The Saudis and Their Dangerous Game

It’s little wonder that U.S. Officials Voice Frustrations With Saudis’ Role in Iraq. The wonder is that they haven’t sooner.

Saudi Arabia is trying to do two things at once:

  • Spread Wahhabi/Salafi Islam throughout the Muslim world through a well-financed system of patronage (mosques, imams, etc.)  Salafism attempts to return Islam to the faith and practice of Mohammed and his companions.  It is very strict and fundamental.  Although Salafis will attempt to tell you that bin Laden and his ilk are more influenced by modern currents (Marxism, Nazism) the truth is that, in a faith where religion and politics are a unity, sooner or later someone is going to try to put Salafism into action on a widespread basis, as many Islamicists want to do.
  • Prevent internal dissidents and external rivals (such as Shi’ite Iran) from taking over the country.  For all of its oil wealth and holy sites, Saudi Arabia is a relatively weak country.

One explanation of this weakness is that the nature of the House of Saud (now running in five figures in membership) makes for a house divided against itself (to use a good Biblical expression.)  There is some merit to this argument.  It would explain why U.S. officials (used to a more set piece type of existence) find the Saudis equivocal.

But ultimately the Saudis are playing with fire.  It’s good foreign policy to try to keep all of the "balls up in the air" (as a juggler would do) and thus your potential rivals off balance.  The British used to do this in their imperial days.  But trying to export a tough version of Islam and expect your ship to stay afloat in the tempest it creates is asking too much.  The Saudis’ game is dangerous, and not just for them either.

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