History haunts Saudi strategy with Syria
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 resistance.
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 Afghanistan.
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 www.thegulfblog.com.