Dec 10, 2008


History haunts Saudi strategy with Syria
By David B Roberts 

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to 
have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. 

It is possible to look at the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a long 
struggle with religious forces. The very existence of the country is premised 
on a Faustian bargain of sorts between Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) 
and Muhammad Ibn Saud (head of the House of Saud from 1744-1765), where each 
one was (and their descendants still are) utterly reliant on the other. 

The al-Sauds provide the base for the Wahhabis to practice and proselytize 
their religious doctrine, and the Wahhabis, in turn, provide the al-Sauds with 
the necessary religious sanctification as well as a proven ability to whip the 
masses into a religious fervor when needed. 

As the powers of the al-Sauds and Wahhabis waxed and waned relative to each 
other, so did their relative influence over each other. For example, the 
Wahhabis found themselves in a strong position just before Operation Desert 
Shield when United States troops were moved into Saudi Arabia on August 7, 
1990. At the time, the Saudi government desperately needed the religious 
blessing of the Wahhabi clergy to sanctify their decision to allow large 
numbers of US troops onto Saudi soil. The Wahhabis duly provided a declaration 
supporting the government but demanded a high price for their official 
approval: yet stricter controls over many aspects of Saudi society. Kepel, the 
noted French Arabist, characterizes this deal as completing the kingdom's fall 
into "bottomless Islamization". 

Perhaps the clearest example of the al-Sauds' dependency on Wahhabi legitimacy 
occurred in 1979, when the Grand Mosque at Mecca was overrun by fundamentalists 
seeking to usher in the next eschaton (end of time, or end of the world). This 
was a stark and brazen attack at the very core of the al-Sauds' legitimacy: 
their safe custodianship of the holiest place in Islam. 

After the debacle was finally ended (with the help of French special forces) 
the al-Sauds pumped massive amounts of money into the Wahhabi clergy to 
indoctrinate the faithful yet further and prove their religious credentials. 
This move came in place of any attempt to understand, question or resolve why 
this group took the fantastic step of attacking the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 

The Saudis, however, were fortunate. At the time of the mosque debacle, the 
Soviets were invading Afghanistan. This, therefore, gave the Saudis another way 
to repair their image, bolster their legitimacy and get rid of the most 
dedicated and hard-line fundamentalists who could have threatened their regime. 
Along with America, they supplied men, arms, equipment and money to the Afghan 

Eventually, of course, when the mujahideen returned home the Saudis were in an 
even worse situation. Not only were these proselytized, fervent and passionate 
men returning home, they were now combat veterans with a range of guerrilla 
warfare skills. To make things worse, not long after their return, Iraq invaded 
Kuwait and implicitly threatened Saudi's biggest oil fields in the east of the 
country, next to Kuwait. 

The al-Sauds, however, did not turn to their veteran mujahideen, but to the 
Americans and their grand coalition. This was an epic slap in the face for 
leaders such as Osama Bin Laden and the rest of the mujahideen. It is these 
remnants of the Afghan War (December 1979 to February 1989) that were 
overwhelmingly responsible for the wave of terrorism that spread across the 
world in the 1990s and early 21st century, from Dhahran to Bali and from to 
Madrid to New York. 

Peculiarly enough, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the 
United States, it was the al-Sauds who were in the ascendancy relative to the 
Wahhabis. They were under enormous pressure to act in some tangible way to 
reign in the extreme anti-American Wahhabi tendencies within their society. 

Numerous reforms were enacted, none of which were that far-reaching, but the 
Wahhabi position was nevertheless weakened to some degree. It took the Saudis 
two years to begin to make any meaningful changes and only then because of the 
devastating attacks in the kingdom itself, which finally drove home the point 
to the al-Sauds. Yet this chastening experience - that of sponsoring religious 
fanatics only to receive severe blowback some time later - does not appear to 
have altered Saudi strategic thinking. In fact, there is growing evidence that 
they are doing precisely the same thing again, only in Lebanon and not 

Saudi Arabia, along with Jordan and other Sunni countries, has been concerned 
for some time about a so-called Shi'ite crescent descending on the Middle East. 
Stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, for one, 
has been taking steps to seek to mitigate the strengthening of Shi'ite power 
where possible. 

According to US journalist Seymour Hersh, Saudi Arabia has joined up with their 
erstwhile Afghan partner, the US, in sponsoring the militant group Fatah 
al-Islam to act as a Sunni counterweight to Shi'ite Syrian forces in Lebanon. 
Saudi Arabia, for example, is believed to have provided not only funds but 
around 15-20% of the fighters at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp conflict in 
2007. One factor no doubt adding to Saudi anxiety in Lebanon was the rout of 
Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri's offices in West Beirut by 
Shi'ite Hezbollah on May 7, 2008. 

One corollary of all this is perceptibly worsening relations between Saudi 
Arabia and Syria. Following on from the banning of Saudi daily newspaper 
al-Sharq al-Awsat in mid-2006 over its coverage of the war in Lebanon, another 
pan-Arab Saudi paper has been banned. On September 29, al-Hayat was banned 
because of its coverage of the bombings in Damascus. Yet it is these attacks 
which are, potentially, the true harbinger of worse things to come. 

The most recent of these attacks killed 17 Syrians and injured about 14 near a 
significant Shi'ite shrine in Damascus. This act of terrorism was condemned 
around the world, but significantly not in Riyadh, where the government refused 
to comment. 

So, was this an example of Saudi-trained and funded jihadis from a Sunni camp 
in Lebanon coming across the border and seeking to attack Syria? That is 
certainly what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is telling the world; 
hence their deployment of special forces and troops along parts of the Lebanese 
border to ostensibly stop foreign jihadis entering the country. 

There are, therefore, persuasive arguments suggesting that the Saudis have 
reverted to their failed policies of the past, and while it may sound 
ridiculous to repeat old mistakes, if it is true, they are not the first and 
certainly will not be the last to do so. 

David B Roberts is a doctoral student at the University of Durham researching 
the Persian Gulf generally and Qatar specifically. His website can be found at

(Copyright 2008 David B Roberts.) 

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to 
have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. 

Kirim email ke