Articles  •  Britain

Saudi Arabia's unholy war

10 March 2015

Marcus Halaby investigates Saudi Arabia’s role in the rise of ISIS
Our rulers routinely present the beheadings of hostages carried out by the Islamic State (IS) as proof of their need to send their military forces into a region whose past experience of Western bombing, invasion and occupation created the very forces that they are fighting against today. But there is a state in the region that beheads dozens of people every year, many of them poor foreign migrants sentenced without even the semblance of a fair trial, that will not be the target of Western bombings or sanctions any time soon.
That state, Saudi Arabia, just happens to have the world’s second largest oil reserves, about a fifth of the total, and is the world’s second-largest oil producer after Russia, with about 13 per cent of world production. It is, today, a key part of the unholy coalition of states ranged against IS, taking part in airstrikes against IS targets in Syria in September 2014, and building a 600-mile long fortified wall to separate it from regions of Iraq now under IS control.
Saudi Arabia’s official ideology is “Wahhabism”, a particularly intolerant sub-sect of Salafism that it shares with IS, and which it made its mission to export to the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.
What is less well known is that Wahhabis form only between a fifth and a quarter of Saudis, roughly the same size as Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a Muslim minority, the latter treated as second-class citizens despite forming a majority of the population in most of the oil-producing eastern half of the country. This leaves “ordinary” non-Wahhabi Sunni Muslims at just over half of Saudis – and about two-thirds of Saudi Sunnis.
Moreover, the form of Wahhabism promoted by the Saudi state is strongly opposed to participation in politics, making it a highly convenient ideology for an absolutist monarchy whose ruling dynasty claims a divine right to rule. This puts it at odds – politically, as well as theologically – with “mainstream” Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, and in particular with the explicitly political Islamism associated with the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, as well as with Wahhabi and Salafist movements beyond its borders who reject the Al Saud dynasty’s claims to rule. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration in June 2014 that he was now “Caliph Ibrahim”, the religious and political leader of a global Muslim caliphate, was a direct challenge to the Saudi state’s legitimacy.
These factors make the Saudi monarchy particularly vulnerable to the rise of the Brotherhood and its imitators like Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), especially when their programmes espouse proposals for political reform or constitutional government. This in turn helps to explain the Saudi state’s visceral hostility to movements that most outsiders might assume would be its natural allies, supporting “secular” dictators like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Libya’s Khalifa Haftar against their Islamist opponents, supporting the secular nationalist Fatah against Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, and helping to establish Zahran Alloush’s Salafist “Army of Islam” in Syria precisely to oppose IS and its rival, Jabhat al-Nusra.
For its part, IS is probably the Sunni Islamist formation in Syria and Iraq least dependent on Saudi and other foreign sources of funding. In its origins in Iraq under the US-led occupation after 2003, it was able to establish a “business model” of revenues extracted locally through tribute, extortion and ransom, which it took with it to Syria after 2012, in the process developing a relatively sophisticated bureaucracy by the standards of its rivals. Its seizure of oil fields and refineries in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria gave it a further source of independent revenue, an experience since repeated in Iraq following its seizure of Mosul. This ironically turned its nominal enemy into one of its biggest sponsors, as the Assad regime provided it with revenues to protect the pipelines that enabled Syria’s oil, to continue to reach the world market.
It is not coincidental that the Western powers moved towards a direct confrontation with IS after its seizure of Mosul and Tikrit in June 2014. And here their concerns were not for the protection of the Kurds or the Yazidis, but to prevent Iraqi Kurdistan’s large oil reserves from falling into IS’s hands.
The US-allied Saudi state might not have “funded” IS – although many of its citizens, including a part of its ruling class certainly did. But it does bear the responsibility for creating the ideological climate within which movements like it, many of them now hostile to the Saud dynasty, could acquire legitimacy.
Most infamously, Saudi Arabia poured billions into supporting the US-backed Islamist insurgency against Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet government in the 1980s, in the process launching the career of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement, from whose offshoot in Iraq IS originally emerged. And Saudi Arabia remains the godfather of an ultra-reactionary religious sectarianism across the region.
It has been helped in this by an equally virulent Shi’a sectarian politics promoted by the Iranian theocratic regime, whose proxy militias in Iraq have a record of massacres of Sunnis every bit as grim as IS’s massacres of Shi’as and Kurds. That this receives less attention in our media is in part due to the fact that these sectarian militias are on “our side”, having helped stabilise the US-led occupation and propping up Iraq’s Western-supported and pro-Iranian regime since.

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