Iraq's Collapse & the Consequences for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia map, flag and leader

Iraq's Collapse & The Consequences for Saudi Arabia

By R. Alan Clanton | published June 16, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

The ongoing rivalries between radical Islamist groups have sometimes worked to the advantage of the United States and its allies, sometimes not. Those grudges and rivalries have insulated the kings and princes of the oil-rich nations from internal disruption, just as they have prevented any one Middle Eastern strongman from exerting disproportional influence over the region, or any one part of the region. Plus, those rivalries have often kept any one terrorist or militant group from gaining the upper hand militarily.

But that was then, and this is now. The Arab Spring set in motion a sequence of events which are altering the landscape and the political boundaries, literally. Borders drawn by the British and the French a century ago may soon become meaningless. And terrorist groups, once regarded as ragtag for their poor equipment, internal rivalries and fragile funding, are systematically re-energizing an al Qaeda network once thought by American presidents to be on the ropes.

Syria’s long and bloody civil war, followed by lawlessness, created an opportunity in its northern and northeastern territories for al Qaeda breakaway groups to exert control. This group, now calling itself ISIS or ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), has become a functioning army, complete with centralized command-and-control, impressive ground speed and strength, and the discipline of a functioning army.

In a period of only one week, ISIS moved quickly across northern Iraq, capturing several large cities, declaring the imposition of strict Islamic law, and vowing to press on toward Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers and security forces—trained and supplied by the United States—turned and ran. Many of the soldiers dropped their weapons, abandoned their heavy equipment and their vehicles, and even stripped away their army uniforms. In the brief battle for Mosul, roughly 850 ISIS fighters were able to cause the retreat of more than 32,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and security forces. ISIS militants met so little resistance that they not only collected millions of dollars worth of modern weaponry, they were also able to clean out local and regional banks. By some estimates, ISIS now has $500 million in its coffers.

The militants now control a vast swath of territory stretching from the Syrian border with Turkey in the northwest, to the threshold of Kurdish lands in northeastern Iraq, to within 80 miles of Baghdad in central Iraq. Despite a surge by Iraqi forces days ago, ISIS says it still controls all areas it took in its lightning sweep across northern Iraq, and it says it still intends to capture Baghdad soon. Just within the last few days, militants have seized control of Mosul, Tikrit, Kirkuk and Tal Afar. Today, reports from the battle lines say that militants shot down at least one Iraqi helicopter gunship. ISIS has made available dozens of videos showing grisly, gruesome images of Iraqi soldiers being executed, and analysts say the videos are designed with one purpose in mind—the spread of fear among anyone who intends to fight ISIS forces.

Flush with cash, ISIS has moved into social media and the internet in its recruitment drives worldwide. Unlike al Qaeda, which posted a new video every few months or used the internet only sparingly, ISIS has established a broad retail presence on the web, using Twitter, You Tube, and a variety of other social media applications to spread its message to young men in other countries. ISIS seeks territorial control in its goal of the creation of a caliphate, just as it seeks to spread terror and fear.

Intelligence experts and military analysts say that this combination of factors makes ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda, one of the most dangerous moving armies on the Earth.

But ISIS poses unforeseen threats in other parts of the region as well. The militant group has been unabashed in its desire to recruit soldiers from other Arab countries, and according to a variety of recent reports, ISIS is targeting disaffected men in Saudi Arabia. If these intelligence reports and news reports prove to be accurate, ISIS may be on the verge of beginning an attempt to topple the Al Saud royal family in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi’s are the world’s largest oil producer, and the world’s largest oil exporter. Ninety-five percent of the Saudi economy is driven by oil production, and its government rakes in almost three-quarters of its wealth from oil. The number of countries dependent on this oil is too long to list here, but suffice it to say that any disruption in the oil output of Saudi Arabia would have ripple effects worldwide. Saudi Arabia produces between five million and nine million barrels of oil per day, depending on data found on various energy websites. A sudden shutdown of oil production could have catastrophic repercussions for the world’s economy.

This is why some analysts say that ISIS’s recent overt interest in recruitment on the Arabian Peninsula—the first major move by jihadist groups since the Saudi’s beat back an earlier attempt by al Qaeda in the previous decade—should sound alarm bells among the world leaders.  Iraq shares a long, largely unprotected border with Saudi Arabia, and ISIS forces have shown their ability to move quickly and effectively across the landscape.

Although ISIS came to the attention of most people in the world in June, the militant organization has been openly recruiting in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States for more than a month. The news that ISIS has been aggressively seeking to form a movement in the largest of the oil states has many economists worried. Iraq is a major oil producer as well, and an Iraq in the hands of a jihadist entity could spell higher oil prices worldwide. Even if the worst case scenario is a segmented Iraq, with the ISIS forces controlling the north, and those loyal to Nouri al Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government controlling the south, Iraqi oil production will surely be disrupted in areas where oil wells and pipelines fall under the control of militants. Likewise, a disruption to the political stability in Saudi Arabia could have massive consequences for oil-consuming nations worldwide.

For many in the jihadist world, Saudi Arabia is the antithesis of true Islam, despite the vast country being host to two of the most sacred sites in all of the Islamic world: Al-Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque, Mecca) and the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Medina). For many terrorist groups, the Saudi royal family—and its moderate stance of generally friendly relationships with western powers—has been an unacceptable arrangement, and jihadists have long called for the overthrow of the Saud family. In 1979, terrorists briefly seized control of the holy site in Mecca, and called for a general uprising. After about a week, the militants were dislodged from the mosque and the Saudi government added additional security, then, cracked down on religious opposition. Those involved in the seizure were executed.

Shortly afterwards, the Saud family extended some gestures toward traditional Islamic law by insisting on the closure of some businesses (movie theaters, for example), and by strengthening certain codes of appearance. But on the whole the jihadists were still dissatisfied with the Saudi government. Militants have threatened to disrupt and overthrow the Saudi government for decades, and Osama bin Laden, himself Saudi by birth, called for a general uprising and the application of terror. Later, in 2008 and 2009, the Saudi army fought a campaign against Shiite insurgents in several areas.

The Saudis may fear the religious extremism of ISIS, but the ruling family in Saudi Arabia is sometimes authoritarian to a fault. Women are not allowed to drive cars, nor have women been allowed to vote, though King Abdullah decreed recently that beginning next year women can vote and participate as full members in political advisory councils. And though women will get to vote soon, there are no elections in the traditional sense in Saudi Arabia. Most political issues are debated and resolved within the royal family, and many Middle East analysts liken the process to a large family-owned corporation, complete with factions and rivalries, backroom intrigue, and shifting alliances. Those who do “vote” are those few allowed to participate in tribal councils, advisory panels, and the Ulema, a mostly religious body which includes clerics, teachers and scholars.

The majority of Saudis are Sunni Muslims, which worries some Middle East analysts who say that Saudi Arabia may be ripe for political turmoil despite its vast wealth. But there is also a significant minority of Shiites in Saudi Arabia. The ruling family members are Wahhabis, and there has been tension, in some cases promoted by outside forces (as in Iran’s attempts to influence the Shiite population of Saudi Arabia toward uprising) applied on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide on the Arabian Peninsula.

The old borders drawn by the European powers continue to complicate things. Saudi Arabia was generally supportive of Saddam Hussein when he consolidated power in neighboring Iraq in the 1970s and early 1980s. Like the United States, Saudi Arabia backed Iraq in its long war with Iran. But later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, the Saudis were so fearful of Saddam that they asked the United States to intervene militarily, even allowing the U.S., the U.K. and other allied troops access to construct bases on the Saudi Peninsula. This decision further infuriated militant groups and jihadists.

Disruption to oil production is seen by some terrorists as the shortest possible path to dislodge and overthrow the Saud family, whose rule dates back to the early part of the 20th century.

Many jihadists see the Saud family and its governing classes in Riyadh as phony Muslims, cloaked only in the trappings of Islam but obsessed with their wealth and their business relationships with those scores of trading partners who purchase Saudi oil.

But the Middle East can produce strange bedfellows. Saudi Arabia has long been rumored to have been supporting—through backchannels—the mostly Sunni fighters at war in Syria’s northern regions. Saudi Arabia must now contend with the possibility of that same radical movement seeking to spark jihad in its own backyard. Further complicating the messy dynamic: Iran is on the verge of openly supporting the government in Baghdad where it shares a kinship with Maliki and the Shiite’s in the Iraqi capital. Iran and Iraq have been bitter enemies for decades, and in the 1980s fought a long, brutal war in which hundreds of thousands may have died.  Today, Secretary of State John Kerry said he would be open to working with Iran if it helps to bring stability to Iraq.

The majority of those living in southern Iraq are Shiites, as is Prime Minister Maliki, and the majority of those in the north are Sunni. The ISIS militants, now a formally organized army, are Sunni, and have in part tapped into the deep resentment that Iraq Sunnis feel toward the government in Baghdad.

This sectarian split was never fully resolved during the long U.S. military occupation which followed the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

After a week of silence, the Saudi government has responded to the crisis in Iraq through a cabinet-level press release. In that statement, it says the escalating crisis in Iraq is the direct result of “sectarian” policies in Baghdad, and the Saudis urge the people of Iraq to settle their differences peacefully and without foreign intervention—which presumably means Iran.

Meanwhile, the White House struggles daily to digest reports on the rapidly-evolving situation. Though President Barack Obama has said that he does not intend to put U.S. troops back on the ground in Iraq, he has said that he will consider other uses of force. Among those things being considered by the White House: air strikes, drone strikes, air support and air cover for Iraqi troops, intelligence support from drones and satellite imagery, and offshore U.S. Navy support. The President has sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in anticipation of possible air cover or air strikes, and just today said he was strongly considering inserting a contingent of U.S. Special Forces into Iraq to help train and coordinate the Iraqi army's response to the threat of ISIS.

But back in Riyadh, the Saudi powers-that-be are worried. If ISIS forces are able, by whatever means, to eventually take Baghdad, there would be little stopping those militants—now heavily armed, well-organized and well-funded—from storming south across the desert, and across the frontier that separates Iraq from Saudi Arabia.

And in that scenario, the jihadists could threaten much of the world’s economic and market stability simply by driving en masse toward those oil-rich sands.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Back to the Future: Iraq’s Descent Into Chaos; Thursday Review commentary; June 15, 2014.