Salafi Shake-Up: ISIS encroaching on the House of Saud

Salafi Shake-Up: ISIS encroaching on the House of Saud

Friday night’s terrorist attacks in Paris moved up the timeline of this showdown between ISIS and the House of Saud, making it vital for the West, particularly the US, to properly understand the conflict and make preparations for a new reality in the Middle East.

Friday night’s events in Paris set in motion a potentially unstoppable force in the decimation of the Middle East as we know it.

France will lead the charge in upgrading the campaign against ISIS from one which sought to minimize collateral damage while targeting mostly military infrastructure and assets, to being a campaign more befitting a state targeting both military targets and critical non-military infrastructure, specifically oil-related assets.

The primary consequence of Friday’s attacks and the upgrading of the campaign against ISIS will be the mass killing of noncombatant Sunnis caught in the crossfire, setting in train a sequence of pernicious side-effects:

  • ISIS will gain legitimacy as the only reliable representative of Sunnis in the region as the Iraqi and Syrian governments, aided by the West, will kill large numbers of innocent Sunnis;
  • Other Islamist groups operating in Iraq and Syria will de facto unite with ISIS as they cooperate to defend their territory and people; and
  • The House of Saud’s reluctance to intervene in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere to prevent the mass killing of Sunnis will further degrade its claim to being their primary protector.

This final consideration is of particular concern for stability in the region.

Until now, the legitimacy of ISIS’s challenge to the House of Saud’s Salafi leadership (and de facto Sunni leadership since the region’s Sunnis are primarily ruled by Salafi factions of one sort or another) has been discounted.

To appreciate how ISIS, a rogue quasi-state with an extremist ideology of aggression towards non-believers, poses a legitimate challenge to the House of Saud, the premises of Salafi leadership must be understood.

Control of Salafi leadership depends on two things: religious legitimacy, and the material benefits the leading group can deliver to its followers. While the challenge from ISIS grows in power, the House of Saud’s claim to supremacy in both regards is diminishing, threatening to usher in an era of extremist Salafi leadership that will destabilize the region.

The argument for religious legitimacy

The basis of ISIS’s contention for being the center for Salafi religiosity today revolves around the Prophetic Hadith referred to as the “Delivered Group” Hadith, which stipulates that there is only one group of Muslims that will be “delivered” in the end of days and ascend to heaven. This Hadith is held to be true by every notable Islamic faction, which are basically competing for the title of “Delivered Group”.

To that end, when the Wahhabis set about establishing the first Saudi state by overthrowing, then being defeated by, the Ottoman empire (in 1744 and 1818, respectively), the endeavor was framed as motivated by the desire to restore Islam to its pure and basic form by imposing a righteous Islamic rule that followed the Quran to the letter.

The same held true for the second (1824-1891) and third Saudi States (1902-present). After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the House of Saud claimed sole representation of the world’s Sunnis, comfortable in its hold on the “Delivered Group” title. Thereafter, it set out to purify Muslim lands from heretic behavior to consolidate its claim.

In recent years, however, the House of Saud has become acutely aware of the need to “play the game” of geopolitics in order to survive and prosper, and it is in playing this game that they risk their hold on the claim to righteous religious rule, specifically in relation to the Delivered Group Hadith.

The House of Saud has cooperated with the American “crusaders”, the Shia “rafida”, and the Jewish “infidels“ – and ISIS’s propaganda machine relentlessly presses these facts home, illuminating their contradiction with the Salafist interpretation of Islam that stipulates that whoever deals with crusaders, rafida, and infidels is one himself.

Material benefits

The House of Saud is also losing the argument that it is the best protector of Sunnis’ material interests both inside and outside its borders.

Sunnis in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen have been marginalized, oppressed, and killed in large numbers by Shia militias directly supported by Iran (in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen) and directly supported by the US and Iran (in Iraq). The House of Saud’s cooperation with the US, Iran, and Iraq in its fight against ISIS is perceived as a contributing factor in the Sunni deaths that result from operations in these countries.

The same is true to a lesser extent in Gaza, where Hamas is faced with growing pro-ISIS sentiment, as well as in Egypt in the Sinai, where the ISIS-affiliated State of Sinai continues to grow in power while the Muslim Brotherhood is steadily decimated by President el-Sisi’s forces. This contradiction will only become more severe as Saudi Arabia stands by in the coming weeks as the West upgrades its campaign against ISIS and the death toll of innocent Sunnis rises.

As Sunnis everywhere experience sectarian assaults unfettered by Saudi Arabia, their allegiance to the House of Saud is sure to wane. Faced with a choice (free or otherwise) between ISIS and the House of Saud, it is not difficult to predict who the majority of non-Saudi Arabian Sunnis will ultimately choose, leaving Sunnis inside Saudi Arabia as the only remaining loyalists to the House of Saud. But even there, loyalty to the House of Saud is at risk.

Inside Saudi Arabia, ISIS’s strategy is to perpetrate attacks on Saudi Shias, subsequently forcing the House of Saud to protect or appease them, strengthening ISIS’s rhetorical claim to righteous religiosity. This could also prompt Iran to respond (perhaps by supporting the already emerging Shia militias in Saudi Arabia), further weakening the House of Saud by forcing them to allocate resources to an internal fight with Iranian proxies.

Saudi Sunnis could thereby face a significant physical threat inside their own borders. If ISIS’s current strategy inside Saudi Arabia is successful, Saudi Sunnis are likely to look for an alternative to the House of Saud for leadership and protection, and foment unrest from within the state.

A House of Cards

With the strain on its finances from the oil price trough and its military campaigns abroad, Saudi Arabia is in a weakened condition. The basis of its internal control is its enormous capacity to pay for popular support through the maintenance of a generous welfare state.

The likelihood of increasing economic hardship (25% of the population now lives in poverty, with youth unemployment at 30%) and Shia retribution for ISIS-orchestrated attacks, together with continued cooperation with Iran and the US in the fight against ISIS and the House of Saud’s failure to protect Sunnis in Yemen and Syria, means that the ability of a challenger, such as ISIS, to make a successful bid to displace the leadership role of the House of Saud is high.

Recent reports of discontent and instability within House of Saud itself further enhance the opportunity for a challenger to succeed.

The House of Saud is facing its most trying challenge since its conflict with the Ottomans 200 years ago, and the implications are enormous.

The country will likely go through a bloody transition with conflict amongst Salafi factions, between Salafis and other Sunni groups, and between these groups and Shias. Conflict will continue until one of those groups emerges victorious or, more likely, the country is divided between them.

In the wider region, there will be a dramatic shift in the balance of power towards Iran, which will then have control over Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and possibly a portion of Saudi Arabia. The only remaining regional power able to counter the growing power of Iran will be Turkey, which will demand enormous amounts of financial and material support from the powers interested in in the region’s stability.

Finally, in the meta conflict between the US and Russia, Russia will have won in the battle for influence in the Middle East, and the trillions of dollars the US has sunk into the region will have been for naught.

Of course, the future is uncertain, but what is not uncertain is that the tremors from the ongoing “Salafi Shake-Up” will be felt around the world, and sooner rather than later.

This article was co-authored by Joseph Hamoud, founder and CEO of North Bridge, a monitoring and evaluation consultancy operating inside Syria.

About Author

Dylan Crimmins

Dylan Crimmins was previously a Junior Research Fellow for the NATO Council of Canada and is a specialist in the macro-economy and political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa.