and Yemen, and we must take this phobia into account when we analyse its actions to ‘quell extremism’ .

Why do we in Canada care?  Well, it looks like military vehicles made here and shipped to the Saudis are being used in these wars.   The CBC is reporting that armoured personal carriers manufactured in Newmarket, Ontario are being deployed in a ‘violent crackdown‘ in the eastern province, and the Trudeau government is expressing concern.  Last year there was evidence that other Canadian-made armed vehicles, these ones from London,Ontario,  were being used against the Houthis.  There are provisions against this in our trade agreements.

As an aside, in this regard I understand the economic benefit.  The light armoured vehicles (LAVs) deployed to Yemen are manufactured by General Dynamics in London and help create well-paying jobs.  London has been hit hard by unemployment in recent years – the area long depended on the auto sector – and there is pressure to allow the sales to continue.  I am from London and I know what the city is like and how it has changed, not always for the better, since I left for Ottawa in 1983.  I understand the need for employment: not everyone can sell insurance for London Life after all.

And yet this puts the federal government in an awkward spot. We stand on our high morals and support for human rights and selling materiel to a regime that abuses those rights does not sit well with most Canadians.  Perhaps lucrative jobs trump morality but there has to be a better way.

In the end Saudi Arabia is a problematic partner in the West’s counter terrorism efforts.  In my visits to the country I met some very dedicated officials whom I felt were sincere in their efforts to help combat violent extremism while still recognising international norms.  So while I do not want to tarnish all Saudis with the same brush we cannot dismiss the fact that the compact that has dominated Saudi governance and discourse since 1744 (that was when the Wahhabis and the Al Sauds got together) is THE problem. And until that pact is undone or a more syncretic form of Islam is allowed in the Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia stops using its oil-based wealth to export its narrow version of the faith to the four corners of the globe, the country will remain a troubling ally in our collective efforts to gain the advantage over Islamist extremism around the world.


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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