On 21 Thursday 2016, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with United States Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Washington, DC in order to discuss further cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL, IS, and Daesh). The two officials thanked one another for their continued support in combating the extremist group’s rise in the region. Secretary Carter emphasized the “enduring relationship” between the US and Saudi Arabia, promising it would remain strong as the kingdom increases support for the US-led military campaign.
Several days later, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, traveled to Abu Dhabi and Jeddah for follow-up meetings with Emirati and Saudi officials. McGurk reportedly aimed to discuss military and humanitarian operations in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which is currently occupied by ISIS forces. At the meeting, Saudi officials reaffirmed their commitment to defeating ISIS and other violent extremist groups. Additionally, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef referred to Saudi Arabia as, “a front runner in the fight against terrorism.”
While Saudi Arabia’s commitment to fighting ISIS is welcome, both princes’ promises come at a time when the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen may actually be strengthening terror groups and fueling extremism. Reports indicate that the intervention has achieved few of its objectives, contributing instead to the re-emergence of groups like al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). Yemen expert Ludovico Carlino has argued that this outcome was predictable: “Both the Islamic State and AQAP were expected to try to exploit Yemen’s security vacuum to increase their security capabilities.” Moreover, Carlino suggests that ISIS’ rise in the country “is likely to lead to greater competition among jihadists in Yemen.” ISIS demonstrated its growing power in the country this past May when it carried out an attack that left at least 40 Yemeni soldiers dead.
Simultaneously, the Saudi-led coalition has exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian crisis by conducting indiscriminate air strikes in apparent violation of the laws of war. In January 2016, the UN found that Saudi forces may be intentionally targeting noncombatants, and as many as 3,000 civilians have died since the beginning of the air campaign. Saudi missile strikes have led to the destruction of schools and hospitals, as well as the breakdown of critical networks used to bring food, water, and other humanitarian supplies to the region.
A large part of the “enduring relationship,” between Saudi Arabia and the US described by Secretary Carter can be seen in the latter’s support for the intervention in Yemen. Although not directly participating in the operations, the US has contributed by providing military intelligence, fuel tankers, and munitions. In November 2015, the United States approved a $1.29 billion sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia, many of which were marked for use in Yemen. Observers have found that these links to the Saudi-led coalition have resulted in increased anti-American sentiment in the country.
Lawmakers in the US have also raised concerns that Saudi Arabia’s actions, as well as American support, have allowed for the expansion of groups like ISIS and AQAP. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy said of US support for the Saudi intervention, “our actions in Yemen are not only distracting us from the fight against terrorism, but aiding the very groups that are intent on attacking us.” He later added, “The resulting chaos has allowed for al-Qaeda to vastly expand the territory and infrastructure under its control, and provided an opening for the rise of ISIS.”
In addition to the coalition’s campaign in Yemen, the Saudi government continues to take repressive measures against its own citizens, undermining domestic stability and potentially fostering extremism. In 2015, Saudi Arabia executed 158 people, largely for non-violent offenses. In early 2016, Saudi authorities fueled regional tensions by executing prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an activist that campaigned against discrimination in the kingdom’s predominantly-Shia Eastern Province, as well as for cross-sectarian unity.
The Saudi government has also spent at least $100 billion spreading the strict, state-sponsored interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. Journalist Ben Norton notes that some tenets of Wahhabism are markedly similar to those of extremist ideologies propagated by groups like ISIS, and that Saudi proselytization efforts often target “poor Muslim countries where uneducated, indigent people are more susceptible to it.” Of the relationship between Wahhabism and ISIS, he goes on to argue that “even if Saudi Arabia does not directly support or fund ISIS…Saudi Arabia gives legitimacy to the extremist ideologies ISIS preaches.”
As it works to deepen its military relationship with Saudi Arabia, the US is also striking similar arms deals with the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states that have reaffirmed their commitment to the anti-ISIS coalition, such as the United Arab Emirates. While Special Envoy McGurk was discussing humanitarian projects for Mosul during his visit to Abu Dhabi, the State Department approved a $785 million weapons deal to the UAE. The Emirati government did not indicate how it intended to use the weaponry, which includes guided bombs and munitions kits, but the UAE have been a core member of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since it began operations in 2015. Although Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash recently claimed that the Emirati forces would be withdrawing from Yemen, he quickly retracted his comments and the Emirati military has shown few signs of curbing its activity in the country. Like their Saudi allies, Emirati forces stand accused of multiple human rights and international humanitarian law violations, particularly in South Yemen. Local reports accuse Emirati soldiers of conducting arbitrary arrests in the areas under their control, and the UAE is alleged to run several secret prisons in Yemen where individuals are tortured and forced to sign false confessions.
Although the commitments of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to combat ISIS may represent positive steps toward reducing violent extremism in the region, it is important to recognize that the their actions have simultaneously contributed to the conditions that allow such groups to flourish. In order to truly demonstrate their intent to address the root causes of terrorism and instability, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE must stop perpetrating human rights violations against the people of Yemen, as well as their own citizens. Similarly, the US must consider the counterproductive repercussions of its support for the Saudi-led intervention on its wider goals in the region; ultimately, it must reassess its security assistance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE until they significantly reform both their military and domestic security forces.