When President Obama pledged that regional allies in the Middle East would largely fight on the ground against the Islamic State (ISIS), all eyes quickly shifted to Saudi Arabia, an Iraqi neighbor with a powerful and well-funded military.
Just as the president was speaking, the Saudis announced they would open their military bases to the United States so that it could train moderate Syrian fighters. But if ISIS, which has sophisticated military equipment, an estimated $2 billion in funding and a thriving black market oil trade, is going to be defeated, the Saudis are going to have to do more.
Part of the reason is that the long-time American ally is home to Mecca. ISIS has its sites set on capturing the spiritual home of Islam, posing a threat to the Saudi homeland.
Another reason is that Saudis want to protect their own oil interests. A report from Oilprice.com says securing Saudi oil fields is the group’s ultimate goal.
“ISIS knows that it will only feel secure once Saudi Arabia is part of the Caliphate and its oil fields are under ISIS control, which is why the group has two logical next steps,” the report said. “First, to capture and secure the most important country in the Muslim world: Saudi Arabia…And second, to take on the United States -- the one remaining superpower that could stop its march on the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, and ultimately the rest of the Gulf.”
Saudi Arabia also has an interest in making sure that ISIS extremists don’t pop up there. Its Ministry of the Interior has a tremendous track record of tackling extremism within Saudi borders. In May, the Saudis arrested 62 people affiliated with ISIS. Earlier this month, they arrested an additional 88 people connected with the group.
The Saudis are also taking steps to protect its border with Iraq and Syria. King Abdullah announced late last week that the Saudis would create a 560 mile border fence to bring the "number of infiltrators, drug, arms and cattle smugglers to zero," according to Saudi state media.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Nawaf Obaid, a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Saud al-Sarhan, research director at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, argued that this infrastructure puts the Saudis in the perfect position to crush ISIS.
“Saudi Arabia is the only authority in the region with the power and legitimacy to bring ISIS down. Having effectively eradicated Al Qaeda in the kingdom, the Saudi government, with its experience fighting terrorism, is uniquely positioned to deal with ISIS, which is, after all, an Al Qaeda-aligned organization,” they wrote. “The kingdom has built up an impressive counterterrorism program and its counterterrorism strategies are considered some of the most sophisticated and effective in the world.
Limited Outside of Saudi Arabia
However, the Saudis are limited in their capabilities outside of the homeland. They have an Army, Navy and Air Force, but according to a report in Newsweek, they cannot operate much of their sophisticated equipment without assistance from British and American military advisers. For instance, the Saudis have the third largest fleet of F-15s in the world, but don’t know how to repair them.
The Saudis “have all the good equipment, but their capacity to use it varies,” Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The Fiscal Times.
Henderson added that any expectation of Saudi boots on the ground should be tempered.
“I would fall over backwards if that happens,” he said, referring to the prospect of Saudi troops in Iraq or Syria. “It’s one thing for the Saudis to work with the United States and other countries. It’s another thing for the Saudis to actually go and do favors for us in Iraq or Syria.”
Instead, Henderson predicted that Saudis would use one weapon they have boatloads of: cash. He said he expects them to try to create rifts with ISIS between radical jihadist and tribal groups targeted by the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“This is a cleavage that the Saudis could stick a knife in and widen, probably by supplying arms and suitcases of cash,” Henderson said.
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