conflict zones, latest

Analysis: Saudi Arabia, the next Syria?


Saudi border guard stands next to a fence on Saudi Arabia’s northern borderline with Iraq. Photo Reuters

Schuyler Moore writes in The Bridge:

The Islamic State group (ISIS) is running up against a wall. As national coalitions take a larger role in the fight against ISIS, the group will become increasingly unable to operate on as large a scale as it has in years past, and it will be pushed out of its previously held territories – its decline may take years or even decades, but it will ultimately decline. But although ISIS may deplete its resources and feel increasing pressure from the international community, its members will not simply disappear as the group loses momentum. ISIS is largely comprised of foreign fighters with limited ties to the countries they fight in, and in the event of a relocation, one country in particular looks like a promising alternative – Saudi Arabia. With internal unrest, the threat of oil-driven economic instability and a history of conflict with its neighbors, the House of Saud is ripe for insurgency and would be the ideal next location for jihadists looking for a new rallying point. As ISIS loses steam and is pushed out of its old stomping grounds, Saudi Arabia is in danger of becoming the next ground zero for terrorism in the region. […]

In addition to internal pressure due to widespread unemployment, a massive immigrant population and falling oil prices, Saudi Arabia faces multiple challenges from external sources as well. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen is steadily draining resources and political good will. The Iranian nuclear deal was perceived as a loss and a sign of weakness for Saudi Arabia and the Sunni community, which has always fought to contain its Shia neighbor. ISIS has already targeted Saudi Arabia for its ties to the US, and in response the government has been driven to arrest almost 100 people in 2015 alone for suspected ties to ISIS. These perceived weaknesses and flaws in the Saudi government provide ideal material for an insurgency seeking a common enemy, and ISIS may seize that opportunity in the event that it is pushed out of its current strongholds.

But why Saudi Arabia specifically? The foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq come from all over the world – Libya is currently a bastion of ISIS support, as are multiple other locations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Why would Saudi Arabia suffer the brunt of a relocation?

Saudi Arabia has the potential to be a unifying enemy, with enough ties to the West to fuel radical censure but without the stability of most Western countries to counter an insurgency movement. It provides a platform for recruitment with its youthful population and high unemployment, and at the same time allows for foreign outreach through its massive immigrant population. The Saudi government itself is stretched thin operating in Yemen and contributing military resources to Syria, all while suffering blows to its economy from dropping oil prices. The royal family is caught between a rock and a hard place, risking censure from radical conservatives if it modernizes and popular discontent if it pushes more stringent Wahhabism on its population. Critically, Saudi Arabia is home to two of the most holy sites of Islamic culture, Mecca and Medina, which makes it a natural rallying point. All of these factors make Saudi Arabia an ideal location for insurgency, and suggest that Saudi Arabia will suffer the consequences when ISIS’ power is depleted and its fighters scatter beyond Iraq and Syria.

It is unlikely that ISIS will ever be truly eliminated. More likely it will continue on in some modified form, moving locations and continuing attacks on a smaller scale and under different names. But the dispersed fighters will seek to find a rallying point to reconsolidate their power, and Saudi Arabia provides the optimal environment. While ISIS deserves our full attention at present, we must also consider the repercussions of its decline and watch for new challenges that will emerge as a consequence in other regions.


  1. Dave Hansell says

    I’m genuinely in need of some help here with this possibility because it’s clear to me that I’m missing something fundamental (no pun intended).

    What I’m having difficulty with is this; if Saudi Arabia and/or powerful, influential and significant parts of Saudi society are providing backing and support for ISIS, in tandem with others such Turkey, the USA and Israel, as proxy Sunni forces in Syria, why would ISIS and it’s Sunni fighters turn against its chief Sunni patron? If Shia Islam in the form of Iran and Hezbellah, along with those who are claimed to be their proxies in Yemen, are the enemy, why would Sunni fighters weaken their own position by turning on the key Sunni State Saudi Arabia?

    It makes no sense to me at present. Can anyone help shift the obvious blockage I’m having with this please?

    Thanks in advance.

    • You are not the only one understanding this article. Why if Saudi Arabia being the principal financier , trainer of ISIS and ISIS will eventually invade and attack Saudi Arabia? I still do not understand why.

    • Rod says

      One word Dave: Qatar. The Qatari Wahhabists are in competition with the Saudis and largely ISIS is a Qatari (not Saudi) proxy. Although the Qataris and the Saudis (and thus ISIS) share a common enemy, Shia Iran. So it is complex. There are no good guys. The article also fails to mention the huge abyss between Saudi ideology and the putrid decadent reality of Saudi life behind closed doors. Elements in Saudi Arabia fund terrorists, but then those terrorists turn against Saudi decadence. That’s what you get when you play a double game.

      • Dave Hansell says

        Thank you Rod. As someone who has observed real life is often messy and complicated with many shades of gray and blurred edges rather than simple black and white it seemed reasonable to me that I was missing parts of the overall picture.

        Which strongly suggests that those writing and commenting on this issue need to include these parts of the picture in their narrative at an early stage otherwise most people, struggling to get by, will opt for the simple assumption and dismiss either the notion that the Saudi’s have anything to do with supporting ISIS or that they would turn against them.

  2. if DAISH do erupt in Saudi Arabia , the Pentagon and Netanyahu will rush troops in and seize 60% of the World`s Oil Reserves.

    • Saudi supports ISIS, but it would not be too surprising if ISIS turned on them. Perhaps Israel/USA would encourage it as part of a major oil grab / the Oded Yinon plan, they could provide the necessary funding, but as long as the house of Saud stay on the petrodollar they should be OK for now.

Comments are closed.