On 4 February, a Saudi military spokesman, Ahmed al-Asiri, announced that the Arabian kingdom is ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight against Daesh/ISIS, should the US-led coalition decide to carry out ground operations against the terrorist group.
It is not the first time Saudi Arabia shows its eagerness to take part in the war against extremist organizations, having been among the first Arab countries to join the international coalition against Daesh. Another example of the Saudis’ desire to take the initiative in the fight against terrorism was the formation of an Islamic military alliance comprising 34 Muslim-majority countries in late 2015, with the aim of coordinating its operations with those of the US-led coalition.
Saudi Arabia’s keen involvement in such initiatives seems paradoxical, to say the least, given the kingdom’s responsibilities in spreading its official, Wahhabist interpretation of Islam among Sunni Muslim communities throughout the world. Since the country’s oil revenues started to soar in the 1970s, tens billions of dollars were spent in order to disseminate this puritan version of Sunni Islam, which in turn has heavily contributed to the rise of Islamic extremism.
The kingdom’s ideological involvement in the formation of such terrorist groups as Daesh has even been acknowledged by members of the Saudi religious establishment. Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, former Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, has admitted that Daesh is an “offshoot” of Salafism drawing upon the same books and adopting the same principles as Wahhabi clerics do. One of the extremist doctrines taught by Saudi scholars is Takfirism, or excommunication, which declares those Muslims who do not hold the same religious principles and interpretations as those of the Wahhabis as Kafir (apostate), thereby making them enemies of Islam and so their lives and property are no longer sacred or protected. In fact, the majority of those killed by Daesh (and other Wahhabist/Salafist inspired groups) are Muslims.
It seems as though there is growing awareness of the pernicious relation between Saudi Arabia’s official religious dogma and extremist Islamist organizations beliefs and practices, and an increasing number of people in the West are coming to realize this. What is more important is that even some decision-makers are starting to question to what extent the West, and the US in particular, can keep on maintaining friendly relations with the Arabian kingdom, given the implications that unconditional support for the Saudi monarchy can have over the terrorism issue.
A recent example of these changing attitudes could be seen at an event hosted by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations on 29 January, during which Senator Chris Murphy had the chance to discuss US foreign policy in the Middle East. While he started his discussion by criticizing Republican politicians who accuse the Democratic administration of having no strategy for defeating ISIS, he soon moved on to focus on what he called the “uncomfortable truths” that the USA – and the West more broadly – must face in the fight against extremism. The central point of his argument was that the Obama administration does have a plan to defeat ISIS, but its strategy is a short-term one. It does not take into account that the spread of extremist doctrines and practices has been possible thanks to the billions of dollars spent by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar on Wahhabist religious institutions. “According to some estimates”, he said, “since the 1960s the Saudis have funneled over $100 billion into funding schools and mosques all over the world, with the mission of spreading puritanical Wahhabism”. He pointed out how Saudi policies can also contribute indirectly to the spread of terrorism. Such is the case in Yemen, where the political vacuum created by the civil war – in which the kingdom is giving military support to President Hadi through air strikes – is allowing jihadist groups to gain ground in some areas of the country.
Senator Murphy’s ideas as to how to invert this trend were quite clear. “The United States should suspend supporting Saudi Arabia as the military campaign in Yemen, at the very least until we get assurances that this campaign does not distract from the fight against ISIS and al-Qaida, and until we make some progress in the Saudi export of Wahhabism. And Congress shouldn’t sign off on any more military sales to Saudi Arabia, until similar assurances are granted. If we are serious about constructing a winning strategy to defeat ISIS and al-Qaida, then our horizons, they do have to involve a strategy that looks beyond just the day-to-day”.
Despite acknowledging how the United States can still benefit from maintaining a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Democratic senator made a bold move by pointing out the uncomfortable truths that the US should start to deal with. As Josh Cohen recently wrote, other Western politicians have denounced Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the spread of extremism. Senator Murphy’s statements show that criticism of Saudi policies is gaining ground; the West’s responsibilities are becoming more evident, too. The hope is that such awareness can be translated into measures to limit the kingdom’s entanglement with terrorism; otherwise, the root of the problem will be left untouched.