Security Studies Program Seminar
Explaining the Absence of Islamist Revolutionaries in Saudi Arabia
Senior Research Fellow, Norwegian Defense Research Establishment
and Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University
April 7, 2010
- Saudi Arabia has produced many Islamist militants over the years, and has had some terrorism in-country. But little in-country violence has been directed against the government of the state. Hence, numerous predictions of the coming downfall of the Saudi regime have proved wrong. By contrast, numerous Egyptian officials have been killed by Islamist militants. Given its propensity to produce militants, why is there little anti-regime violence in Saudi Arabia?
- The answer to this question is threefold: (1) People have made flawed assumptions about what Islamists want, assuming regime change is always the prominent goal; (2) Saudi militants are more pan-Islamist than revolutionary (they seek to liberate perceived Muslim territory from non-Muslims, more than they seek to topple Arab states); (3) This Saudi Islamist preference for pan-Islamism is attributable to low levels of grievance against the Saudi regime, normative constraints against intra-community violence, and successful government demobilization strategies that co-opt emerging anti-regime elites. In other words, it is inaccurate to assume that all Islamists or jihadists share the same preferences.
- What is the record of organized violence in Saudi Arabia?
- There were eight major episodes of Sunni Islamist violence in Saudi Arabia between 1932 and 2009.
- 1979: Mecca incident – Militants storm the great mosque in Mecca, claiming one of them is a Messianic figure. Not a challenge to the regime.
- 1991: Three attacks on U.S. targets during the Gulf War.
- 1991: A wave of fire-bombings against symbols of moral corruption (video shops, women’s centers).
- 1994: Acid thrown in the face of a police officer in Riyadh.
- 1995: Bombing of U.S. training mission to the Saudi National Guard in Riyadh, carried out by veterans of the Afghanistan and Bosnian conflicts. Often attributed to Al Qaeda, but no concrete forensic evidence.
- 2000-2003: “Alcohol bombings” against Western expatriates. The perpetrators were never identified; Saudi police decided it was the work of alcohol traders, but it was probably the work of Islamists.
- 2002-2003: Assassinations of police officers and judges in the north. These were the first lethal attacks against state targets in the kingdom.
- 2003-2009: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) campaign, which was basically ended by 2006 (the organization was crushed and went to Yemen).
- Overall, Sunni Islamist violence in Saudi Arabia has been (1) low, (2) late (vs. Egypt, Algeria, etc.), and (3) outward-oriented (mostly directed at non-Muslims and Western targets, with anti-regime violence appearing only recently).
- Islamist groups inside Saudi Arabia are also smaller than the Saudi contingents of Islamist groups abroad (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq).
- The logic of anti-regime violence in Saudi Arabia also appears different. Most perpetrators are motivated by proximate concerns (i.e., desire for retribution against repression and police crackdowns).
- What explains this low level of anti-regime violence in Saudi Arabia? We could point to (1) high constraints on anti-regime violence, or (2) low motivation for anti-regime violence among Saudi Islamists.
- The constraints explanation does not hold up empirically.
- Are regime targets less accessible to Saudi Islamists? No; Saudi princes appear in public, while Westerners (the targets they prefer) are few and fortified.
- Does the Saudi government buy off jihadists? There is no hard evidence of this, and the jihadist movement is decentralized anyway.
- Does the Saudi government engage in selective repression, cracking down harder on anti-regime activism than anti-Western activism? There appears to be no systematic difference in repression severity between anti-regime and anti-Western activism; there is also no evidence that jihadists are “learning” to shift to Western targets.
- Instead, low motivation appears to be the best explanation for the low level of anti-regime violence.
- Motivations for Islamist violence in Saudi Arabia are pan-Islamist, not revolutionary. We can make this determination based on their targeting patterns, as well as their discourse.
- AQAP, for example, want to liberate territory from “crusaders,” rank Jews and Christians above Muslims in the enemy hierarchy, fault the Saudi regime primarily for “subordination to the U.S.,” mobilize recruits on the basis of defending Islam, and rationalize attacks against the government based mainly on Saudi repression. All of these traits point to a pan-Islamist orientation rather than a revolutionary one; overthrowing the Saudi state is not a major aim.
- So why is the motivation for revolutionary Islamism so low in Saudi Arabia? Three hypotheses:
- A lack of grievances against the state limits the supply of recruits. Saudi Arabia has decent social mobility and the state is fairly responsive to economic downturns; repression is softer and more discriminate than in the Arab republics. Saudi militants as a population are heterogeneous, with marginalized peripheries and prestigious professions underrepresented. This suggests a lack of systemic grievance against the state.
- Norms against intra-community violence also limit recruit supply (and facilitate repression). Wahhabism emphasizes obedience to the ruler, and Saudi Arabia lacks a revolutionary precedent (no colonization or independence movement). The AQAP shift to anti-regime targeting was accompanied by lower recruitment and increased public disaffection, causing them to “outsource” such attacks to the Haramain Brigades (a fictitious organization created by AQAP to keep its own image clean).
- The regime has developed particularly effective cooptation strategies to demobilize potential revolutionary entrepreneurs. The Saudi state works to co-opt regime critics before they turn violent, by providing positive financial incentives and negative social incentives. For example, when in the early 1990s the Sahwa Movement called for a range of reforms, the Saudi regime tried to mediate with them before moving to repression, then put the dissidents up in “three-star prisons,” and when they got out, provided the dissidents with nice jobs and houses. Likewise for the foreign fighters in the 2000s – they were put in well-appointed prisons and subjected to soft pressure from their families and tribal leaders.
- So why are there so many pan-Islamists?
- The pan-Islamist identity movement had an early home in western Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. The west was a safe haven for pan-Islamists from elsewhere, and had oil money and organizational resources.
- There were low state-imposed constraints on pan-Islamist activism until 2003. Pan-Islamism was declared a pillar of state legitimacy under King Faisal.
- Thus the threats to the Saudi regime are smaller than is often argued. Also, short-term activism is less sensitive to economic conditions in Saudi Arabia and more sensitive to external events.
- Oil is an underlying factor here, alleviating grievances and facilitating cooptation of elites. That means a decline in oil income might increase anti-regime recruits and activities.
Q. Al Qaeda has several goals: (1) remove the infidels from the Arabian peninsula, (2) establish a caliphate, and (3) remove governments that resist (1) and (2). Isn’t the Saudi government one of their targets under (3)?
A. Those goals are not equal in status. The caliphate aim is long-term and has very little predictive value. The proximate, short-term aims are more important – whether groups fight the “near enemy” or the “far enemy.” These are not exclusive categories; all militant Islamists are critical of Arab regimes and hate America. But they differ on where they rank those priorities, and this determines their behavior.
Q. One possible hypothesis to explain the recent increase of anti-regime violence in Saudi Arabia: The Saudi government invested in the pan-Islamist movement. Perhaps people believe that the pan-Islamist movement has not delivered, and perhaps that has led to the slow emergence of revolutionary Islamism?
A. It is hard to say what has caused the recent increase in regime-targeted violence. One reason is simply that the police are coming after AQAP more than before. It is hard to say if that is a measure of waning support for pan-Islamism. But there are many indicators that extreme pan-Islamism, of the kind that advocates attacking American civilians, is decreasing in support and has been since the mid-2000s. This is partly because it is difficult now for pan-Islamists to conduct operations that kill only Westerners; Muslims are often collateral damage. Has this decline in pan-Islamism’s effectiveness been accompanied by more revolutionary activity? To some extent, and certainly in Yemen.
Q. Does the internal “near enemy” vs. “far enemy” debate in these Islamist groups explain the variation in intrastate Saudi violence better than the actions of these groups?
A. Among the groups’ strategists, thinking about targeting is more instrumental – some in Al Qaeda view attacks on Westerners as a way to get to the regime (if you expel the foreigners, the regime will fall). But the fact that Saudi entrepreneurs have concealed these preferences is in itself interesting, because it questions the assumption that all Islamist militant organizations are alike.
Q. Regarding why grievance against the Saudi state is so low, isn’t it because Saudi Arabia is more of an Islamist state than the Arab republics (like Egypt)?
A. The secularism of the Arab republics is clearly an important grievance there, so the Islamist nature of the Saudi state certainly limits the supply of anti-regime recruits.
Q. The most violent actions taken against the Saudi state have originated very close to the ruling elite (i.e., King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew). To what extent are these more Shakespearean disputes worth taking account of, in terms of threats to the Saudi regime?
A. The most important factor in predicting the future of Saudi Arabia is something we know almost nothing about: the internal dynamics of the royal family.
Q. What are the policy implications of your work? It seems that precision in the application of repression is important. Why are the Saudis able to be so precise and discriminate in their repression?
A. Many Saudi state actions are not as transferable as people think, i.e. their demobilization program that emphasizes soft pressure from family and tribe. The importance of family and tribe is not necessarily universal, and this would be an impractical strategy in Guantanamo (or its successor) because the families and tribal leaders cannot be brought in.
Q. What do you make of Saudi Wahhabism? Are they really the good guys here? Or are they the most extremist, xenophobic sect of Islam?
A. Wahhabism is much less important than people have assumed. It does not explain the variation in activism over time or within the population. Non-Wahhabis are actually much more violent than Wahhabis. What we see as the exportation of Wahhabi militants from Saudi Arabia to other states is a measurement error – we are actually seeing the exportation of pan-Islamism. There appears to be a substantial disconnect between what top Wahhabi scholars say and promote and what militant Islamists say and promote. Wahhabi scholars are focused on social conservatism and individual behavior, not international politics.
Rapporteur: Nathan Black
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2010