By Toby Matthiesen is a senior research fellow in the international relations of the Middle East at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is the author of “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t” and “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism.” Originally posted on the NYT.
One of the key contradictions of Western foreign policy toward the Middle East is the strong alliance with Saudi Arabia. With its vast oil resources and its strategic location between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, staunchly anticommunist Saudi Arabia became a key Western ally during the Cold War.
This alliance with the West and the influx of enormous oil revenues since the 1970s have allowed Saudi Arabia to export its brand of Sunni Islam, named Wahhabism after its founder Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, encouraging the homogenization of Islamic practices around the world after the model of the Wahhabiya. Known for its rejection of pre-Islamic history, visitation of tombs, the mixing of men and women, its zeal to purify Islam from allegedly deviant practices (such as Sufism and Shiism) and its disdain for other religions, the Wahhabiya was a puritan movement that gave religious legitimacy to the conquests of the Al Saud.
The United States teamed up with Saudi Arabia to undermine the Soviet Union in 1980s Afghanistan. This cooperation with radical Islam was to have disastrous consequences and the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS is an outcome of this pairing of an alluring ideology with the resources of an oil-rich state allied to a global superpower.
The spread of extremist Islamist ideology is then as much a result of Western foreign policy as of Saudi machinations. Western and Gulf support for the rebels in Syria followed a similar path as the one observed in Afghanistan, before ISIS started to turn against the West and the Gulf states. But it is no coincidence that ISIS is adopting Saudi religious textbooks in its schools, killing Shia in Saudi Arabia just like the early Wahhabi zealots wanted to, and generally garnering much support on a popular level in the kingdom.
The West’s strong alliance with the Saudi ruling family has not led to a moderation of the country’s religious policies. But in the recruitment strategy of ISIS it makes it much easier to describe Middle Eastern monarchies as puppets.
The key ideological difference between ISIS and the early Saudi-Wahhabi movement is that the Islamic State wants to establish a caliphate, and regards monarchy as an un-Islamic form of government. Frightened by this challenge, which the Gulf states helped to create, Saudi Arabia has reaffirmed its alliance with the conservative Wahhabi religious forces in the country.
But in ISIS, Saudi Arabia now has a foe that is so close to its own religious interpretation of Islam, that Saudi Arabia can not be seen to be fighting ISIS very strongly because it would undermine its authority at home. And so the West’s support for Middle East dictatorships continues to fuel the flames that have given rise to Al Qaeda and ISIS, despite a growing awareness that these alliances are a double-edged sword.