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Hesitant warriors

September 11, 2014 at 5:00 pm

President Obama addressed his nation on 10 September and announced a widening attack on the Islamic State. In a sombre speech Mr Obama said: “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

But to the question “what country is most threatened by the meteoric rise of the Islamic State?” the answer is surely not the United States.

Indeed it is Saudi Arabia who can be said to have the most to fear from a rampant jihadist insurgency that uses for its murderous justification Islam and the Holy Quran.

And should IS decide to drive south from Iraq in a bid to capture Islam’s holiest sites of Makkah and Medina, how well would the Saudi military cope on their own?

Many western military analysts would argue not well at all. The most recent test of their mettle, that of rolling down the causeway into neighbouring Bahrain to help crush a popular uprising against the ruling al Khalifas, was little more than a policing exercise. Saudi and other GCC forces guarded key installations while Bahrain’s own security forces ruthlessly broke the back of a largely peaceful protest.

Aside from skirmishes against Yemeni Houthi tribesmen in 2009 and a tepid effort against Saddam Hussein in 1991 ( as one observer who was embedded with Saudi forces put it recently “once they crossed the border into Iraq, they sat down and had a smoke. That was pretty much their war effort on the ground”) the Saudis have no battlefield experience whatsoever.

That may be one reason why Saudi’s King Abdullah has appeared hesitant to act while at the same time urging the United States and other western countries to take up the cudgel against IS.

“If we ignore them, I am sure they will reach Europe in a month and America in another month,” the 90 year old monarch commented on 30 August.

“Terrorism knows no border and its danger could affect several countries outside the Middle East,” he added, in case anyone was missing his point.

So a warning to the west, scarcely veiled, to do something now or face the awful consequences.

But one could well argue that it was the Saudis and their GCC colleagues who are the ones who have persistently ignored the growing threat of IS.

Indeed there are those who say that Saudi Arabia, in arming up Islamist forces in Syria and allowing its clerics until recently to encourage young Saudis to fight jihad against the Assad regime, has unwittingly or otherwise, rather like Dr Frankenstein, created a monster that is coming back to haunt the kingdom.

Those same critics will point to similarities between the austere Salafist version of Islam that Saudi Arabia practices and the ruthless ideology of the Islamic State.

The crude enforcement of Sharia law by the jihadists, the beheadings, the crucifixions, the treatment of women in towns captured by IS all have a resonance with what happens in Saudi Arabia.

In the kingdom sharia courts routinely sentence people to public beheadings, raped women are give the lash while their assailants go free and in at least one case in 2013 a convicted robber was sentenced to death by crucifixion.

Critics will also wonder how rigorously the authorities are policing individual donations from wealthy Saudis that may wind up in the hands of IS. (After 9/11 the Saudis at the behest of the United States introduced stiff new regulations and supposedly stringent oversight to prevent the flow of money to terrorists.)

And others are asking why the Saudis and the other GCC countries, instead of making vague promises and uttering grim warnings to the west, are not themselves leading the assault on the jihadists.

After all they have over the years purchased the most sophisticated military hardware that the world’s arms suppliers have to offer, including F-16 fighter jets that could be used to degrade and destroy IS supply lines.

So why not step up to the plate and challenge the Islamic State head on?

Perhaps they are worried that their armies and their airforces are simply not up to the task.

And it may well be true as some analysts have argued that the Saudis remain more concerned about the existential threat of Iran than they do about the fire blazing next door.

But there may be a deeper reason – the many Saudis who have quietly saluted the stunning advances into an Iraq they see as Shia dominated.

Certainly when Mosul fell Saudi and other Gulf social media was awash with praise for IS.

That may have tapered off but in a society whose education system has taught for decades that Shia are apostates deserving of death, it is perhaps unsurprising that those who gleefully behead the “unbelievers” are seen not as the psychopathic murderers they really are but as jihadist heroes.

So while Barack Obama is being attacked by rightwing commentators in the United States for vacillation in the face of danger spare a thought for the Gulf’s own hesitate warriors who seem to want others to do their fighting for them while blithely ignoring that the stunning rise of the Islamic State is a problem much of the Gulf’s own making.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.