The challenges faced by the Arab states in regards to the Sunni “Islamic State” (IS) are several fold. The major problem is that while professing the same basic, ultra-conservative Salafist interpretation of Islamic doctrine and Islamic law, usually referred to as Wahhabism, it differs in two significant ways.
One is that the IS is strongly opposed to monarchy. Two, it is strongly opposed in particular to the one in Saudi Arabia, which is aligned with a Wahhabi religious establishment that bestows its blessing upon the Saudi ruling family. But the Saudis and Wahhabis, along with much of the clerical establishment in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), agree with the IS that Shiites are heretics and apostates. Three, the Saudi state is aligned closely with the staunch enemy of the IS — the US.
Despite the differences between the IS and Gulf Arabs, most well-respected analysts of Middle Eastern politics believe that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, among others, support and have sent tens of billions of dollars to the IS, which they funnel through charities.
The reason why Sunni Gulf States support the IS is its strong opposition to the Shiites. It is not just Iran, which is 90 percent Shiite, that the Gulf Arabs believe to be a threat, but the Shiite population in their own countries. Saudi Arabia has a national population of about 21 million, of which an estimated 3 million are Shiite. More ominously the bulk of Shiites live in oil rich provinces — the life blood of the Saudi state and much of the industrialized world.
Supposed Shiite threat
It is this supposed Shiite threat that compels the Saudis to support forces opposed to the largely Shiite (Alawite) dominated Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. The US, Israel and the Gulf Arabs were strong supporters of the opposition forces to the Syrian regime when the conflict started in March 2011.
What the US, EU, Israel and the Gulf Arabs did not foresee was that the civil war in Syria would become so divisive, intractable and brutal. In addition, most of the Alawites and many of their Christian, Druze and Ismaili minority supporters view opposition forces as a threat to their existence.
The intractability of the war allowed non-Syrian jihadist forces to gain the upper hand in the war. By 2012, jihadist forces, now supported by hundreds of billions of Saudi and Emirati dollars, gained the upper hand over the Syrian opposition forces.
The growing strength of the IS allowed them to establish a base in the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates River in Syria from which they were able to project their strength into Iraq. The internecine wars among Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds (Sunni) allowed the IS on June 10 to conquer Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq.
The fearsome and rapid expansion of the IS after the fall of Mosul and its capture of a reported $10 billion of advanced US weaponry was then added to an estimated $25 billion of armaments bought from Saudi, Emirati and other sources.
The success of the IS further increases the threat to the Saudis. The IS wants to implement the same Salafist, conservative, doctrinal policies that condemn Shiites to second-class status at best and severely restricts women’s rights and use of social media among other strictures that one analysts has called, “Jihadism’s ideological mother lode.”
The Saudis recently seem to have realized that their support of the IS and jihadism has resulted in the “chickens coming home to roost.” The Saudi ambassador to Britain was compelled to announce in the Guardian newspaper: “The government of Saudi Arabia does not support or fund murderers who have collected under the banner of the Islamic State. Their ideology is not one that we recognize, or that would be recognized by the vast majority of Muslim around the world — whether they be Sunni or Shiite.”
But skeptics will want to see evidence. Primarily, they want to see if the Saudis’ close ally, the US, will put sufficient pressure on Riyadh to implement the reforms necessary to reduce the efficacy of the IS’s jihadist appeal, especially if such reforms could destabilize the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The challenge posed by the IS to Saudi Arabia and the US makes it likely that neither the US will apply pressure nor the Saudis implement reforms. There have been 23 beheadings in Saudi Arabia in the past three weeks.
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst based in Lexington, Kentucky.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading newspaper of Turkey. Click here to go to the original.