By: Gustav Ischerwood
Every time Saudi Arabia flexes its strategic muscles it seems to produce a violent stench of extremism. This is occurring at the moment in Yemen and Syria, the fertile seedbeds of today’s “global terrorist threats.” The Kingdom is also widely recognized as the headspring of Wahhabism, the austere branch of Islam that is now associated with groups such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. Just as Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad continue their destructive waltz across Aleppo, so Riyadh continues to cultivate these Wahhabi-influenced extremists throughout the Middle East. Meanwhile, like Putin and Assad, it professes to be striving towards a non-violent solution to Syria’s conflict. Something stinks.
Riyadh is a stealthy operator. This might partly explain why it has managed to dodge a scolding such as that being hurled at Russia for its impairment of the Syria peace process. The key tactical differences between these two spoilers are those of transparency and proximity. Putin’s ongoing bombing campaign in Syria is shamelessly visible and direct: there is no clear intermediary (except for the bomb itself) between Russian fighter jets and bodies on the ground. This makes Russian activities easy to identify and condemn. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is far more discreet and remote in its Syrian interventions. It operates through groups of Sunni militants, enabling the House of Saud to keep its hands clean.
Despite its furtiveness, news of some of Riyadh’s dubious activities has leaked out. One such activity is the funding and arming, along with Qatar and Turkey, of a Sunni military coalition in Syria. Jaish al-Fatah—or the Army of Conquest, as the coalition is known—includes both the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham, which, like IS, has aspirations for a Sunni Islamic state in Syria. While the coalition’s purpose is purportedly to fight the Assad regime and IS, it is also responsible for mass civilian suffering. Two villages, Kefraya and Fua in the Idlib province, bear witness to this. Here, 20,000 people have been under siege by the Army of Conquest since March 2015. Like those victims of the government siege in Madaya, the besieged civilians in Idlib are being cut off from aid supplies and at risk of starvation. Considering this, it is alarming that Riyadh is not being loudly rebuked for supporting the Army of Conquest in the same way that Russia has been castigated for supporting Assad.
Riyadh’s impunity can be understood aside from stealth alone. Consider its cozy relations with the United States and United Kingdom. As Saudi Arabia’s largest and second largest arms suppliers respectively, the U.S. and UK together have provided over 75 percent of the Kingdom’s weaponry between the start of Syria’s war and 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Any accusation aimed at Riyadh could quickly trickle down to the UK and U.S., and very few states wish to upset the U.S.
U.S. complicity might also explain the paucity of condemnation surrounding Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen. Contrary to its shifty operations in Syria, Riyadh’s interference in Yemen is brazenly transparent: the contribution of Saudi airstrikes to the 2,800 civilian deaths since March 2015 is glaring. Not only this, but for those few who are paying attention to events in Yemen, an ongoing Saudi blockade is largely responsible for a near famine in the Middle East’s poorest country.
Although overwhelmingly so, it is not exclusively Yemenis who are suffering from the violent war in their country. Destruction and destabilization in Yemen is also fostering a global threat. One noteworthy by-product of state collapse and social mayhem has been the flourishing of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and IS in the region. Like leeches, these groups feed off bloodshed and expand accordingly. Rather than exterminating these parasitic groups, U.S. and Saudi-led airstrikes (including those conducted by U.S. drones) only serve to strengthen their appeal. Gregory Johnson, a leading specialist on Yemen, has warned that AQAP is thriving as Saudi Arabia continues to ravage the country and obliterate Yemeni society. Even before the Saudi intervention, Johnson observed that U.S. drone strikes aimed at decapitating AQAP were serving to redirect local resentment towards America.
Grievances might be hardwearing but they are remarkably flexible. For want of an alternative in a highly dysfunctional environment, local communities are turning towards extremist groups for protection. At the same time, a growing number of angry, jobless young men are bolstering the ranks of these groups as they recognize a common set of enemies. As carefully explored by Elisabeth Kendall, the opportunities wrought by war are creating a platform for fierce competition between AQAP and IS in Yemen. Johnson has supported this observation, referring to a “recruitment war” between the two groups.
It would seem then, that while Saudi Arabia’s tampering in Syria is nurturing one set of extremists, its Yemeni venture is driving business for AQAP and IS.
Since at least 2001, Riyadh has enjoyed judicial privileges. 9/11 is a case in point. Despite 15 of the 19 hijackers hailing from Saudi Arabia, it was Afghanistan that was punished for inciting the atrocity. Why is it that as it cultivates global terrorism through crooked and destructive activities, Saudi Arabia continues to enjoy U.S. and UK loyalty and therefore immunity to Western reproach?
One possible explanation is articulated by the arms dealer (played by Nicolas Cage) in Andrew Niccol’s film, Lord of War: “While the biggest arms dealer in the world is…the president of the United States…sometimes it’s embarrassing to have his fingerprints on the guns. Sometimes he needs a freelancer like me to supply the forces he can’t be seen to be supplying.”
As far as the U.S. and the UK are concerned, Saudi Arabia is a convenient—if not necessary— intermediary between themselves and their trigger-happy clients. At the same time, as the global terrorist threat becomes more pungent, why, that’s just good for sales.
Gustav Isherwood is a Masters graduate from the London School of Economics, specializing in demography and conflict in the Middle East. He has also studied ethnomusicology and Arabic at SOAS and worked at the INGO Islamic Relief as a conflict analyst.