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Introduction to the topic
Since the beginning of a series of democratic protests, revolutions, and uprisings throughout North Africa and the Middle East in the spring of 2011, the political atmosphere in this region took on an entirely different turn. The movement that was later named the Arab Spring changed the mode of political life in the Arab world in general and in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, in particular.
Moreover, it is also important to point out the fact that the atmosphere of riots and uprisings not only forced the reaction from the governments and leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states but also became a catalyzing agent of the multi-faceted political agenda in the region. In particular, during the Arab Spring and intermediately afterward, a lot of new forces appeared at the political scene of Arab countries, and the social and political dynamics in many of the Arab states changed quite drastically. One of the aspects that today should be assessed under a different angle is the incentives, strategies, and practical evidence of the War on Terror in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Toby Matthiesen in his article A “Saudi Spring”?: The Shi’a Protest Movement in the Eastern Province 2011–2012 supports the idea that the Arab Spring triggered a reconsideration of the role of Arab states in the global political arena because the movement came as a surprise for both policy-makers and scholars researching Middle East (Matthiesen 628). According to Matthiesen, in the context of general political turmoil, the War on Terror became indivisible from the governmental repressions and violent protests.
On the other hand, the states, in which the ruling dynasties and authoritative leaders managed to preserve their political regimes, need to be viewed from the strategic point of view, as allies in the War on Terror (Hegghammer 5). However, it is also important to assess the internal policies of those governments in terms of the legitimacy of their regimes and the balance between their goals and democratic values.
Therefore, the phenomenon of War on Terror should be analyzed in a broader context of the current political situation in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, including the oppositions between democratic uprisings, violent radical groups, and authoritative governments. Thus, the objective of this paper is to assess the role of different political forces of the international arena, ideological movements and uprisings, and the governments of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in the War on Terror in this region.
Outline of the arguments
Multiple layers are leading to understanding the political situation in the Arab World, especially because it is so highly affected by the religious nuances. Matthiesen claims that “protests in Saudi Arabia started at the periphery, in regions with disenfranchised and marginalized populations” mainly because of the religious discrimination led by the government against Shi‘a inhabitants of the Eastern Saudi Provinces (Matthiesen 630). Therefore, Matthiesen raises the question of to which extent it is reasonable to tolerate the discrimination promoted by the government, especially in the context of the War on Terror, which is, in many ways, a conflict of values and ideological nature.
However, it is also important to underline the fact that the analysis of the ideological and religious struggle in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States should rely not only on studying democratic movements as the factor of the political scene but also the historical and contemporary connotations of intermediate military opposition against terrorist forces.
In such a way, Hegghammer in his work The Failure of Jihad in Saudi Arabia attempts to examine the reasons why the terrorist movements did not manage to gain influence in Saudi Arabia and some other of the Gulf States. One of the main unresolved, in this respect, is the question of American military presence in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf crisis and the terrorist activities in the Middle East led by Bin Laden, as well as the implications of this opposition for the further development of Saudi Arabian political life. Bin Laden and other fundamentalist movements objected against the presence of American troops because the latter were considered infidel to Islam.
However, the Saudi Arabian government saw the United States not only as a force that would help to stabilize the region but also as an ally in terms of economic cooperation. Saudi Arabia has a strong alliance with the Western countries based on trading oil. According to Hegghammer, one of the arguments against the presence of American military troops in the region, and especially in the Eastern Saudi provinces, was that it “facilitated the exploitation of oil resources and enforced expensive arms deals on the Saudi state” (Hegghammer 7). In other words, of course, from the standpoint of Bin Laden and terrorist groups, the U.S. presence in the Gulf States was considered as the root of evil, and the ruling dynasty’s regime was proclaimed as an accomplice to American actions.
However, it is much more important to point out the fact that despite the attempts of al-Qaida leadership to undermine the cooperation between the U.S. military in the region and Saudi government, the situation after the Gulf Crisis in Saudi Arabia has stabilized. Thus, although, it countries such as Algeria and Egypt, the activity of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups did not cease to exist, for Saudi Arabia, there were some small achievements in terms of War on Terror. The main objective was to introduce peace to the region and to seek resolutions for the conflicts between the government and radicalized groups.
Nevertheless, despite the peace-seeking efforts of the government, in 2003, al-Qaida started a military campaign in Saudi Arabia. Hegghammer considers the AQAP Campaign, which lasted from 2003 to 2006, to be the “historically unprecedented levels of internal violence” as terrorist forces battled the security and special forces of the Kingdom, although they intended to attack the non-Muslim Westerners living in Saudi Arabia (Hegghammer 7).
Eventually, the operation failed without the changes to the regime in Saudi Arabia. However, the fail of a terrorist operation of such a scale signaled that there were factors in the Middle Eastern societies that put jihadists in a disadvantaged situation.
Assessment and critique of the arguments
Hegghammer in his work The Failure of Jihad in Saudi Arabia and Toby Matthiesen in his article attempt to analyze slightly different phenomena related to the political situation in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states in general, and the War on Terror, in particular.
Hegghammer claims that the priority of the research is to examine the terrorist movements as the agents of the political scene in the Middle East and the reasons for their failure in conducting military operations and terrorist attacks. Among the main reasons of the lack of success for al-Qaida operations in Saudi Arabia, Hegghammer names the “coercive power of the state, the second was lack of popular support for AQAP’s project, the third was the Iraq war, which divided the classical and global jihadists to the latter’s disadvantage” (Hegghammer 18).
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Thus, the fact that at that time, radical movements experienced the lack of popular support is of great significance, alongside the implications of the Iraq war. However, the author did not extend the argument further to analyze the role of Saudi citizens. The author suggested that the Saudi government was even criticized for being too ‘soft’ and tolerant with the terrorists, whereas some other governments of the Arab World, including but not limited to Egypt and Algeria relied on using quite repressive counterterrorism methods to prove its allegiance with the Western world.
However, the interpretation of the Saudi government’s actions on this particular occasion could be interpreted differently from the explanation suggested by Hegghammer. From the perspective of Saudi citizens of non-Eastern provinces, the stability in their country was the best possible outcome. Due to the international cooperation of Saudi Arabia on the oil market and with the help of steady-state power and firm dynastical reign, the citizens could be relatively contented with the level of economic prosperity whereas the recent Iraq war produced a vivid example of what instability could lead to.
Therefore, the position of the government, which did not want to apply harsh or repressive counterterrorism measures, could be based on the fact that the citizens did not need additional discouraging against terrorism because they would not support radical societal changes.
From the standpoint of Matthiesen’s view on the political situation in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, it is important to note the fact that Matthiesen condemns the “deadly violence used by the state, which had killed four and injured dozens in a single week” during the Shi‘a rebellions (Matthiesen 651).
However, similarly, the violent actions used by the radicalized activists themselves could be misinterpreted. Although they started as a protest against religious discrimination, the uprising galvanized after the violent interference from the government and took on a much more brutal and aggressive tone. The government responded with a genuine manhunt for the leaders of the uprising (Matthiesen 653).
Nevertheless, Matthiesen did not focus on several factors regarding the violent rebellions in Saudi Arabia during the Arab Spring. First of all, like many other countries of the Gulf, the Saudi Arabian government reacted quite strongly to the uprising. Due to the economic situation in the state and the substantial influence of the reigning dynasty, the regime did not change. Secondly, from the Western counties, the reaction of the government to the uprising was too aggressive and not suitable for the democratic society, especially compared to the regime’s ‘soft’ response to terrorist operations in 2003 – 2006.
In many ways, after analyzing and assessing the implications of the reactions of the governments of Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, it is clear that those responses can be differently interpreted. While the reaction of Saudi Arabian government to the al-Qaida operations in 2003 – 2006 was generally considered not ‘repressive’ enough in the West, the measures applied by the government, to calm the protesters during the events of the Arab Spring was not exactly within the norms of a democratic society.
For that reason, the broader theme of the works by Matthiesen and Hegghammer is, of course, the question whether Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf state that preserved their, in many aspects, undemocratic regimes should be considered allies or enemies in terms of War on Terror.
However, according to Cordesman, the main challenge in this situation stands in front of Arab countries themselves. They are pressured both by the agenda of the Western states, on the cooperation with which their economic stability quite often depend and by the ideological attacks of extremist groups (Cordesman Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe in the War on Terror 29).
Moreover, there are also some security challenges for the government because excessive resistance against the extremists could result in Gulf states becoming one of the primary targets for the terrorist groups, while the security cannot be ignored because of the safety and stability in the region (Cordesman Saudi Arabia Enters the Twenty-First Century 35). Another concern is that lack of actions in terms of counterterrorism can also result in difficulties in relations with the Western countries, especially considering the changes to the cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States after September 11, 2001 (Zuhur 3).
Overall, understanding of the role of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in the War on Terror should consider different challenges existing in those countries. Although a possibly insufficiently strong reaction from the government to the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and repressive means of dealing with democratic uprising during the Arab Spring seem inconsistent, all societal factors should be taken into account to avoid any misinterpretation.
Cordesman, Anthony. Saudi Arabia Enters the Twenty-First Century. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003. Print.
Cordesman, Anthony. “Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe in the War on Terror?”Middle East Policy 13.1 (2006): 28-42. Print.
Hegghammer, Thomas. The Failure of Jihad in Saudi Arabia. West Point, New York: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010. Print.
Matthiesen, Toby. “A “Saudi Spring”?: The Shi’a Protest Movement in the Eastern Province 2011–2012.” The Middle East Journal 66.4 (2012): 628-659. Print.
Zuhur, Sherifa. Saudi Arabia: Islamic Threat, Political Reform, and the Global War on Terror. Collingdale, Pennsylvania: Diane Publishing, 2005. Print.