Saudi security outlook deteriorates

17 June 2015

Isis is just one of several challenges facing Riyadh, as threats grow from potential Houthi and Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on domestic soil

The upsurge in terror attacks over the past year have combined with the January leadership change and subsequent government restructurings, the war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the reemergence of Iran onto the global stage to create an uncertain business environment in Saudi Arabia. Risk analysts say they are receiving increased requests from clients for advice this year, with those based in Jizan particularly concerned following the launch of a scud missile over the border from Yemen on 5 June.

On 12 June, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office amended its foreign travel guidance on Saudi Arabia, advising against all travel to within 10 kilometres of the border with Yemen and against all but essential travel between 10km and 80km of the border. It also recommends great care in all areas close to the Iraqi border and points to a heightened threat from terrorism, with the potential for indiscriminate attacks affecting Western interests and places visited by foreigners, including schools.

Worrying developments

“There has been an incremental increase in the threat to Western interests,” one risk analyst tells MEED. “But if you balance the incidents against the perceived and actual threats and compare it with the 2003 Al-Qaeda campaign and the compound bombings, it is not the same league. They are still worrying developments, however.”

The advice his firm is giving clients is that “doing business in Saudi Arabia is still OK, but you need to be aware of personal security; companies need personal security plans and to brief staff on travel precautions.” But he adds: “We expect things to get worse before they get better. Companies should monitor developments and be situationally aware and take proportional security measures, including seeking professional advice if they haven’t already.”

Attack anticipated

The risk analyst expects to see an attack of significant proportions within the next few months, with government facilities and Shia buildings the prime targets, ahead of large hotels or Western housing compounds. The Saudi Interior Ministry previously said its security forces had been placed on alert following reports of a threat to Aramco oil installations and shopping malls throughout the kingdom. In March, the US shut its embassy in Riyadh for two days amid heightened security concerns saying Western oil workers risked being attacked or kidnapped by terrorist groups.

It has been widely reported that the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) has its sights set on Saudi Arabia as the site of Islam’s two holiest places, and some fear the group might attempt to breach the kingdom’s borders. The risk analyst dismisses this concern and says the direct physical threat is less of a worry than the ideological threat from Isis. “The government is worried how Isis’ ideology resonates with Saudi state religion and large sections of the population,” he says. This could inspire more lone wolf attacks of the type seen in the past 12 months or the development of a larger local franchise of Isis.

Multiple challenges

The jihadist group is just one of several challenges being battled by Riyadh along with containing the threat of attacks on Saudi soil by Yemen’s Houthis, monitoring the potential for a regrouping of Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, and preventing further outbreaks of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. Following the January leadership change, there is also the potential for a power struggle further down the line. Each of these adds to the risk profile for companies doing or looking to do business in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia does have a good track record in dealing with domestic terror threats, however. The government successfully dismantled Al-Qaeda after the attacks of 2003 and a wave of arrests were conducted in May, which saw nearly 100 alleged Isis sympathisers apprehended. “The internal security mechanisms have gone up a gear due to the perceived threat,” says the risk analyst.

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