Which Is Worse for Saudi Arabia, ISIS or Maliki?

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by Thomas Lippman

Has King Abdullah backed away from his longstanding refusal to have anything to do with an Iraqi government that includes Nouri al-Maliki? Reporters who were in Jeddah when Abdullah met with Secretary of State John F. Kerry Friday seemed to think so, based on a background briefing by the ubiquitous “senior official.”

Abdullah reportedly said that he would urge Iraq’s Sunni Muslims to join a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad to help save the country from itself by fending off the radical Sunni Muslim forces known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. These militants have overrun much of northern Iraq and are marching toward the capital. According to the senior official, Abdullah did not specifically say that any new government would have to exclude Maliki, whom he loathes and mistrusts, an apparent softening of his adamant position.

“It was clear,” the senior official told reporters after the Kerry-Abdullah meeting, “that the two shared a view that all of Iraq’s community should be participating on an urgent basis in the political process to allow it to move forward and that each—both the Secretary and King Abdullah in their conversations with Iraqi leaders—would convey that message directly to them.”

That could signal a willingness to recognize a new government headed by Maliki, but it could also mean the opposite – since Maliki is unlikely to be able to form a government that would have substantial Sunni representation, what Abdullah really wants is a government headed by someone else.

There is no doubt that the Saudi leadership regards ISIS as a threat to regional stability and a menace to themselves, but the king has long believed that Maliki is the cause of the problem in Iraq and cannot be part of the solution. In his view, Maliki is an Iranian agent whose exclusion of Sunni Muslims from positions of power is what motivates the ISIS rebels. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, restated that view the day before Kerry met the king.

“Maliki is the one to blame,” he said, according to the Saudi Press Agency, because he “stirred up the sectarian fight” and encouraged sectarian militias to fight each other.

Prince Saud himself met with Kerry on Friday, along with the foreign ministers of Jordan and United Arab Emirates, and gave no indication that King Abdullah was reconsidering his position. On the contrary, a “senior official” told reporters, the Saudi position was “exactly” the same as what the kingdom has said publicly, which is that Maliki must go. “They talked about their concerns about the lack of inclusivity of the current leadership. That’s obviously a reference to Maliki, so…”

Because Saudi Arabia has supported a Sunni insurgency against the Iran-supported government in Syria, many analysts in the Gulf of suspect Saudi Arabia of also encouraging the ISIS uprising in Iraq. In both countries, Saudi Arabia would gain through the downfall of regimes aligned with Riyadh’s arch-rival, Iran, a Shiite state that supports Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. King Abdullah’s belief that Maliki is an Iranian agent can only be reinforced by news reports this weekend that Iran is preparing to return to Iraq warplanes that it had refused to give back after defecting Iraqi pilots flew them there during the 1991 Gulf war.

Saudi Arabia has a nominal ambassador to the Maliki government, but he lives in Amman; the kingdom does not have an embassy in Baghdad, has offered no economic or military support to the Maliki government, and has not encouraged Saudis to do business in Iraq. Iraq does have an embassy in Riyadh.  Diplomats who have served there say King Abdullah’s senior advisers all recognize that his refusal to engage with Iraq has been counter-productive because it has left the field of influence to Iran, but they have been unable to persuade the king to soften his position. He believes that Maliki lied to him when he pledged, upon taking office eight years ago, to run an inclusive government that would give a sense of dignity and responsibility to Iraq’s formerly dominant Sunnis, whose power vaporized with the fall of Saddam Hussein and the U.S.-orchestrated purge that followed.

The question facing King Abdullah now is whether the ISIS threat is sufficiently dangerous to Saudi Arabia to persuade him to accept a new Baghdad government run by Maliki, and cooperate with it – and possibly with Iran directly – to thwart the rebellion and preserve the unity of the Iraqi state.

The militias grouped under the ISIS name are ruthless, well-financed, and now quite well armed with U.S.-made weapons seized from the fleeing Iraqi army. Even so, they present no direct military threat to Saudi Arabia, which is not their primary target. What Riyadh fears is that radical jihadists, Saudi and otherwise, who have joined ISIS’s ranks will infiltrate Saudi Arabia and attempt to destabilize the kingdom through terrorism and guerrilla attacks. The Saudis, like the ISIS fighters, are Sunni Muslims, but to the extent that ISIS has an ideology it derives from that of al-Qaeda, which originated as a Saudi movement dedicated to bringing down the al-Saud monarchy.

On Thursday, King Abdullah ordered Saudi security forces to take “necessary measures” to defend the kingdom against ISIS. Whether “necessary measures” might mean acceptance of Nouri al-Maliki’s role on Iraq is not yet clear.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on June 27, 2014.  Credit: State Department photo/ Public Domain

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Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.

3 Comments

  1. Maliki is toast. Even his own Shiite clerics recognize he has lost all credibility in being able to build a unity government, but like so many other strongman types in the Middle East’s history, he’s going to hang on no matter what, even if it means dragging his own country and people down into a sectarian civil war. The one thing keeping him afloat right now is Iran’s committed support for him as they flood weapons and fighters, including Quds Force into the country to hold off Sunni insurgents. The question is whether or not Iran is willing to go all the way to keep him in office even at the cost of spawning another Syria on its doorstep.

  2. It would be worded differently: Which is worse for Saudi Arabia, Shias or Salafists?

    It is the first time that Saudi Arabia is confronted by a powerful military group of it own creed.
    ISIS is wahhabi+ and has a lot of support, both financially and ideologically within Saudi Arabia.

    While Saudi Arabia blames Al Maliki or Bashar Al Assad for the resurgence of Al Qaeda morphed into ISIS, it is clear to everybody that Saudi Arabia has been breeding terrorists for decades. Only recently, the two kamikazes that blew themselves up in Beirut last week are Saudis in their 20’s. All the 9/11 kamikazes were Saudis. There is obviously something unhealthy in the Saudi education system that brings young Saudis to become martyrs for Islam outside their country .

    With the growth of ISIS in the region, Saudi Arabia now fears that any crackdown on the numerous supporters of ISIS in Saudi Arabia will antagonize ISIS further and it may escalate the terrorist acts within Saudi Arabia. Yet failure to stop the funding of ISIS by its own citizens will allow ISIS to grow and threaten Saudi Arabia even more. Saudi Arabia is in a bind and feel weak especially that their USA defense accord does not include terrorists acts within the kingdom.

    To counter the home-terrorism , Saudi Arabia has not choice than turn to Syria and Iraq’s intelligence. A continuous antagonism toward these two countries can only encourage extremists.Therefore Saudi Arabia needs to mend its relation with these foes very quickly. As it has offered support to Egypt to crush the Moslem Brotherhood, it will soon offer help to Iraq ( and more discreetly to Syria) to crush ISIS.

    My opinion is that like the USA and Western calls for Bashar al Assad’ resignation have failed, so the calls for Al Maiki to step down . Not only Saudi Arabia will allow Al Maliki to stay in power but they’ll give him support in the fight against ISIS in exchange for including some key Sunnis in his government.

  3. Why is it that some of the pundits proclaim that the Saudis are against the various groups that have received financial support from them, the Saudis? Perhaps it because of the koolaid offered? Under the present governments involved in this fiasco, failure again is leading the show. There are just way too many cooks stirring the pot.

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