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Saudi Arabia: U.S. Ally or Enemy in the Fight Against ISIS?

Riyadh has played a dubious role in combating the Islamic State and their partners.

September 13, 2014

Credit: U.S. Dept. of State

The lynchpin of American efforts to mount a challenge to the Islamic State, which occupies vast chunks of land in Syria and Iraq, is Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh has agreed to host training bases for vetted Syrian rebels who oppose the Islamic State. But until the United States decided to up the ante against the Islamic State after the barbaric videotaped beheadings of American journalists, the Saudis had shown no compunction in aiding hardcore Sunni Islamist rebels in Syria against the Shiite president Bashar al-Assad.

It may be true that the Islamic State (previously known as ISIS), in particular, was not a beneficiary of the official largesse of the Saudi government, but private sheikhs related to the Saudi royal family have been instrumental in raising funds for jihadists of all hues in Syria and Iraq since 2012.

Hatred for Shiite rulers like Assad and former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki is deeply ingrained in the Wahhabi faith enunciated by the Saudi government. Suppression of Shiites as apostates is central to the official Saudi theocratic doctrine.

After Saudi Arabia harshly oppressed its own Shiite minorities and deployed its military to crush Shiite uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen, to believe that Riyadh is now going to assist the United States in its mission to wipe out Sunni jihadism in the region would be naive.

Even if the Saudis help obliterate the Islamic State, they are already knee-deep in nurturing non-al-Qaeda and non-IS Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq who detest Shiites.

Reports that Riyadh will pump millions of dollars to raise a fresh Sunni outfit called Jaysh-al-Islam with Pakistani assistance do not bode well for the sectarian harmony and unity that is required if the Islamic State and its ilk are to be truly vanquished.

The House of Saud may go along with the U.S. to diminish the Islamic State to score brownie points in Washington, but it is sure to retain other jihadist levers in Syria and Iraq to keep its regional bugbear, Shiite Iran, in check. And Tehran would reciprocate Saudi shenanigans by stoking Shiite fundamentalism as a counterbalancing factor.


The lynchpin of US efforts to a challenge to the Islamic State is Saudi Arabia.

Private sheikhs related to the Saudi royal family have been instrumental in raising funds for jihadists of all hues.