Saudi Arabia's Enemies Are No Longer Just Knocking at Its Gate

Since VICE visited the country in 2015 their own citizens have become one of the largest groups of foreign fighters to join the Islamic State. Despite this, the US maintains that our commitment to the country is greater than ever.

by Adam Kerlin
Jan 27 2016, 7:31pm

In anticipation of the upcoming fourth season of our HBO show, which will premiere February 5 at 11 PM, we are releasing all of season three for free online along with updates to the stories. Today's installment follows up on a dispatch called 'Enemies at the Gate,' exploring how Saudi Arabia is defending itself against the terrorism that surrounds the country at every border. Watch the episode below:

'How is Saudia Arabia Dealing with the Threat of Terrorism?'

Last year on VICE on HBO we traveled to Saudi Arabia to explore the Kingdom's relationship with the United States. Security has long been a major concern in the Middle Eastern country, in large part due to the perception from extremists that the Saudi government is too cozy with Washington. In the dispatch, " Enemies at the Gate," VICE co-founder Suroosh Alvi found that the partnership between the two countries has perhaps grown too big and interdependent for the good of either party involved. And in the time since we left, the stability of our biggest ally in the Middle East, and the threats facing it, have only become worse.

Over the past year Saudi Arabia has seen its mosques attacked by Islamic militants and its border guards killed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels along its southern border with Yemen. Saudis also heard Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, call for an uprising in Saudi Arabia and harshly condemn the royal family.

To the Kingdom's north, defending the Arabian Peninsula hasn't come much easier. Saudi Arabia has seen the rebel groups it supports in Syria pushed back by Bashar al-Assad and his newfound ally in Russia. And at a bill of more than $3 billion, the fence the Saudis have built along their border with a failed Iraqi state has proven to be more porous to jihadists than the cost would suggest. In July, the Kingdom arrested more than 400 people with alleged ties to the Islamic State.

At the beginning of 2016, it's fair to say Saudi Arabia's enemies are no longer just knocking at its gate.

As the Middle East continues to fall into a brutal conflict divided along sectarian lines, Saudi Arabia has found itself the target of many of the region's warring factions. And as Suroosh found when we went there last year, much of the hostility aimed at the Kingdom comes from Saudi Arabia's contradictory relationship with the United States.

After striking oil together more than 70 years ago, the United States and Saudi Arabia established a mutually beneficial relationship that gave the Americans a seemingly endless oil supply and the Saudis a wealth previously unknown to the region. To protect this important energy source, the United States also sold the Kingdom hundreds of billions of dollars worth of military equipment to build a security apparatus capable of keeping the Kingdom and its oil safe.

But the wealth brought exuberance to the royal family and disdain from hardline religious clerics who saw the cozy relationship with the West as a deviation from the strict form of Wahhabi Islam that governs daily life in Saudi Arabia.

"There's no question that al Qaeda and ISIS emerge from this spread of Salafism [Wahhabi] around the world that the Saudi's played a big part in," Gregory Gause, an Arabian Peninsula specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Doha, told VICE.

All of this has led extremist groups like the Islamic State to call Saudi Arabia's ruling family apostates. They're accused of not practicing what they preach, and their own citizens are now the second largest group of foreign fighters to have joined the Islamic State. As we traveled across the desert country, we saw just how entrenched the United States has been in Saudi Arabia's military buildup, and how difficult it has been to keep threats from crossing the country's borders.

This was clear when Suroosh visited Saudi Arabia's border with Iraq and saw the location where ISIS fighters crossed into Saudi Arabia and initiated a gunfight that killed one of the Kingdom's senior border guards. It was also apparent a few months after we left, when the Islamic State took credit for the bombing of a mosque that killed 21 people—its first large-scale attack on Saudi soil.

And while the Islamic State poses one threat to the Kingdom's dominance in the Middle East, Iran poses an entirely different one. Frightened by what the Kingdom sees as Iran flexing its muscle beyond its borders, Saudi Arabia launched a military offensive against Yemen shortly after we left. An intense and indiscriminate bombing campaign aimed at dispelling the Houthi rebels, followers of the same Shiite sect of Islam as Iran, began in March of 2015. The conflict is still ongoing, resulting in more than 2,800 civilian deaths at the hands of weapons acquired by Saudi Arabia from the US and other Western allies.

Saudi Arabia and the United States claim the Houthis are backed by Iran, and the Saudis see the expansion of Houthi power in Yemen as an Iranian incursion into their backyard. But most experts say the conflict has done more harm than good—emboldening the Yemeni networks of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which is possibly a worse outcome for Saudi Arabia's stability and the security of the US.

Nawaf Obaid, a long-time Saudi government security adviser who is currently a visiting fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, told VICE that Saudi Arabia is in the process of implementing a new defense doctrine that has the Saudis taking a more offensive military posture in the region, in lieu of a significant American footprint.

"I highly doubt America is going to send combat troops there," Obaid said. " It's already been done, and the costs—I mean a trillion dollars down the drain. The last thing they want now is to be seen as an occupying force. Hence another reason why the Saudis need a defense doctrine."

In "Enemy at the Gates," VICE found that the US-Saudi relationship has become a slippery one. But it's one that isn't going away. Despite the country's ties to terrorism and aggressive military offensives that continue to play a key role in destabilizing the region, Secretary of State John Kerry reassured the U.S. embassy in Riyadh just last weekend that our commitment to working with the Saudis is as strong as it's ever been.

"We have as solid a relationship, as clear an alliance, and a strong friendship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as we ever had," Secretary Kerry told embassy staff. "That's why you're here. That's why your work is so important."