The Saudi Role in Iraq

Geopolitical Diary: The Saudi Role in a Deal over Iraq
Jun 21, 2007: SRATFOR

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef on Wednesday pressed the country's powerful religious establishment to dissuade Saudi youth from fighting in Iraq. Speaking to a gathering of hundreds of religious scholars, Nayef indirectly criticized the religious community for not doing enough to prevent the country's youth from becoming suicide bombers.

Nayef's remarks represent Riyadh's first major push to prevent Saudi jihadists from going to Iraq. Thus far, the Saudi government has only been worried about fighting jihadists operating within the kingdom. In fact, there is evidence to suggest the Saudis have been redirecting jihadists toward Iraq as part of domestic counterterrorism efforts.

This move to discourage Saudi participation in jihadism in Iraq is tied to the U.S.-Iranian negotiations over how to stabilize Iraq. The Saudis are signaling that they have begun to deliver on their end of the bargain by helping eliminate Iraq's jihadists. In exchange, Riyadh hopes the Iranians will rein in Iraqi Shiite militias engaged in sectarian violence against Iraq's Sunni minority community. The Saudis know that without a settlement over Iraq they will face twin threats to their national security -- from both an emergent Iran and its Arab Shiite allies in the Persian Gulf region, as well as from transnational jihadists in Iraq.

Washington has assured the Saudis that if they do their part, U.S. forces stationed on a long-term basis on the Iraqi side of the Saudi-Iraqi border will prevent Iran from threatening Riyadh. But the Saudis cannot afford to place their security completely in the hands of the United States, especially since the situation in Iraq could prevent such a deal from being enforced, or even thwart an agreement on the issue. In that case, the Saudis would need to rely on the Iraqi Sunni community to act as a buffer to contain the Iraqi Shia and their Persian patrons, thus preventing them from diverting their focus toward Riyadh.

To do this, the Saudis must continue to back Iraq's Sunni insurgents. But such a strategy is problematic. Most of the Sunni militant groups are made up of Iraqi nationalists and ex-members of former leader Saddam Hussein's security forces. These groups will go only so far in working with the Saudis because -- at the end of the day -- Iraqi Sunnis want a negotiated settlement with the Shiite majority. There is a significant difference between the interests of the Iraqi Sunnis and the Saudis when it comes to dealing with the Shia and Iran.

The Saudis and the jihadists have similar attitudes toward the Shia and Tehran, which is why the jihadists are the best tool the Saudis can use to counter the threat from Iran and the Shia. While the Saudis are willing to eliminate jihadists in the kingdom, they also have the means to use these jihadists as an instrument for furthering their foreign policy objectives in Iraq. The problem they now face is how to manage the jihadists in a way that does not allow these militant Islamist nonstate actors to turn around and threaten Riyadh's security.

In this regard, there is a parallel between Saudi Arabia's situation with regards to jihadists in Iraq and that of Pakistan and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. The Taliban can operate on both sides of the border due to the existence of a common Pashtun ethnicity. Similarly, jihadist traffic flows back and forth between Saudi Arabia and Iraq due to the common Wahhabi sect shared by the jihadists and many Saudis. Just as Pakistani involvement with the Afghan Taliban has lead to the growing Talibanization of Pakistan, Saudi dealings with jihadists in Iraq could lead to the resurgence of jihadism in the kingdom.

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