Is Saudi Arabia the Next Syria?
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.
Internal Risk Factors
Saudi Arabia has always faced unique demographic and socio-economic challenges. Out of a population of approximately 28 million people, immigrants make up nearly a third of entire population and over three-quarters of the labor force. Approximately 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, and within that age group, unemployment is close to 30 percent. Nationals and non-nationals alike live under Sharia law with strict Wahhabi principles dictated by the royal family and the religious leadership of the ulema, which often cause strains within the immigrant population as well as the native population. While some within the kingdom push for modernization, the ultra-conservatives consistently call for increased rigidity in religious practice, causing friction within the royal family and the Saudi population as a whole. The recent ascension of King Salman last year has only added fuel to the fire as the internal politics of the royal family add another layer of uncertainty, opening the door for terrorist groups who might take advantage of the instability.
Saudi Arabia is also suffering a major hit to its largest source of income—with 80 percent of its budget revenues coming from oil production, Saudi Arabia has been massively affected by dropping oil prices, running some of its highest deficits in history. The kingdom has also traditionally depended on its constant influx of oil wealth to supply high-paying government jobs to key supporters, but with the rapidly dropping oil prices, Saudi Arabia may lose its ability to maintain popularity through employment opportunities. Saudi Arabia’s massive wealth will undoubtedly survive the instability, but the oil crisis adds to a growing list of uncertainties plaguing the country. These circumstances not only encourage terrorist organizations to view Saudi Arabia as prime real estate, but also create an environment in which the young, unemployed Saudi citizens themselves might fuel the fire of insurgency.
History of Insurgency
Ever since Saudi Arabia allowed the United States to station permanent bases on its territory in 1990, it has faced an increasingly radical conservative Wahhabi faction that has objected to any sort of friendly relations with the Western world. Ultra-conservatives have consistently held this relationship with the United States as a point of contention (Osama bin Laden was one such dissident), and that radical base has been responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks within the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has recently clamped down on insurgency within its borders by revamping its counterterrorism efforts, while at the same time attempting to address future threats by making it a punishable crime for Saudis to fight abroad. However, these actions may be too little too late.
Saudi Arabia was not always so strongly against foreign fighting; in fact, there was a time when its government actively encouraged its youth to go abroad to support its Muslim brothers, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Chechnya. However, the Saudi government has seen this strategy backfire when Saudi fighters have returned and conducted attacks at home using the skills they acquired while fighting abroad. Saudi Arabia is currently one of the largest sources of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria with upwards of 2,000 Saudi nationals joining ISIS, and is home to the largest number of pro-ISIS Twitter users in the world. The recent crack-down on foreign fighters is likely a response to fears that these jihadists will similarly return home and bring the fight to Saudi Arabia’s doorstep, as has happened in the past, and an implicit recognition that Saudi Arabia may very well become the new hub for terrorism.