Is Saudi Arabia the Next Syria?

January 19, 2016 Topic: SecurityTerrorism Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Saudi ArabiaISISIslamic StateSyriaRiyadh

Is Saudi Arabia the Next Syria?

As pressure on ISIS mounts in Syria, foreign fighters may flock to Saudi Arabia.

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.


External Pressure

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 United States, and in response the government has been driven to arrest almost one hundred 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’s 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.

Schuyler Moore is currently an analyst at an aerospace & defense consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. She previously studied international relations at Harvard University, and has published work on subjects regarding the Levant, Middle East and Central Asia in the National Interest and the Diplomat. Prior to her current position, she worked with the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the policy or position of any official organization. This article first appeared in the Bridge.

Image: Flickr/Ash Carter.