Lately, there has been much clamour over the role of Saudi Arabia in abetting terror in the Middle East region, apparently in the kingdom’s bid to assert authority as also to checkmate another power Iran, which Saudi alleges lends relentless support to terror groups in Syria, Bahrain and Qatar among others. Meanwhile, the kingdom’s attempts to isolate Qatar and push it to the wall have turned the heat up in the Middle East, vitiating the environment.
It would also appear that Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh has led to further escalation of tensions in the region, helping forces inimical to Iran embark on any bloody misadventure. Security analysts the world over, particularly in the West, and the western media have been targeting Saudi Arabia for proliferating jihadi movements, fostering Islamic fundamentalism.
It therefore appears imperative to undertake a close examination of recent Saudi actions, which appear acrimonious. Recent bombings (May 22) in Manchester were yet another grim reminder that the threat from radical Islamic terrorism continues to recur and Saudi Arabia remains central to the spread of such terrorism.
Yet, according to Fareed Zakaria of the CNN, Riyadh has managed to evade and deflect any responsibility. The facts are open in public domain. For more than half a century now, Saudi Arabia has propagated its parochial, puritanical and intolerant version of Islam, originally practised almost nowhere else across the Islamic world. It is pertinent to mention Osama bin Laden was Saudi as were 15 of the 19 terrorists responsible for 9/11 – 12 among them from UAE, one from Egypt and one from Lebanon.
The US security agencies claim – based on a leaked email from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton – that in recent years the Saudi government has been providing tacit financial and logistical support to ISIS and other ultra-Sunni groups in the region. Further, Saudi nationals make up the second largest group of foreign fighters in the IS and, by some accounts, the largest group in Iraqi operations. (The largest are from Tunisia, the third largest from Russia, the fourth largest from Turkey and fifth largest from Jordan.)
As is common knowledge, ISIS draws its beliefs from Saudi Arabia’s Wahabbi Islam. As the erstwhile Imam of the kingdom’s grand mosque disclosed last year, ISIS “exploited our own principles that can be found in our books. We follow the same thoughts but applied in a refined way”.
There are perceptions that Saudi money is now transforming European Islam. German intelligence leaks suggest that charities closely connected with government offices of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are funding mosques, madarsas and Imams to disseminate a fundamentalist and intolerant version of Islam throughout Germany. According to Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, in Kosovo, a 500-year-old tradition of moderate Islam is being systematically destroyed. From their respective bases, the Saudi-trained Imams have successfully propagated the supremacy of Sharia as well as the ideas of violent jihad.
Also, Saudi Arabia has begun to show many of its egregious practices and is now being run de facto by a young and intelligent reformer, deputy crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who appears to be refreshingly pragmatic. Yet, so far, Saudi reforms have translated into better economic policy for the kingdom – not a break with its powerful religious establishment.
In the meantime, Trump’s speech on Islam seemed to zero in on the problem when he remarked, “No discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three – safe harbour, financial support and the rock solid standing needed for recruitment.” But Trump, it turns out, was not talking about its host Saudi Arabia but Iran. And such a remark is not objective. Iran undoubtedly is a destabilising force in the Middle East and supports some undesirable players. But it is wide off the mark to allege that it is the source of jihadi terror.
As per an analysis of the global terrorism data base, 94 per cent of the deaths caused by Islamic terrorism since 2001 were perpetrated by al Qaeda, ISIS and other Sunni jihadists. Iran is fighting those groups, but not fuelling them as confirmed authoritatively in a CNN presentation by expert Fareed Zakaria. Significantly, almost every terror attack in the West has had some connection to Saudi Arabia and virtually none has been linked to Iran.
Trump, meanwhile, has adopted the Saudi line on terrorism which deflects any blame on the kingdom and redirects it towards Iran. The Saudis impress Trump’s inexperienced negotiators with attention, arms deals and donations to a World Bank fund for women that Ivanka Trump is spearheading.
Even though Trump demanded in 2016 that the Clinton foundation return money from the Saudis who want women as slaves and to kill gays. Saudis played up Donald Trump facilitating the US to sign up for Saudi Arabia’s Middle East policy of a relentless series of battles against Shias and their allies throughout the region. This is likely to entangle Washington in a never ending sectarian struggle, encourage instability and complicate its ties with countries like Iraq that desire good relations with both sides.
Importantly, it is unlikely to do nothing to address the direct and ongoing threat to the US of jihadi terrorism . Saudi attempts to dominate the region and beyond were also manifested in a recent development when Pakistan refused to bow to the Saudi pressures calling for giving up a neutral stance and throw its weight behind Riyadh in all issues, especially in alienating itself from Qatar in the light of fresh Gulf crisis.
Saudi monarch Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud met Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week at Jeddah and is believed to have served an ultimatum to Islamabad that it must choose between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The king was perhaps undiplomatic and forthright in asking, “Are you with us or Qatar?” Such bold queries and diktat suggest that Saudi Arabia wants to assert that it is the boss in the region and any defiance would be seen unkindly. It is obviously drawing its strength from external quarters to whack.
In future, therefore, the global scene on terror seems to be expanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran with the Middle East as the likely theatre of activities.
*The author is a retired IPS officer who has held key positions in the Government of India handling sensitive security issues within and outside India.