These are difficult times for Saudi Arabia. A new king has recently taken the reins of power and is in the process of consolidating his rule. Meanwhile, the kingdom has launched a war against Yemeni Houthi rebels in the south, while across the north-eastern border in Iraq the so-called Islamic State — with its animus for the rulers in Riyadh hardly concealed — remains undeterred. In such tumultuous times, IS is threatening to bring the war inside the kingdom’s borders.
On Friday, the outfit claimed a suicide bombing targeting a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia’s eastern Qatif region.
At least 21 people were killed in what is believed to be the first major IS strike inside the kingdom. In an ominous online message, IS has threatened more violence against Saudi Shias.
With this bombing, the self-styled caliphate has achieved two major objectives: firstly, it has made clear its intentions — and capabilities — to carry out sectarian attacks inside Saudi Arabia. Secondly, it has demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the Saudi state.
Both these objectives were outlined in a recent speech by ‘caliph’ Baghdadi, in which he lambasted both the Saudi Shia, as well as the rulers in Riyadh. According to some reports, hundreds of Saudi fighters have returned to the kingdom after taking up arms for IS in Syria and Iraq.
Clearly, if IS manages to gain a foothold within the kingdom, it will create a new security headache for Riyadh as extremist fighters try and spark a communal conflagration. Already Saudi Arabia’s east — where most of its Shia population lives — is a disturbed region.
Last November, several people were killed when gunmen attacked an Ashura majlis, while the sentencing to death of Shaikh Nimr, a senior Saudi Shia cleric, on charges of sedition has sparked widespread protests and discontent in the Shia region.
Though Riyadh has gone after sectarian militants, considering the latest developments, it will need to do much more on multiple fronts.
When the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts were beginning to unfold, many had warned of the dangers of using extremists to forward geopolitical aims — as Saudi Arabia had been accused of doing in both these conflicts. Now it seems the blowback of these policies — or at least of looking away as militants headed towards these battlefields — is threatening the security and communal fabric of the kingdom.
Firstly, Riyadh must take action against local extremists, particularly those trying to spark a communal confrontation. But also, the Saudi state must look within; both inside the official clergy, as well as elsewhere, there are elements that support a sectarian narrative that is not too far from the ideology of IS.
Moreover, Riyadh must consider making a greater effort to resolve the Syrian and Yemeni crises through dialogue; if both these bloody conflicts are brought to a close, much wind will be taken away from the sails of the extremists.
Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2015