The Saudis Helped Create a Monster They Can’t Control in Iraq

How It Works
June 16 2014 5:25 PM

Why the Iraq Mess Is So Awkward for Saudi Arabia

91068811-in-this-handout-image-provided-by-kaust-king-abdullah
King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia.

Photo by Scott Nelson/KAUST via Getty Images

The governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are very loudly blaming the “sectarian and exclusionary policies” of Nouri al-Maliki for the violence in Iraq. They’re not wrong, but this also deflects from an issue they’d rather not discuss—the role of wealthy funders in the Gulf in helping ISIS rise to prominence.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Qatar has officially stopped giving aid to more radical groups under U.S. pressure, and Saudi Arabia has also backed off its support of the rebels, a process the culminated in the removal of spy chief and Syria point man Prince Bandar bin Sultan earlier this year, but private donations from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states—notably Kuwait—have likely continued.

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For the last few months, the Saudi government in particular has been attempting, somewhat awkwardly, to both continue to fund non-extremist groups fighting Assad while combating the growth of al-Qaida and its affiliates and offshoots. The kingdom has good reason to fear the revival of an al-Qaida-like group with wide territorial ambitions. The government claims to have broken up a terrorist cell in May that had links to both ISIS and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. ISIS has also reportedly launched a recruitment drive in Riyadh.  

Maliki has accused both Saudi Arabia and Qatar of directly supporting the group. The Gulf monarchies would certainly prefer to see his Shiite-dominated government replaced, but in addition to the risk of blowback against their regimes from ISIS terrorism, the geopolitical situation in Iraq seems unlikely to work itself out in their favor.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, has watched with growing alarm in recent months, and relations between the U.S. and Iran have begun to improve. Now, thanks to the Iraq crisis, we’re seeing the nearly unprecedented possibility of U.S.-Iranian security cooperation to help resolve the situation. 

None of the likely outcomes in Iraq—a prolonged period of violent chaos in Iraq giving extremists a new base of operations, unilateral Iranian intervention, U.S.-Iranian cooperative intervention—is going to be viewed very favorably across the Gulf.

I doubt the plan to fund the Syrian rebels is working out quite as anticipated. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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