President Barack Obama went out of his way to highlight the key role played by Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, in the air strikes on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) targets inside Syria on 23 September. The US commander-in-chief said the involvement of these countries revealed it was not just America’s fight.

The kingdom, along with Jordan, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, provided logistical and actual support for the US-led strikes to provide broader regional legitimacy for the attacks carried out on targets in the eastern cities of Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, Abu Kamal and Hassakah.

The Saudi leadership’s reticence at playing up its involvement reflects in part the discomfort in Riyadh at being seen to be providing material support to a military effort that could end up bolstering the detested regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Double-edged sword

Although ISIS presents a mortal threat to Saudi regional interests, the kingdom’s backing for Obama’s military campaign is a double-edged sword in domestic terms.

“There are grumblings within the kingdom about the US’ bombing of Isis,” says Frederic Wehrey, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Programme. “There is a perception that the US is empowering the Shia, whether in the form of Al-Assad or Iran.”

There is concern that any vacuum created by its hemming back by air strikes and missile attacks could be filled by Iran. “Isis is being bombed, but you could also argue that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are using their air forces to enableAl- Assad to take out his most credible opponents in Syria, and that narrative is gaining ground in the kingdom,” says Wehrey.

There are strategic dimensions that may have outweighed the kingdom’s arguments against involving itself in an air campaign against the jihadists. For Saudi policymakers, the alternative of doing nothing – and thereby rendering Washington more reliant on Damascus and its backer, Tehran – would be an even worse outcome. At least now, goes the thinking in Riyadh, there is a genuine chance to shape US decision-making, an area in which Saudi leaders have seemed to have little traction in the Obama White House. With Saudi Arabia part of the anti-Isis coalition, it may have a better chance of having the president’s ear.

Risk of retribution

Such high-level diplomatic influences may not count for much with a sceptical Saudi public. The prospect of some form of Isis-related blowback is real enough. Within hours of the air strikes, one Isis fighter informed Reuters that the attacks would be answered. “The sons of Saloul [an abusive term for the House of Saud] were the ones to blame,” he said.

The militant group has made it manifestly clear it has no time for the Saudis, releasing YouTube videos showing its Saudi fighters tearing up their passports and promising to liberate the “Land of the Two Holy Mosques” once their mission in Syria is complete. A menacing Twitter hashtag appeared in late September, translating as “The Islamic State Is on the Saudi Borders”.

There are few Saudis in the senior ranks of Isis. Its main ranks are made up of Iraqis, some of them drawn from the former ranks of Baathist officer corps.

Even so, Riyadh has numerous causes to feel concern about the group’s rapid rise to prominence and, more pertinently, its appeal to a generation of young Muslims.

Direct challenge

Isis’ leaders have repeatedly prodded at Saudi sensitivities, such as in the use of language taken consciously from the 18th century theologian Mohammed Abd al-Wahhab, whose conservative interpretation of Islam is a cornerstone of Saudi religious orthodoxy.

The group’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, has, for example, echoed the words of Wahhabi discourse on monotheism. The underlying message is clear: Isis is directly challenging Saudi Arabia’s religious authority. The Isis caliphate, stretching from Aleppo to Mosul, presents a full frontal assault on the clerical legitimacy of the House of Saud and its claims to be the custodian of the two holy mosques. 

This is a direct challenge to the kingdom’s status at the heart of the Ummah. As such, it cannot go unanswered.

Where at one point the Saudi leadership may have countenanced schadenfreude in seeing Isis run riot through large tracts of Iraq, inflicting humiliating defeats on former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ramshackle army in Mosul in June, any sense of complacency has long since dissipated.  

Isis has risen to the top of the Saudi policy agenda for two reasons, says Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the UK think-tank Chatham House. “First, it is because the movement is a threat in itself,” she says. “Second, there is the sense that this group is somehow linked to Wahhabism and is therefore a risk to Saudi relations with the West.”

The potentially toxic consequences of allowing Isis free rein has been recognised at senior levels, even if there is genuine division within the ranks about whether the jihadists represent a more noxious threat to the kingdom’s interests than Iran does. 

Attack strategy

The dispatch of fighter planes and logistical support of US strikes represent only one strand of Saudi Arabia’s attack strategy on Isis.  There are legal sanctions in force too. Saudi Arabia has put the group on its list of terrorist sponsors, with funding Isis deemed a crime worthy of severe penalties. A number of the group’s supporters and operatives have been arrested.

The Saudi leadership now feels the need for a stronger ideological challenge to the jhadists’ claims to represent Islam’s core principles. The Grand Mufti, Shaikh Abdulaziz al-Shaikh, has described Isis as the pre-eminent threat to the kingdom. The demonisation of the jihadist movement is also witnessed in TV programmes and newspaper articles.

On 8 September, former Saudi ambassador to Washington Nawaf Obaid co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times that took issue with Isis’ claims to religious authority.

Dismissing notions that Saudi Arabia was somehow the source of Isis, Obaid and his co-writer, Saud al-Sarhan, argued convincingly that Saudi Arabia was instead the group’s primary target.

“Isis’ core objective is to restore the caliphate, and because Saudi Arabia is the epicentre of Islam and the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, Isis’ road to the caliphate lies through the kingdom and its monarchy,” they wrote. 

Deviant ideology

The kernel of the former ambassador’s case is that these bloodthirsty militants are not worthy successors to the ancestors of Sunni Islam, but deviants. Isis, said Obaid, follows an ideology that is a continuation of a crude sect known as the Kharijites, or the ones that “deviated” from the Muslim community during the reign of the fourth Caliph Ali. The Kharijites believed that whoever disagreed with them should be murdered as infidels (takfir), rationalised mass killings against civilians, including women and children, and practised an extreme form of inquisition to test their opponents’ faith.

These concepts make Isis’ ideology the absolute opposite of Saudi Salafism, as applied in the kingdom’s courts and religious institutions, and formulated by one of the four leading Muslim jurists, the ninth-century scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Hanbali law, noted Obaid’s op-ed, stands firmly against sedition, shedding of blood and forcible conversion.

In Kinninmont’s view, this argument suggests not only that Isis has nothing to do with Wahhabism, but that its members are also more of a risk than Iran. “Although they are deviants, they are still dangerous in that they can appeal to a larger market – the sizeable Sunni majority in the global Ummah – compared with the Shia minority,” she says.

At the same time, there are many Saudis who argue that the world’s overwhelming focus on Isis – with its beheadings and shock tactics – has diverted attention away from Iran’s continued expansion across large tracts of the Middle East.

Iranian threat

“Iran has an overt presence in Syria and Iraq, and the [Shia] Houthis are causing problems in Yemen,” says Kinninmont. “Many Saudis are saying this is what we should be more worried about.”

There are also institutional differences in the way the Saudis believe the Isis challenge should be tackled. The Interior Ministry, run by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had previously led a successful crackdown on Al-Qaeda operatives in the kingdom, is primarily animated by the potential for terrorist blowback. Yet the minister’s hardline stance towards Isis contrasts somewhat with the position adopted by the powerful General Intelligence Directorate – particularly under Prince Bandar bin Sultan until he was removed in April of this year – which is more preoccupied with countering Iranian influence. 

With Prince Bandar gone, some of the anti-Iranian thrust in Saudi thinking may have been diluted. The recent talks between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif attest to better state-to-state relations between the Middle East’s two main powers.

Brotherhood issue

Rather than pick at the traditional bogeyman of Shia Iran, there is a more sustained focus on the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood; an issue that Riyadh and its allies in Abu Dhabi and Manama believe the West has largely sleepwalked through.

“The more credible threat than Isis – and the one they are really afraid of – is the Brotherhood,” says Wehrey. “They have clerics and could pose an actual threat that could change the political equation inside the kingdom. The Saudi strategy is therefore to try and lump the two currents together and say the Brotherhood is really part of the same project as Isis.”

There are nuances here. The Brotherhood presents more of a long-term challenge to the kingdom than Isis, says Kinninmont. “I would imagine it would come third behind Isis and Iran as a long-term challenge they’ve been worried about for a while, but which for now at least has been contained – and overthrown in Egypt’s case. The UAE is particularly exercised by the Brotherhood and is pulling the Saudis along with them.”

All this underlines the painful reality that Isis is really only one of a stack of serious policy challenges plaguing Saudi decision-makers. The kingdom has multiple enemies, across a range of fronts, of which Isis is only the most visible. Through its impressive military advances and canny use of propaganda, the group has elbowed its way to the top of that list.  

But in a country where policy issues are viewed through a long-term prism – in decades rather than months – the Saudi leadership will not be taking their eyes off the myriad other troublemakers less prominent today than Isis.