A terrorist attack in the village of El-Kadih near the Shia enclave of Qatif in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, when a suicide bomber detonated himself in a local mosque during the Friday prayers resulted in 20 people killed and more than 70 injured, and has marked a new chapter in the country’s modern history. The Kingdom has never witnessed such a large scale attack, even during the period of 2003-2006, when Al Qaeda made its infamous strikes in Jeddah and Riyadh.
It’s crucial to note that there’s a big difference between the events that happened ten years ago and those happening now. Back then terrorist attacks were the evil doings of Osama bin Laden aimed at striking the royal family at its heart, while cells of Al Qaeda Islamists were scattered all across the region, organizing attacks that were aimed at getting maximum media exposure.
Today the situation is fundamentally different, since responsibility for yesterday’s attack was claimed by ISIL which keeps under its control a considerable part of both Iraq and Syria. In fact, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has recently been manifesting features of a quasi-state with its own army, territory, financial institutions, propaganda capabilities and education system. One year since the moment of its official creation this terrorist organization has managed to radically change the balance of power, rapidly transforming into a major regional player that determines trends in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia has initially failed to properly assess the risks of ISIL activities, despite a number of loud statements that its officials made condemning this Islamist group. Moreover, the Kingdom went as far as to announcing a relentless war against ISIL in August 2014, following initiatives of Washington. But then Riyadh was quick to lose interest in any form of real confrontation with Islamists, assuming that routine bombing raids and the creation of a border rampart would do the trick, leaving Baghdad to face ISIL advances on its own.
Saudi strategists must have been convinced that despite the loud initial declarations that ISIL was making on the establishment of a caliphate and future control over Mecca and Medina, this organization did not have sufficient forces nor the means to wage war against the KSA. Even the November attack in 2014, when ISIL terrorists opened fire on Shiites in the governorate of Al-Ahsa, failed to convince Saudi policymakers to start a fight against this evil.
In addition, ISIL being widely perceived as a Sunni organization in the KSA has led to a restrained approached, since certain forces in the Kindgom were nourishing aspirations that this terrorist group could be used against Saudi arch-rival – Iran. There was a hope that the struggle of Shia forces in Iraq against ISIL along with the troubles these Islamist cause to the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria would lead to their mutual weakening and “annihilation” of both the terrorists and the Shia forces. And once the old Saudi king perished on 23 January 2015, his successor Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud labeled the Houthis in neighboring Yemen a major threat to the security of the Kingdom. Riyadh was concerned that the strengthening of ties between the Houthis and their chief supporter Ali Abdullah Salih with Tehran would launch a processes similar to the one that was initiated by Iran in early 80’s in Lebanon, which would result in the transformation of Shia armed forces in Yemen into an analogue of Hezbollah. In a broader context, it was believed that Iran was trying to surround Saudi Arabia with hostile states, namely Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Therefore, once the Houthis started spreading their influence in the south of Yemen, beyond their traditional territory, it was regarded as Tehran’s aggression against the Kingdom. After all, a similar approach was taken by Saudi Arabia when in 2011 Shiites launched protests in Bahrain, resulting in a military intervention by Saudi troops in this country.
A similar course of actions can be witnessed in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been conducting countless air raids against the Houthis since the end of March under the pretext of fulfilling the request of the “legitimate President of Yemen Mansur Hadi“. The only difference between this and its intervention in Bahrain is that the KSA lacks sufficient amounts of trained troops for combat operations in mountainous areas. Saudi allied states, such as Egypt and Pakistan refused to send their troops to Yemen, while restricting their support of this intervention through political statements. Gradually the Kingdom was forced to limit the scale of its air raids in Yemen due to the fact that they have had no effect on the combat capabilities of pro-Houthi forces.
On top of its military failures, Riyadh failed to initiate the process of political settlement on the basis of a national dialogue, since against the backdrop of the ongoing bombing in Sana’a and the scaled of destruction of their native town of Sa`dah, the Houthis refused to take part in the conference carried out in the Saudi capital.
Now, after the suicide attack in El-Kadih, the situation has taken a completely different turn. Any sane analyst can tell you now that at the moment there is no way in which the Houthis can still be considered the main security threat to the Kingdom. Moreover, they have already expressed their readiness to take part in negotiations in Geneva that were organized by a UN Special EnvoyIsmail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. And should Riyadh stop its aircraft attacks, the Houthis would most likely stop capturing military bases on Saudi territory.
On the other hand there’s no easy out for Saudi Arabia in its situation with ISIL. This so-called caliphate has called the largest terrorist attack on Saudi soil in the last decade the doing of its new province, which is equivalent to the declaration of war. ISIL militants are no longer interested in capturing Kurdish areas on the border or launching advances in the direction of Baghdad, now they have moved closer to the Saudi border. At the same time they are moving rapidly toward Damascus, recently capturing the ancient city of Palmyra, located some 200 kilometers from the Syrian capital.
Its clear that the KSA is in urgent need to change its evaluations by giving up its military operation in Yemen through supporting the negotiating in Geneva, while concentrating all of its efforts on the fight against ISIL. In this case Saudi Arabia can find some new allies, including Russia.
Maxim Egorov, a political commentator on the Middle East and contributes regularly for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.