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Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who are the Islamists?
Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who are the Islamists?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course
Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course
Report 31 / Middle East & North Africa

Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who are the Islamists?

Saudi Arabia is at a critical stage in both its struggle against terrorism and its on-again, off-again efforts at reform, and Islamism is at the heart of both.

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Executive Summary

Saudi Arabia is at a critical stage in both its struggle against terrorism and its on-again, off-again efforts at reform, and Islamism is at the heart of both. The success or failure of the moderate Islamists in providing social, religious and political responses to the country's predicament will, probably as much as anything, determine the ultimate fate of their radical rivals.[fn]In the usage adopted by ICG, "Islamism" is Islam in political rather than religious mode. "Islamist movements" are those with Islamic ideological references pursuing primarily political objectives, and "Islamist" and "Islamic political" are essentially synonymous. "Islamic" is a more general expression, usually referring to Islam in religious rather than political mode but capable, depending on the context, of embracing both.Hide Footnote

On the evening of 15 March 2004, Saudi security forces killed Khalid al-Hajj, the alleged leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and a coordinator of the violent campaign that began in May 2003. The following morning, the police arrested eleven prominent reformist intellectuals, including several Islamists who had been pressing for political reform and trying to establish an independent human rights organisation. Together, these events capture the two faces of Islamism in contemporary Saudi Arabia: a militant, violent one bent on destabilising the Kingdom and forcing its foreign backers to flee, and a moderate, progressive one, intent on promoting political, social and religious reform. While the former has grabbed most headlines, the latter holds the greater potential for reshaping the Kingdom.

In an earlier report on how Saudi Arabia approaches the reform issue, ICG concluded:

Dealing with longer-term challenges and keeping violent opposition marginal requires repair to a legitimacy that has been severely battered by the closed and arbitrary nature of the political system, the concentrated power and wealth of the royal family, and the record of financial corruption and profligacy of many of its members. This necessitates broadening political space, giving more citizens a voice and a stake in the system, allowing them to organise freely, strengthening political institutions, creating a sense of accountability and cracking down on corruption.[fn]ICG Middle East Report N°28, Can Saudi Arabia Reform Itself?, 14 July 2004, p. ii. The recommendations from that report are reproduced in Appendix B below.Hide Footnote

The findings of this briefing, which examines the genealogy of Saudi Arabia's various Islamist groupings and is based on dozens of interviews in the country between March and May 2004, strongly support that conclusion.

Beneath the all-encompassing Wahhabi influence, Saudi Islamism developed over several decades a wide variety of strains. These included radical preachers, who condemned what they considered the regime's deviation from the principles of Islam and its submission to the U.S.; social reformers, convinced of the need to modernise educational and religious practices and challenging the puritan strand of Islam that dominates the Kingdom; political reformers, who gave priority to such issues as popular participation, institution-building, constitutionalisation of the monarchy, and elections; and jihadist activists, for the most part formed in Afghanistan and who gradually brought their violent struggle against Western -- in particular U.S. -- influence to their homeland.

By the late 1990s, the Islamist field was increasingly polarised between two principal strands. Among the so-called new Islamists, political reformers sought to form the broadest possible centrist coalition, cutting across religious and intellectual lines and encompassing progressive Sunni Islamists, liberals, and Shiites. More recently, they have sought to include as well elements of the more conservative but highly popular sahwa, the group of shaykhs, professors and Islamic students that had come to prominence a decade earlier by denouncing the state's failure to conform to Islamic values, widespread corruption, and subservience to the U.S. Through petitions to Crown Prince Abdallah -- the Kingdom's de facto ruler - they formulated demands for political and social liberalisation. Their surprising ability to coalesce a diverse group prompted the government -- which initially had been conciliatory -- to signal by the arrests cited above that there were limits to its tolerance.

The other, jihadi, face of Saudi Islamism has manifested itself most prominently since early 2003, when a network of hardened militant Islamists operating under the name of "Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula" (QAP) began a violent campaign targeting Western and in particular U.S. interests. Large-scale terrorist operations and lower-level violence against Westerners have undermined the traditional sense of personal security among expatriate workers, prompting an unknown number to depart. In the process, militants have been drawn into a full-blown confrontation with the government and its security forces. While its ultimate outcome is unclear, there are strong indications the government has gained the upper hand; despite highly visible attacks in May and June 2004, the militants appear to have suffered significant setbacks that leave them both operationally weaker and politically marginalised. Their remaining core of fighters may well retain the ability to exploit weaknesses in Saudi security and counterterrorism capability, but they have not come close to triggering a broader Islamist insurrection or threatening regime stability.

But victory over the QAP would not mean the defeat of violent Islamism, which feeds on political, social and economic dissatisfaction that preceded the rise of that group and will undoubtedly outlive it. Ferment within the Islamist arena, growing strength of a progressive, reformist outlook and the deepening rift between violent and non-violent activists present an important opportunity to address these underlying sources of anger.

In order not to lose that opportunity, the regime should:

  • build bridges to the centrist coalition, allowing progressive Islamists to express their views more openly, including on national television and radio;
  • release promptly the reformers arrested in the March 2004 crackdown;
  • continue the National Dialogues, initiated in 2003, enlarge them to embrace a greater number of reformist Islamists, and start a serious discussion over a gradual political opening leading to a constitutional monarchy, including expansion of the powers of the appointed consultative council (majlis); and
  • combine such political steps with a sustained effort to fight corruption, poverty and exclusion (especially in peripheral, under-developed regions such as Asir) as the best guarantee against violence and for long-term stability.

Amman/Riyadh/Brussels, 21 September 2004

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) breaks away from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) after an underway replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean Sea in this 29 April 2019. U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge

Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course

A series of escalations in both word and deed have raised fears of U.S.-Iranian military confrontation, either direct or by proxy. It is urgent that cooler heads prevail – in European capitals as in Tehran and Washington – to head off the threat of a disastrous war.

For the past year, relations between the U.S. and Iran have brought to mind a slow-motion train wreck. Of late, the pace has dangerously accelerated, and tensions could soon lead to a catastrophic collision. A crash is not inevitable, but it could well occur – deliberately or as a product of miscalculation – unless both parties and outside actors take urgent steps to slow way down or switch to another track.

On 12 May, four oil tankers off the coast of Fujaira, a port in the United Arab Emirates on the Gulf of Oman, were hit by apparent sabotage. Two days later, drones attacked two oil pumping stations along the East-West pipeline in Saudi Arabia between the capital Riyadh and the port city of Yanbu. These two separate events may or may not be linked, may or may not involve Iran, and may or may not provoke a response. But, coming against a backdrop of significant escalation between Washington and Tehran, they represent ominous warning signs.

In the past few weeks, the Trump administration has doubled down on its efforts to strangle Iran’s economy. Not content with having unilaterally withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal, it is now pushing to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. It has designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation. It has also started to flex its military muscle by deploying warships, bomber jets and missile defence batteries to the Middle East to counter unspecified “Iranian threats”.

Tehran has not remained passive. It has labelled U.S. forces in the region as terrorists; downgraded its compliance with the nuclear deal, warning of further steps unless the deal’s remaining parties deliver tangible economic benefits; threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for the global oil and gas trade; and pledged to retaliate against any attack upon its assets or interests. Without offering proof, U.S. officials claim that Iran has also given licence to its regional proxies to target U.S. interests, suggesting that such an attack could occur in Iraq or one of the Gulf monarchies allied to Washington. In a worrying move, on 15 May it ordered the departure of non-essential U.S. personnel from Iraq.

Escalation comes easily; de-escalation is a much taller order, especially in the absence of direct channels of communication that can pre-empt misunderstandings or miscalculations.

All this ratcheting-up of tension was entirely predictable, and most of it is entirely provoked by the U.S. With Iran having increasingly less to lose as a result of U.S. sanctions, which are eating away at its already weak economy, it was virtually bound to become less risk-averse in the nuclear realm and more aggressive in the region. For months now, the more hardline elements of the Islamic Republic have been urging the leadership to impose a cost on the U.S. in order to deter it from stepping up sanctions and to show that, if the U.S. could hurt Iran, so too could Tehran wound Washington.

Click here to browse the Iran-U.S. Trigger List, our interactive map and early warning tool tracking flashpoints between the two countries. 

Perhaps these actions are a prelude to negotiations: the U.S. is exerting “maximum pressure”, it says, to bring a more compliant Iran back to the table; in like manner, should Tehran conclude that it has no choice but to reach a new deal with Washington in order to relieve unsustainable economic strain, it will want to enter such talks with a stronger hand. Resuming its nuclear activities, making its presence felt in the region, and disrupting Saudi or Emirati oil exports could all be ways of enhancing its bargaining power. But if these manoeuvres are a diplomatic game, it is a dangerous one: either side could misinterpret the other’s intentions. Any Iranian move could easily lead to U.S. and/or Israeli strikes which, in turn, could lead to an Iranian counter-response. Or vice versa. Escalation comes easily; de-escalation is a much taller order, especially in the absence of direct channels of communication that can pre-empt misunderstandings or miscalculations.

In short, whether or not Tehran was directly or indirectly behind the recent attacks (the Huthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks in Saudi Arabia; the earlier offshore incident has gone unclaimed; Iran has denied any connection to the incidents and called for an investigation), and whether or not Washington is manufacturing accusations to justify a spike in military activity, all the ingredients for an escalation are present. Even assuming that neither side seeks war, growing friction at all the flashpoints between the two sides (see our Trigger List early-warning platform) mean that intentions may not suffice to prevent it. The consequences could be calamitous for states and peoples in the immediate region, but also for the international economy, given its high dependence on the free flow of oil from the Gulf.

Iran should reciprocate by returning into full compliance with the nuclear deal.

It is not too late to avert this outcome. Key to de-escalation will be the ability of the remaining parties to the nuclear deal to give Iran an economic reprieve. In particular, Europe could shed its reluctance to indirectly import Iranian oil in partnership with Russia and China. If Russia swaps oil with Iran and China continues to import Iranian crude, the transactions would generate credit that the parties could inject into Europe’s special purpose financial vehicle (Instex), allowing Iran to engage in trade with these countries without access to the U.S.- dominated global financial system. These countries could also provide Iran with development aid to repair and renew its infrastructure. With Europe demonstrating willingness to go the extra mile, Iran should reciprocate by returning into full compliance with the nuclear deal. It also should exhibit restraint on the regional front and refrain from steps – direct or taken through partners – that could provoke its foes.

As for President Donald Trump, he faces a choice. Everything about his 2016 presidential campaign pointed in the direction of avoiding another costly and unnecessary military entanglement in the Middle East. So, too, does much about the vows he has made to his constituency since entering office. But everything about his administration’s policy toward Iran points in a strikingly different direction: toward war, by design or mistake. He says he wants the U.S. and Iran to talk. Yet he should know that the Islamic Republic will not start a dialogue if it feels it has a gun to its head; it will respond to perceived aggression in like manner, and that response could in turn engender an uncontrollable downward spiral. A back-channel dialogue eventually may be possible, but for that the U.S. ought to tone down its rhetoric and offer the Iranian leadership an off-ramp, for example by signalling its preparedness to put aside its maximalist demands and to find a mutually acceptable compromise.

President Trump might think that time is on his side, as sanctions continue to take their toll on the Iranian economy. But the wait-and-see period may have reached the end of its natural life. A crisis that he may not want but that some of his advisers may not mind lies just around the corner. It is past time for cooler heads to prevail and for all to move decisively to take the trains off collision course.