By Annabelle Quince
22 October 2014
Islamic State militants have been in the headlines for months, but a group like IS don't appear out of nowhere, they arise in a political and historic context. IS has emerged out of the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria at a moment when Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for political influence in the region.
It’s well known that Saudi Arabia has supported jihadist movements in Afghanistan, North Africa and Syria, and that most of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks were Saudi nationals.
‘The trend one notices in Saudi Arabia is that they are much more against jihadi organisations if they threaten the security of the House of Saud, or if jihadis begin to act within Saudi Arabia,’ says Patrick Cockburn, journalist and author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. ‘But they are quite prepared to use jihadis as an instrument of Saudi foreign policy and Saudi influence abroad.’
‘You had Saudi preachers, immensely influential, often speaking on satellite television stations financed by Saudi royals, preaching hate to Shia, preaching jihad in Syria and elsewhere. So there has always been ambivalence in Saudi policy between what they want to see at home and what they want to see abroad.’
Saudi Arabia’s history of involvement with jihad dates to the early 20th century, when the state as we know it was formed. Unlike other Arab countries, which had fully-fledged nationalist independence movements, Saudi Arabia was united through a series of wars.
‘There were no historical precedents whereby the whole region was governed as one entity, and therefore the Al Saud [family] reinvented the 18th century Wahhabi movement, which is a puritanical movement initially aiming to return people to the right path of Islam,’ says Madawi Al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the London School of Economics and the author of A History of Saudi Arabia.
‘This involved religious wars against those who refused the political leadership or rejected the political leadership of the Al Saud, but they were depicted as people whose Islam wasn't the right Islam and therefore they had to succumb to the authority of the Al Saud.’
‘They were able to bring this vast territory together and subject the people, under the pretext of Islamising them, which was a violent episode in the 20th century. It lasted for more than 25 years, at the end of which the Al Saud declared themselves as the rulers, and they had to continue this alliance with the Wahhabi clerics who supported the regime and also were given certain priorities in running the social and religious affairs of the country’
The alliance between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics continues to this day. According to Al-Rasheed, the clerics provide a politically useful religious justification for the House of Saud’s political authority. From early on in the history of Saudi Arabia, all kinds of dissent, from strikes to demonstrations, have been banned.
The discovery of oil in commercial quantities both cemented the position of the Saudi royal family within Saudi Arabia and gave it enormous influence within the Muslim world. The country began to enjoy significants oil revenues during the 1950s and ‘60s, and by 1972 average oil revenue was between $2 and $3 billion a year.
That was nothing, though, compared to the profits that would flow after the oil crisis of 1973 and 1974 and the nationalisation of the oil industry. It’s that oil wealth, argues Cockburn, that has allowed Wahhabi Islam to spread and dominate the Muslim world.
‘One of the most important trends in the Muslim world, perhaps in the world as a whole over the last 50 years, is the way in which Wahhabism has influenced and to some extent taken over mainstream Sunni Islam: the 1.4, 1.5 billion Sunni Muslims in the world,’ he says.
‘Why has it become so influential? Well, mainly Saudi money. If you wanted to build a mosque in Bangladesh or some other poor country and you need $20,000, the only place you can get it easily is from Saudi Arabia or some Saudi charity.’
‘It has also meant that relations between Sunni and Shia have got much worse because Wahhabism regards Shia as basically being non-Muslims. This wasn't true of Sunni Islam before.’
Radical Saudi Arabian elements proved useful to the west during the Cold War, as Saudi money and fighters flowed into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. Osama Bin Laden was one such fighter, but the blowback during the ‘90s and 2000s was not limited solely to America.
An Al Qaeda branch on the Arabian Peninsula became active, and attacked targets in Saudi Arabia, giving the country a reason to back America’s war on terror. However, Toby Jones, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, questions how deep that commitment goes.
‘The Saudis had both a political interest in confronting terrorism and also see themselves as actively engaged in confronting and containing terrorism,’ he says. ‘I think as far as the senior members of the ruling family and the intelligence community go in Saudi Arabia, that's all true.’
‘The problem is that politically and ideologically there are also quite a few people in Saudi Arabia, both in the government and outside of it, who see themselves as having interests that are closer to global terrorism than to their own government or to the United States.’
When war broke out in Syria, Iran backed the Assad regime and the Saudis responded by supporting the opposition.
‘There is a sort of undeclared war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is taking place in the Arab world,’ says Al-Rasheed.
‘Saudi Arabia worries about Iran expanding in the region, expanding its influence. It is already there in Iraq, it is in Syria, it is in Lebanon. And also Saudi Arabia worries about any kind of connection between Iran and Yemen through the Houthis, who are also Shia. Saudi Arabia feels that it is encircled by Shia-backed Iranian influence.’
While financial support may not have come directly from the Saudi royal family or the Saudi state, it may well have come indirectly. The country’s former ambassador to the US, Bandar Bin Sultan, for example, is known to have favourites on the ground in Syria and Iraq who he has supported with money and materiel.
‘Even if it's not official policy or if the royal family is not directly involved, it doesn't mean that some sector of the state is not involved,’ says Jones. ‘The opposite is also true. If some aspect or element or part of the Saudi or the Kuwaiti or the Qatari state is involved, it doesn't mean that the royals are necessarily involved either.’
If it’s well known that Saudi Arabia has financially supported Sunni extremists, then why haven’t western powers taken any action?
‘The western powers, above all America, had an interest in Saudi Arabia preserving the status quo as being opponents of Iran, of Syria, of Libya, of anybody who was deemed hostile to western actions in the Middle East,’ says Cockburn. ‘Saudi Arabia also was a great arms market. America has or had contracts for about $86 billion worth of aircraft and other defence equipment.’
The Saudis have also been very astute in cultivating powerful friends in the west. The royal family had a close relationship with the Bush family long before either George H.W. Bush or his son became president. It was even rumoured that George W. Bush told Bandar Bin Sultan about the decision to invade Iraq before he told then-secretary of state Colin Powell.
It’s clear that Saudi Arabia, like most of its neighbours, now sees ISIS as a threat to its own power and to the region.
‘It is remarkable to me that we are at this moment again where the Saudis have been complicit in the rise of a jihadist network in Syria, seen it spread regionally, and now [it] becomes at least a regional threat, if not a global threat,’ says Jones. ‘We are not just repeating the sins of 2003 but the same kind of patterns that persisted in the 1980s and that led to the violence of the 1990s and 2001.’
‘It's as though nobody learns any lessons or pays close attention to what the structural forces are; that the Saudis who play this game, they have the support of their western patrons, like the United States, to do so. Then ultimately everybody is put in a position where they have to manage the crisis.’
‘I don't see it ending well. We have no evidence that the Saudis think that this isn't something they can continue to do and at least survive in the medium term.’