As the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) grows greater and more sinister, Saudi Arabia stands at the front line of the battle against the extremists. Saudi Arabia is adamant that it has the unique knowledge, expertise, and legitimacy to effectively lead the effort to defeat IS. The country’s guardianship of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina underpins Saudi credibility in pushing back against the misguided interpretation of the Islamic faith that IS is now propagating in the heart of the Arab world.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has consistently asserted that the fight against extremism ought to be locally owned by the regional stakeholders. This has led to some contention between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia believes that policy should be guided by the idea that Sunni empowerment is the key ingredient needed to defeat Sunni extremism. IS’s rise in Syria has been helped by the lack of sufficient international support for the moderate opposition for more than three years. This has allowed IS to feed off local resentment and build itself up as a military force. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia has consistently criticised the exclusionary polices of outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who betrayed the Sunnis after their role in defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq. The political exclusion of the Sunnis created the conditions for IS to thrive by attracting disgruntled members of the Sunni population.
Because the international community failed to act sooner, harsher medicine is unfortunately now needed in Iraq and Syria. That is why Saudi has accepted the need for direct military intervention by the US and by other Western powers – and military reality dictates that America will lead this phase of the air effort. However, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf and regional powers will play a central role.
Saudi Arabia’s active military participation in the international coalition against IS is a clear sign of the county’s commitment to defeating this extremist group. It also signals Saudi Arabia’s intention to be the regional leader in the broader struggle.
Saudi Arabia has already pushed back against extremism in Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia believes that, ultimately, Sunni communities on the ground are the only ones who have the necessary capacity and legitimacy to defeat IS – and the country’s leaders believe that Saudi Arabia is the power best placed to work with and facilitate the deployment of those communities against IS.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, and in Iraq even before IS’s gains in Mosul and beyond, Riyadh has made it clear that if there is to be any prospect of real success, a locally-owned effort must be supported. For this reason, Saudi Arabia is making a case within the anti-IS coalition for positions that Riyadh has held for a long time. It says that airstrikes against IS should be matched with a significant ratcheting up of support for the moderate Syrian fighting opposition. It also wants guarantees that the new Baghdad government will not slide back into disempowering the Sunnis in Iraq.
The gains made by IS in recent months have convinced not only Saudi Arabia, but also its allies, that much more is now needed to defeat IS. A military campaign conducted from the air will not be enough. Saudi Arabia believes that airstrikes must quickly be followed by a meaningful policy on the ground if the effort is to be truly effective. Saudi Arabia is best placed to lead this effort. The priority must be placed on moving forward local ownership by arming and training the Syrian rebels and Iraqi tribal forces who are prepared to take the fight to IS.
Riyadh has already taken steps to make this happen and is now working closely with the US to organise and equip vetted moderate rebels in Syria and to support tribal forces in Iraq. As part of this effort, Saudi Arabia is currently training Syrian rebels within its own borders.
For his part, US President Barack Obama has accepted the Saudi contention that any successful anti-IS strategy in Syria will have to be accompanied by an equally combative anti-Assad strategy. Saudi Arabia has long made it clear that there can be no solution to the problem of extremism in Syria, or in the wider region, without the removal of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Through his brutal and repressive policies, to say nothing of his longstanding policy of turning a blind eye to extremist groups, Assad is directly fuelling the problem.
Just as it took the removal of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq to bring different communities together against IS, from the Saudi perspective, the removal of Assad is a prerequisite for securing the necessary unity and strength to fight IS in Syria. Unless this more comprehensive policy is followed, Riyadh argues that narrow coalition intervention risks providing oxygen to the IS propaganda machine and giving weight to the IS message that the Sunnis have been abandoned. The issue is not Saudi regional interests or personal dislike of Assad: it is simply a fact that Assad continues to be the number one source of recruitment for IS.
This same point of view guides Saudi thinking with regard to coalition building. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly asserted that the states that back Assad – in particular, Iran – cannot be meaningful partners in the fight against IS unless and until they shift their position on Syria’s discredited and destructive president. Riyadh has no objection to engaging with Iran – Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal met with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in New York at the United Nations in September 2014, and Iran’s deputy foreign minister was recently received in Saudi Arabia. But if Iran is to be constructive in the fight against IS, it must withdraw its support from Assad, just as it must accept that the new government in Baghdad needs to be significantly more inclusive. Tehran has continued to fuel the conflict through its ongoing support for the Assad regime, including the provision of Shia fighters through proxies such as Hezbollah.
In spite of its longstanding call for action in Syria, Saudi Arabia is very aware of the continuing accusations that it somehow plays a role in supporting IS-style extremism. For Saudi Arabia, the accusation that its policies serve a double agenda – exporting extremism abroad to insulate itself at home – attributes an insulting degree of naiveté to Saudi policy and ignores the extent to which the country has suffered in the past from manifestations of extremism. Riyadh thinks that its critics have deliberately misrepresented the Sunni theological underpinnings of the Saudi state. Moreover, claims of broad Saudi public sympathy for IS are wrong: the Saudi people identify with the legitimate grievances of the Syrian and Iraqi people and decry Western hypocrisy towards Syria, but they do not support IS’s ideology or practice.
Saudi Arabia’s willingness to play a leading role against IS should not surprise anyone. IS poses a more direct threat to Saudi Arabia than to the West. Saudi Arabia is convinced that its leadership of the Sunni Islamic world and its guardianship of the two holy mosques make it a key target for IS. To restore the “caliphate”, IS would ultimately need to implant itself at the epicentre of Islamic life, the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. Therefore, IS’s road to the caliphate runs through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To demonstrate the breadth of its ambition, IS has launched a campaign to take over Saudi Arabia, ominously called Qādimūn: “we are coming”.
Saudi Arabia’s enormous wealth and resources also make it a strategic target for IS. Like al-Qaeda, IS covets Saudi Arabian riches while publicly denouncing the country’s choice to modernise in order to capitalise on oil wealth. IS’s members believe that Saudi Arabia’s enormous economic, educational, and social transformations have led it astray from proper Islamic practices.
Saudi Arabia is the only authority in the region that has the power and legitimacy to bring IS down. The Kingdom has an impressive array of counter-terrorism resources, both in materiel and intelligence, and its counter-terrorism strategies are considered some of the most sophisticated and effective in the world.
The kingdom’s security forces have successfully thwarted IS attempts to launch a series of attacks in the country. A key current priority of the government has been to eliminate the possibility of any future attacks on the country. For instance, a new border security programme has been launched that will cover 900km of the northern frontier so as to prevent infiltration by IS-affiliated fighters.
Saudi Arabia has emphasised that it will not tolerate IS in any form and the Saudi leadership has attempted to block all support for the organisation, including funding, from within the country. Saudi Arabia has put in place some of the tightest anti-terrorism funding controls in the region and it has deployed these measures against IS. The group is now looking to self-fund from the resources it controls in Syria and Iraq and targeting those funding sources is part of the coalition’s current effort.
The effort to counter IS enjoys broad popular support from many stakeholders in Saudi Arabia, including the religious establishment, which is doing its bit in speaking out against IS’s distorted ideology. “The ideas of extremism, radicalism, and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way, but are the first enemy of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims, as seen in the crimes of the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda,” Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh said in August 2014. Saudi Arabia sees its leading role against IS as a natural fit, given its own interests, the resources at its disposal, its spiritual authority, and its experience in fighting terrorism. If it is to be successful, Riyadh is convinced that the fight against IS must be won by a Sunni Arab coalition – in political and diplomatic terms as well as with fighters on the ground.
Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Saud al-Sarhan is the research director at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies
This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.