Security will remain high on the Saudi agenda amid concerns over the rise of ISIL, a Sunni jihadist group that has gained control over large sections of Syria and Iraq. ISIL militants overwhelmed Iraqi military forces following the launch of major offensive in June. And while the advance was largely halted with the help of Shiite militias and foreign air support, the occupation of significant territory in northern and central Iraq poses a threat to Saudi unity and regional stability.

Saudi Arabia has joined the multinational fight as part of a U.S.-led coalition that includes the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan, despite initial reluctance owing to concerns that military cooperation with the US would provoke violent reprisals inside the kingdom. The Saudi air force has played an active part in bombing raids targeting ISIL positions in Syria, underscoring the seriousness with which the royal leadership is treating the threat posed by the group, whose top leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadid, has explicitly rejected the legitimacy of the royal family’s rule.

Gulf leaders have expressed skepticism about the broader U.S. strategy, particularly the decision not to target the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, many Saudis view the Syrian government and its Shiite allies in Iran to be a greater evil than ISIL, a perception that leaves the Saudi leadership vulnerable to charges that it is fighting on the wrong side of what at a basic level is a sectarian war.

The government will maintain a strategy of promoting political stability by introducing incremental social and economic reforms.

Officials estimate that some 2,500 Saudi nationals have joined various regional militant groups, including in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan. In February, the government decreed long prison terms for anyone traveling abroad to fight, and roughly 300 people suspected of violating the law have been detained while attempting to leave the country or after returning to the kingdom.

In a recent security sweep, 88 suspected Islamist radicals were arrested in early September on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks at home and abroad, more than one-half of them reported to be Saudi nationals.

At present, ISIL poses no direct military threat to the kingdom. But with the outcome of fighting in Syria and Iraq very uncertain, authorities will intensify efforts to suppress home-grown threats that could lead to high-profile security incidents that sow doubt about the stability of the kingdom. The authorities will continue to crack down on suspected Islamists, while also keeping a tight lid on dissent in areas with a large Shiite population, and closely monitoring the activities of pro-democracy reformers.

In The Spotlight

Sectarian tensions have risen in the oil-rich Eastern Province, and, amid fears of a descent into religious warfare, the government sacked the minister of culture and information (who was accused by Shiite leaders of failing to prevent the spread of hate speech in the media) and the deputy governor of Eastern Province, a member of the royal family, was transferred to a position elsewhere in the kingdom.

The moves have helped to calm tensions. However, they do not really address the underlying causes of restiveness among the Shiite minority, which are rooted in what Shiites perceive to be their second-class status within the kingdom.

More generally, the government will maintain a strategy of promoting political stability by introducing incremental social and economic reforms aimed at appeasing liberals without alienating hard-line conservatives. In a nod to reformers, the government decreed that women will be able to vote and stand for office in municipal elections set for 2015.

There also are plans to increase the proportion of elected members of municipal councils from one-half to two-thirds of the total. More substantive moves in the direction of democracy have become even less likely amid the rising risk of regional upheaval.


The PRS Group
About The Author The PRS Group
The PRS Group is a leading global provider of political and country risk analysis and forecasts, covering 140 countries. Based on proprietary, quantitative risk models, the firm's clientele includes financial institutions, multilateral agencies, and trans-national firms.

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