Saudi Arabia has come under intense scrutiny in recent months. Much of it centers on its more assertive and less accommodating foreign policy, as manifested in its unprecedented military campaign in Yemen. The shift in Saudi regional policy has spawned the sudden popularity of two narratives in the Western press, think tanks and even some official circles.
The first maintains that Saudi Arabia is the main culprit behind the unprecedented political and sectarian violence that has convulsed the Middle East over the past few years, including the emergence and ascendance of the terrorist group that bestowed the title Islamic State upon itself. The second narrative suggests that, largely due to the precipitous drop in oil prices since the summer of 2014, the Saudi state, which is dependent on oil revenues to maintain its institutions of governance, is on the verge of “collapse.” Although the two views are sometimes advanced separately, they are often presented in tandem. In either case, their proponents often propose a similar course of action to policymakers in the West: reconsider the close relationship with Saudi Arabia. At a minimum, the West is advised to exert pressure on Saudi Arabia to force it to change its foreign and domestic policies. Ultimately, it is argued, Saudi Arabia should be seen as a foe, not a friend to the United States and the West.
The proponents of these two narratives appear to draw conclusions that are not supported by compelling evidence, while at the same time conveniently overlooking incontrovertible facts that challenge the veracity of their claims. In their extreme variants, the narratives show a fundamental lack of understanding of the root causes of the current turmoil in the Middle East, including the rise of the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS, and demonstrate an under-appreciation of the solid foundation on which the Saudi state still rests, despite some formidable challenges.
The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has further fuelled the claim of critics that the Saudis are destabilizing the region. However, even a cursory look at Yemen’s modern history reveals that the country is no stranger to political violence and instability. The central government has long struggled to maintain a monopoly over the use of force, as demonstrated by the fact that one of al-Qaeda’s most vicious affiliates, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has had free rein in Yemen since 2009. The Yemeni state has also found it equally difficult to develop the capacity to provide basic services to the various regions, notwithstanding the country’s economic difficulties. While it is legitimate to express concern over the dire humanitarian crisis, it is necessary to point out that the Houthi rebels had long decided to use force against the internationally-recognized government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to redress their grievances, real or imagined. It is also worth noting that the Houthis had fought the government of the previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, on six different occasions since 2004, their current political marriage of convenience notwithstanding. The Houthis and AQAP were also engaged in regular armed clashes. Yemen was already in civil war prior to the Saudi military intervention. To imply that Yemen would be a peaceful and prosperous country if it were not for the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis is not convincing.
While the political vacuum in Libya has allowed ISIS to expand its presence there, it is the five-year civil war in Syria that is at the center of the tumult in the Middle East. In the view of the Saudis, Syria could potentially shape the political trajectory of the entire region for the foreseeable future. The entry of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and a host of militant Shiite militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan has aggravated the violence and has given the conflict an international dimension. However, it was President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of what was initially a peaceful protest movement that has radicalized many elements within the opposition. Just as importantly, Assad’s killing machine is primarily responsible for the rise of ISIS.
As the international community struggles to explain the emergence and expansion of ISIS, one answer seemed to gain wider acceptance than others in many corners in the West: Wahhabism.
Wahhabism is the term that critics of Saudi Arabia use to refer to the brand of Islam applied in the kingdom. However, the rise and ascendance of ISIS is more correlated with the civil war in Syria, than the writings of an 18th century religious revivalist in the central Arabian Peninsula named Muhammed Bin Abdul Wahhab.
While ISIS might have its origins in the war in Iraq, it is the carnage in Syria that has allowed it to metastasize into the malignant tumor that still rules over millions of people in Syria and Iraq, and is trying to establish a presence in Libya, Yemen, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia itself.
ISIS has cunningly used Assad’s horrors against Syria’s Sunni-majority population to construct a jihadi narrative that has made Syria the main destination for Islamist militants. It is also not by happenstance that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, has chosen Raqqa in Syria as the so-called Islamic State’s capital.
Scholars who have studied the complex and often lengthy process known as radicalization agree that people are almost never radicalized due to only one factor. And while ideology is often a factor, it is always one of several and can indeed sometimes be a minor one.
There is significant anecdotal evidence that many ISIS members in Syria and elsewhere had not been particularly devout or even observant prior to joining its ranks. A number of Saudis who fought alongside ISIS in Syria, only to return to Saudi Arabia and to recount their experiences on Saudi television, readily admitted that they were not particularly well versed on religion before deciding to travel to join the fighting. A video of a militant recruiter circulating on social media shows him holding back tears as he boasts about how some of his fellow “mujahideen” had joined the “jihad” in Syria despite the fact that they hadn’t even learned how to pray; one of the five pillars of Islam. There are other examples of ‘lone-wolf,’ radicalized Muslims who have carried out small-scale terrorist attacks in the West and who specifically cited “avenging” the carnage in Syria as their main motivation.
Since 9/11, Saudi officials have clamped down on clerics and teachers espousing extremist views inside the kingdom and established oversight over religious institutions to ensure that they do not ‘export’ violent ideology abroad. There is also no evidence whatsoever to support the claim that the Saudi government has supported ISIS in any fashion. Those seeking to defeat ISIS should worry less about ‘Wahhabism’—a term is that not used in Saudi Arabia—and more about ‘Assadism.’
Finally, there is the ‘imminent collapse’ theory. It is one thing to criticize Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, it is something else to proclaim that a country that has managed to survive for over 80 years in one of the world’s most unstable regions is “no state at all.”
The long-term viability of Saudi Arabia has been cast into doubt for decades. A combination of the opaque nature of Saudi politics, as well as a language that has proven to be a barrier for many, may account for some of these erroneous scenarios that have never come to fruition.
While a Saudi national identity may still be difficult to define, the state has succeeded in convincing the majority of the 22 million Saudi citizens that they are stakeholders in a nation that has been ‘blessed’ as the birthplace of Islam and one of the world’s largest oil producers. The widespread belief in the ‘exceptionalism’ and legitimacy of this endeavor is the main reason that the Arab Spring did not upend the political order in Saudi Arabia.
The current economic downturn has resulted in Saudi Arabia incurring its biggest budget deficit on record last year and may force a recalibration of the social contract between the people and the state. This may come in the shape of more taxation, but also more representation via reforms to some of the country's political institutions, such as the consultative Shura Council, municipal councils and the National Dialogue Center. However, Saudi Arabia is no stranger to oil slumps. Saudi economic planners are on the verge of ushering in a new transformation plan that seeks to introduce structural changes to the economy to curtail its dependence on oil.
Underestimating the acumen and pragmatism of the Saudi leadership and the durability of the social contract between the people and the state has been a pitfall of many a Saudi critic. That will not change anytime soon.