Saudi Arabia – ally of the UK and US – is inciting Syria’s civil war

The London Evening Standard - 13 May 2013

As massacre follows massacre in Syria, the civil war there will be a central focus for David Cameron as he meets President Obama in Washington today. Not only have 70,000 died since the start of the fighting in 2011 but the conflict now threatens the stability of the Middle East and the wider world. Yet while concentrating on Assad’s Syria, Cameron and Obama should not underestimate the destructive potential of a country to which they are diplomatically far closer: Saudi Arabia.

The massively wealthy Gulf state is, like its Western allies, a supporter of those who have taken up arms against Assad. The problem is that a proportion of the Saudi money being pumped into Syria along with weapons is going straight to groups with direct links to al Qaeda.

Principal among these highly radicalised Islamist fighters is the Al Nusra Front, which has been accused of crimes against humanity just as heinous as those committed by Assad’s soldiers. Al Nusra, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United Nations, wants to create a pan-Islamic state under sharia law and will stop at nothing to achieve this aim. The Saudis, along with equally rich Gulf allies including Qatar, are using groups such as Al Nusra to fight a war by proxy with Syria and Iran.

This scenario can be simplified as a classic confrontation between Sunni Muslims and Shiite ones. Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia are primarily Sunni, while the Syrian regime is dominated by Alawites, a minority Shiite sect. Shiite Iran is using Syria to transport weapons to its Shiite ally Hezbollah in Lebanon — triggering the ire of Israel, which earlier this month launched air strikes inside Syria aimed at destroying such armaments.

As all these global players compete for geostrategic influence within a complex and often unspoken system of alliances, Syria has become a convenient battlefield — one where the influence of rich, powerful states like Saudi Arabia thrives. And as it funnels the tools of war to Sunni insurgents, the Saudi government can also count on the help of private Saudi citizens who are among the wealthiest in the world.

The billions the Saudis earn from oil production not only help them to assert their interests in almost any sphere — from economic to cultural — but almost guarantee support from compliant allies like Britain and the United States. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s largest trading partner in the Middle East, with bilateral contracts worth more than £15 billion every year. The vast majority of these deals involve arms sales.

Saudi Arabia thus indirectly relies on traditional military nations like Britain and the US for its protection, and such links make it very difficult for leaders like Cameron and Obama to criticise its royal family and their entourage.

Saudi Arabia is not just dominated by Sunnis but is also the main seat of Wahhabi Islam, a fundamentalist interpretation of the religion that it seeks to sponsor around the globe. Thus critics accuse the country of exporting oil-funded Wahhabism and fighting battles in its name by proxy. There is no doubt that this puritanical interpretation of Islam, also referred to as Salafism, is making deep inroads into the Middle East and North Africa, and indeed other parts of the world that are open to Saudi influence, spreading a form of the faith once alien to many Muslim societies.

Egypt is a prime example. Before the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, Saudi Arabia was a firm ally of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, pouring huge sums into upholding his regime. Now the Saudis are funding the High Military Council, a repressive body mainly staffed by former Mubarak lieutenants who yearn for a return to more authoritarian days.

As Egyptians struggle to establish representative democracy amid widespread instability following Mubarak’s ousting, Saudi money is once again a major challenge to progressives. A natural inclination towards religious conservatism has been reflected in elections held in Egypt since the Arab Spring revolt, while Salafis are increasingly visible among the country’s middle and lower classes. There are now up to a dozen Salafist satellite TV channels broadcasting from Egypt, for example — many receiving direct funding from Saudi Arabia.

The fear among Egyptian liberals is that the Salafis’ extreme interpretation of Islam inevitably results in radicalism and jihadism. Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers who flew a plane into the World Trade Center in 2001, worshipped at a Salafi mosque in Cairo, for example, along with al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Still, the Saudi influence in Syria is more immediately deadly than in Egypt. Suicide attacks are now a regular tactic of Syrian rebel groups like Al Nusra in and around Damascus. And as the civil war becomes more desperate by the day, without any sign of a clear victory for either side, the work of well-funded and well-armed jihadist groups is growing.

The danger now is not only to the Syrian people but to the stability of the wider Middle East. For the atrocities are spreading. These possibly include the explosions that killed around 40 people in Turkey on its border with Syria at the weekend. Meanwhile Hezbollah’s statements are increasingly bellicose. There is already strong evidence that its fighters are aiding the Assad regime — prompting fears that Hezbollah is planning renewed strife inside Lebanon.

As Cameron and Obama ponder this increasingly intractable situation, they will be fully aware of the huge influence Saudi Arabia has on Syria, both now and in a post-Assad future. Like all countries trying to find stability in the post-Arab Spring world, Syria is intensely vulnerable to the wiles of this immensely powerful kingdom. If Cameron and Obama are to deal with the situation effectively and honourably, they should set aside their economic and military loyalties to the Saudis and acknowledge the dangers Saudi Arabia poses to a just and lasting peace in Syria.

Nabila Ramdani won the International Media Awards Cutting Edge prize earlier this month.

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