Saudi Arabia is gambling with Islamic State and Co

The birth country of violent Islamic puritanism is playing a dangerous game, writes Alastair Crooke.

There were protests around the world at the execution of Shi'a preacher Nimar al-Nimr early this year. © Toby Melville/Reuters

We – my colleagues and I – had heard the rumours for weeks: some 50 individuals were being moved around the country. It seemed, even then, ominous. Saudi Arabia appeared to be preparing a mass execution.

One prominent name, Sheikh Nimr, was invariably mentioned. Yet his execution, we foresaw, would clearly ignite a firestorm – for he was a revered and senior Shi’a scholar, the leader of the Shi’a of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and beyond; a man known for his commitment to nonviolence, and an upholder of the rights of Shi’a minorities throughout the Gulf. The US and Iran had both warned the Saudis in advance of the likely consequences of his beheading.

Then, in the New Year, it happened. Forty-seven were executed, including Nimr and three other Shi’a political protesters, as well as 43 Sunni ‘al-Qaeda’ Saudi citizens. The Saudi regime plainly knew the likely consequences, but its leaders went ahead regardless. It was a political act of clear deliberation: for the Shi’a of the Eastern Province are no threat to the kingdom. Most, including Nimr himself, belong to the ‘quietest’ tradition of Shi’ism, associated with Iraq, rather than Iran. They are, as it were, docile – and thoroughly contained by the Saudi security apparatus.

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What, then, was King Salman, who suffers from dementia – and more particularly, his son Mohammad bin Salman, who effectively acts as regent – about?

That the act would be provocative to Iran, and to the Shi’a everywhere, was intentional, it is clear; and in that objective, they obviously succeeded. But why? And why now, at this particular moment? And why were so many Saudi ‘al-Qaeda’ included in the package?

A reckless gambler

Arend van Dam/

The mass execution represented a tangled web of motivations, no doubt; but what it also signals is a desperation: a sense of reckless abandon that can seize even the most rational psyche, when its carefully constructed ‘world’ seems somehow to be falling apart, and every effort to pull it back together simply accelerates the self-destruction.

When an individual acts this way, it is distressing and saddening; but when a state does so, it can be hugely dangerous. Perhaps it is this prospect which induced the (normally very conservative) German Intelligence Service, the BND, at the end of last year to publish a memo saying that Saudi Arabia had adopted ‘an impulsive policy of intervention’ and portraying the king’s son as a political gambler who is destabilizing the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. Intelligence services do not usually issue such politically explosive ‘hand outs’ to the press, unless they are truly alarmed.

To note that the Saudi leadership is besieged on all sides by severe difficulties is but one part of the story. The collapse in the price of crude oil has precipitated a real financial crisis for the country. The kingdom is eating through its foreign reserves at a clapping rate, the stock exchange is withering, and the Saudi Rial is at some risk of having to be devalued – that is to say, forced off its dollar peg.

More seriously, the kingdom is over-stretched politically. The centre of gravity of the war in Yemen has been swung by Ansar Allah (the Houthis), and their allies, from Yemen itself to the three southern provinces of Saudi Arabia which were formerly a part of Yemen, and which the Yemenis now say they intend to liberate. Every day, Saudi cities in the south are being rocketed, military bases attacked, and Saudi forces (and their various mercenary forces) killed.

This military fiasco is coming to pose an existential threat to the Al Saud family leadership. There is little doubt that Mohammad bin Salman would like to divert domestic Saudi attention away from this messy war, of which he was the prime author.

But there are the other conflicts in which Saudi Arabia is involved in one way or another – all of which cost a king’s ransom in support for Saudi proxies: Syria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. And apart from the costs, none, from the Saudi perspective, are faring well. All in all, it presents a serious failure of Saudi foreign policy.

And perhaps this is what the BND had in mind when it portrayed bin Salman as a gambler. It seems that he thinks to act audaciously in order to metamorphose this adverse dynamic into a positive one: to invert his fortunes by provoking Iran, the old ‘devil’ into a reaction that will coalesce his Wahhabi compatriots around him, and raise Sunni states to his side, in a ‘war’ against ‘meddlesome’ Iran.

Well, it won’t run, this game. Iran understands what is afoot, and intends to stand aloof, as the old Napoleonic adage has it: ‘Never interfere with your enemy when he is in the process of making a mistake.’

More Wahhabi than thou

The real danger is that bin Salman is cornering himself into the emotion-laden imagery of a Wahhabist jihad against the Shi’a apostates or idolaters of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It may not result in a region-wide Sunni-Shi’a conflict (with luck), but it raises a different type of threat. It is in relation to this latter aspect that the other 43 executions of Saudis are relevant.

The ideology of ISIS is precisely that of the ‘monotheism’ authored by Mohammad Abd al-Wahhab, who together with Muhammad ibn Saud, founded the Saudi kingdom in the 18th century. This period was, like today, a time of crisis in the Sunni world, and Abd al-Wahhab was appalled by the decadence, frippery, finery and idolatry which he discerned as comprising this Ottoman world – and to which he attributed all Islam’s trials and tribulations.

The principles to which ISIS adheres are precisely those on which the Saudi state was founded. In fact, ISIS is closer to those early founding principles than is the Al Saud of today

He saw the world about him as an insult to God. He believed that Islam had to be rescued, and that it could only be ‘saved’ by fire – by burning it clean. He and Ibn Saud did exactly that, leaving thousands slaughtered, Islamic shrines raised to the ground, and women and children enslaved – all the way to Mecca and Medina.

In brief, the principles to which ISIS adheres are precisely those on which the Saudi state was founded. In fact, ISIS is closer to those early founding principles than is the Al Saud of today. ISIS, rather, accuses the contemporary Al Saud of slipping from those very principles, by its adoption of ‘Western’ statehood, modernity and materialism.

Thus, bin Salman, in trading on the radical puritan and iconoclastic ethos of the early Al Saud jihadis against the ‘apostate’ Shi’a, is taking a risk. Yes, it is a powerful weapon by which to contain Iran and rally domestic support; but it is a two-edged sword: the ‘gene’ of radical Wahhabism – latent within contemporary Saudi society – can as easily be directed against today’s Al Saud ‘modernizers’. The executions of the ‘al-Qaeda’ prisoners therefore were a warning that radical Wahhabist sentiments can and should be directed externally, but will not be tolerated internally.

Above all perhaps is the Saudi fear that the pendulum of US foreign policy, which moved to the Sunni side after the Iranian revolution, is swinging back – finally repelled by the murderous acts of the Wahhabi-orientated jihadists in Syria and Iraq; and by European and US complicity in the long history of using inflamed Sunni jihadism as a tool to achieve their objectives. The cost is clear: the chaos across the region, and the threat of millions of refugees poised to enter Europe. Bin Salman wants to show us that he has the capacity to wreak havoc, and that Saudi Arabia cannot lightly be cast aside.

Alastair Crooke is the director of Conflicts Forum. He has 20 years’ experience working with Islamist groups in the Middle East and Asia and has facilitated various ceasefires in the Occupied Territories. His book, Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, is reviewed in NI 435