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Holy warriors and the holy kingdom: Saudi Arabia’s precarious security situation

The Saudi Arabian National Guard is due to receive its first AH-6i Little Bird attack helicopters from Boeing within weeks. They were purchased with a defence budget that places Saudi Arabia among the world’s top military spenders. Official defence expenditure exceeded US$80 billion in 2015, over a quarter of the national budget. Given its strategic environment—which includes Islamic terrorism, domestic instability and a power struggle with Iran—it’s perhaps unsurprising that Saudi Arabia spends more on defence per capita than any other nation. But can the monarchy’s high level of defence spending provide it with the security it seeks?

On 4 July, four people were killed in suicide bombings coordinated across three cities, including Medina, one of the holiest sites in Islam. It was part of a series of attacks attributed to ISIS that began last year. The group’s ability to carry out these operations is evident from its high number of Saudi supporters; of all the foreign fighters in Syria, Saudis are the second largest nationality represented, well over two thousand in all.

ISIS has adopted a simple but timeless strategy in Saudi Arabia: divide and conquer. It has focused its attacks on the kingdom’s marginalised Shiite population, who comprise roughly 15% of the population. The group likely hopes to inspire Shiites to carry out revenge attacks on Sunnis, sparking an internal conflict it can capitalise on in order to overthrow a monarchy it views as corrupt and decadent. Its strategy is further rationalised by a quirk of geography that concentrates the Shiite population around Saudi Arabia’s major oil fields. It’s just a matter of time before ISIS damages critical oil infrastructure, which will cause a spike in oil prices and turmoil in global markets.

So far the Saudis have responded with extrajudicial violence. They have launched air strikes on ISIS camps, carried out lethal raids on the homes of suspected ISIS sympathisers and harried the group abroad. The state has even begun construction of a wall along its desert border with Iraq with the aim of fencing out the problem. However, Saudi Arabia has been under the influence of ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics for centuries and has long been a key source of Islamic militants. Military force will not be enough to deter extremists raised in a culture that fosters jihadism.

Alternatively, Saudi Arabia’s high level of defence spending may be focused on maintaining internal stability. There are several latent threats to the monarchy. The first is the marginalised Shiite community. So far suppression has snuffed the sectarian spark ISIS hopes to inflame, but the execution of Shiite leader Nimr al-Nimr in January has raised tensions between the community and authorities. The kingdom is also caught between its chronically underemployed youth, who form two-thirds of the population and are calling for reform, and the clerics, who oppose change and are vital to the monarchy’s religious legitimacy. Military force will likely be used to suppress dissidents from either group if they threaten the precarious balancing act in which the state is engaged.

Overshadowing Saudi Arabia’s fragile internal security situation is its regional power struggle with Iran. Shiite-majority Iran has been rapidly expanding its influence across the Middle East. It is currently aiding Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq with their domestic struggles. Iran’s influence will only continue to grow as international sanctions over its nuclear program are lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action implemented in January.

Saudi Arabia seems determined to counter Iran by force. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, it has deployed forces to Bahrain and Yemen to fight Shiite uprisings Riyadh claims are backed by Tehran. Its latest defence procurements—including fighter jets, attack helicopters, and littoral combat ships—would be of little use against terrorists but are well suited for conflict across the Gulf. The recent rapprochement between Iran and the US—Saudi Arabia’s principal ally—and a cooling of Washington-Riyadh relations do much to explain the near doubling of its defence budget in the last five years.

Saudi Arabia is under siege. The oil-dependent economy is struggling due to historically low prices, putting the monarchy at risk of a populist uprising. Its alliance with the ultraconservative clerics is straining its foreign relations and its Shiite citizens are on the verge of revolt. The power struggle with Iran is stretching resources and attacks by ISIS further complicate the situation. Military force may allow the monarchy to suppress its problems temporarily, but it must find long-term political, economic, and diplomatic solutions to these complex issues. Failure to do so could bring the monarchy to its knees.

William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

Image credit: Al Jazeera English (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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