The Saudi Civil War

Who is fighting? Who will win?

Last week, the jihadists gave us the starkest image we’ve had since they left thousands of people to die in two smoking steel and glass towers: An English journalist riddled with bullets pleading for help. “I’m a Muslim,” he said, writhing under the hot Saudi Arabian sun holding a Quran.

The BBC’s Frank Gardner is still hospitalized in critical condition and his colleague, freelance cameraman Simon Cumbers, died on the scene. Gardner wasn’t really a Muslim, but the notion that being one might save his skin is a useful indicator of how things stand in Saudi Arabia today. During the course of the last month, Westerners and Western interests have been targeted—most spectacularly during June 1’s daylong siege at the Oasis compound in Khobar, where 22 people were killed when young Saudi men shot several of their victims, including a 10-year-old Egyptian boy, before they went house to house looking for infidel throats to slit. (Here are two alleged first-hand accounts: from one of the militants and from an eye-witness.) Most recently, an American engineer named Paul Johnson Jr. was taken hostage by a Saudi group opportunistically named the Fallujah Squadron. On Friday morning, news outlets reported that Johnson had been beheaded.

Last year, an important article in Foreign Affairs described a split in the Saudi royal family (which this article took issue with), but the Saudi civil war probably isn’t between two groups of petrobillionaires. Rather, as Joshua Teitelbaum, a researcher at the Dayan Center in Tel Aviv, explains, the country’s Islamist opposition has been at odds with the House of Saud since the first Gulf War. “They just recently picked up arms,” he told me, “but these guys come out of an oppositional milieu that goes back to the ‘90s. Then starting about 2000, there was an attack on Saudi officials or foreigners every couple of months. After Sept. 11, it picked up, and after the attacks in Riyadh last May, it was out in the open.”

The Saudi royal family is downplaying the insurgency as much as possible, which is understandable: If the jihadists were to overthrow them, the consequences would make the Iraq war look like a minor regional skirmish: Western Europe and Asia depend on Saudi oil as much as the United States does.

One way to understand how dire the current situation looks for the Saudis is by comparing it to Egypt’s Islamist wars in the 1990s in which over 1,200 people were killed. Like the Saudis, the Egyptian groups first went after officials and policemen, who are generally regarded as “hard” targets. As the Egyptian government beefed up security and made life miserable for the militants, the groups went after softer targets, like the Coptic Christian minority and tourists. In Saudi Arabia, however, it seems that some authorities have softened targets that should be hard. For instance, a Riyadh compound that houses foreign workers, including a large contingent of military advisers, was made vulnerable last May when about fifty security guards were dispatched to the desert for impromptu training exercises. One survivor, an American military adviser, is certain that the security of the compound was intentionally compromised to facilitate the operation, which killed 36.

That attack, which cost the lives of several Muslims, taught the Saudi jihadists something it took their Egyptian counterparts years to learn: If you kill ordinary Muslims, you will lose the support of the local population. So, in this May’s Khobar attack, the jihadists made sure Muslims in the compound knew they were being spared because they were Muslims. Public support is important, because jihadists need to be able to blend in with the population and sometimes can even expect to be helped by it. A just-released poll shows that over half the 15,000 Saudis polled support Osama Bin Laden, even though only 5 percent want him to rule the kingdom. Nevertheless, those numbers mean little during the course of an insurgency. What matters is whether the armed forces are capable of putting down rivals, and it is bad news for the House of Saud that only 39 percent of the respondents have a favorable view of the nation’s military.

It’s likely that in the early ‘90s the Egyptian armed forces had similarly low approval ratings, but to enhance their profile, they did something counterintuitive. Rather than embark on a hearts and minds campaign, the army and police made ordinary Egyptians despise the Islamists for bringing so much violence upon the innocent. The government’s war included a notorious 1992 siege when 14,000 Egyptian troops invaded a poor Cairo neighborhood that had become known as the Islamic Republic of Imbaba. During the decade, the Egyptians illegally detained, collectively punished, tortured, and killed not only those it accused of jihadist violence but also the suspects’ relatives and neighbors. Some people believe torture and collective punishment only breed more violence; others argue that torture is both immoral and ineffective. Either way, the Mubarak regime is still in power, and there have been no terrorist attacks in Egypt since 1997.

Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, recently called for a similarly ruthless campaign—”a war,” he wrote, “that does not mean delicacy, but brutality.” However, it’s not clear that Saudi forces are capable of waging such a war.

Since 1952, Egypt’s leaders—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak—have come through the military, and they recognize that their legitimacy depends on how well they show their love for current and former top officers. Saudi rulers show their fundamental mistrust of the military by building redundant forces that keep each other at bay. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Egyptian military still enjoyed the prestige it had earned during the 1973 war against Israel. The Saudi military has little esprit de corps to build on, since Saudi leaders tend to avoid a fight whenever they can. During their proxy war over Yemen in the 1960s, Egypt sent thousands of its elite troops, while the Saudis bought off Yemeni tribesmen to wage their war for them. Obviously, the Saudis can’t dispatch Yemeni tribesmen to invade the al-Suwaydi suburb of Riyadh, the Islamist stronghold where Gardner and Cumbers were shot.

There is also the problem that Saudi forces appear to have been extensively infiltrated. For instance, in the May 2003 Riyadh attack, the assailants reportedly had help from members of the Saudi National Guard, a force whose loyalty the royal family has typically taken for granted. After the Khobar siege last month, three of the militants were allowed to walk away once the carnage was over. Worse yet, just as Crown Prince Abdullah announced that terrorists would be handled “with an iron fist,” three men disguised in women’s veils walked into a hospital where one of the captured militants from the Khobar attack was being held. While they failed to free their colleague, they walked out as easily as they had walked in—all during the course of a “major manhunt.” Or consider this: Across the world these days, the jihadist offensive weapon of choice is the suicide bomb, a strategy premised on the idea that some operations are so difficult that the assailant must sacrifice his life to accomplish them. Up until the recent Khobar episode, Saudi jihadists were suicide bombers. But at Khobar, the terrorists, armed with automatic weapons, had time to go from door to door asking for infidels, cut their throats, and drag their corpses through the streets. Why do Saudi militants now believe they have a fair chance of surviving their operations?

Who will wage Bandar’s war if the Saudis can’t do it? For countless political and tactical reasons, U.S. troops are, at least for now, clearly out of the question. What about non-crusader forces—like the Egyptians for instance? They’ve been putting down fundamentalist insurgencies for two centuries now. In fact, in 1811, the Ottoman Empire asked Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, to quell a Wahhabi rebellion on the Arabian peninsula, which he did after seven years of fighting. Sadly, that history is part of the problem. This being the Middle East, where militants want to return to the time of the prophet Muhammad, all history is contemporary. For this and a number of other reasons, Saudis and Egyptians hate each other, and so bringing in Egyptian troops—or any capable foreign troops—would risk the legitimacy of the Saudi rulers almost as much as an American invasion. It seems that the Saudis are on their own here, which highlights a very serious problem.

Each country is targeted by jihadist groups for different reasons. Moreover, because every state—democracies and dictatorships alike—must put its own interests before those of the international community and often even of its allies, there are many times when the war on terror cannot be waged multilaterally. This should chasten members of the international community’s multilateralist chorus. Egypt fought its war alone, and Saudi Arabia will probably have to do the same. Consequently, some states are going to come out of this global jihad against Christians, Jews, and infidel Muslims looking very different than they did before it began. No matter what happens in Saudi Arabia, whether the insurgents actually unseat the ruling family or the al-Sauds manage to accommodate the militants, there will be no “liberal reform” in the kingdom for a long time. In all likelihood, that country is going to become even more conservative, just as Egypt’s war against its jihadist groups effectively Islamicized that country. For Saudi Arabia, that will mean, among other things, a vast exodus of the foreigners that are instrumental to the oil sector. The House of Saud should consider itself very fortunate if, like the Mubarak regime, it wins its war even as it is essentially surrendering to the Islamists’ terms.