Thursday, 9th January 2020

Threats from jihadists to liberals dog Saudi security agenda

Head of state security General Abdelaziz Bin Mohammed Al-Howairini faces another challenging year at the helm of the Presidency of Public Security (PPS). Having been rehabilitated by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), Al-Howairini has the heavy task of protecting domestic security. This was challenging even before the assassination of Iranian military kingpin Qassem Soleimani, which drive reprisals on Saudi soil.

Having displaced Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef as crown prince in June 2017, MBS placed Al-Howairini under house arrest, only for the general to re-emerge the following month when he was placed in charge of the PPS. Since then, the difficult task of assuring domestic security has become more difficult with the murder on 2 October 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi; the Istanbul assassination has led to unprecedented international isolation despite the ‘top cover’ provided by US President Donald Trump. It has raised the profile of human rights issues which many commentators and diplomats had previously been able to overlook. Sources in the kingdom observe that the Khashoggi killing’s legacy also includes complicating relations with many allies – even unsettling the strategic alliance with Abu Dhabi, on which the kingdom’s regional policy is based. It has encouraged Al-Saud family members who covertly harbour ambitions, foul or fair, to replace MBS. Sources observe that MBS’ ruthless treatment of fellow royal family members has forced him for security purposes to spend more time isolated aboard his huge fortified yacht.

Conventional political opposition to MBS still falls into two broad camps: social conservatives and religious puritans, including tendencies ranging from Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood) to jihadists drawn to Islamic State (IS or Daesh) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); and modernising liberals. For now, the Wahhabi puritan camp has been thoroughly cowed by the PPS, with both the Ulema and the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Haia)’s mutawa religious police stripped of their previously powerful voices (GSN 1,060/4). While MBS’ liberalising reforms have been generally welcomed by the young and the newly-emergent middle class (GSN 1,094/14), traditionalists are still there, complaining about change.

The speedy death sentence handed to a Yemeni held responsible for a knife attack on Spanish theatre performers during the November 2019 Riyadh Season illustrates both the threat and the draconian response the PPS considers necessary. At the extreme fringe, there is always the danger of IS and AQAP fishing from this pool of discontent; the death last year of four terrorists on their way to attack the PPS office in Al-Zulfi, 250km north of Riyadh, pointed to a suppressed but latent danger. Local analysts point to the broader threat coming from the Muslim Brotherhood camp, which had attracted Khashoggi and which was either seen as orthodox or state-approved for long periods in Saudi Arabia’s modern (but not recent) history.

At the other end of the opposition spectrum, the PPS fears liberalisation will slip out of control, questioning the basis of Al-Saud power. Thus only MBS has freedom to propose liberalisation measures, while anyone else risks arrest – as with the fate of the still detained women’s driving activists. Another bunch of liberally-inclined men and women were arrested in mid-November, none of whom had remotely extremist views (most were retired social activists now settled into conventional jobs). Those detained, their colleagues and friends were perplexed at being viewed as a potential threat. Their detentions point to the authorities’ sense of acute insecurity.

Given the close security co-operation with the UAE – and numerous well-documented cases of surveillance carried out on Saudi dissidents abroad – the PPS is likely to be undertaking mass surveillance social media monitoring in the UAE and tracking ‘dissident’ activity elsewhere.

Also viewed as a threat are potential extremists in under-pressure communities, notably within Eastern Province’s majority Shia population. The Saudi Shia population is largely indigenous, and has traditionally looked as much towards Karbala in Iraq as to Qom in Iran for religious inspiration. This has not prevented hard-line discrimination against the minority; almost no Shia hold positions of authority in the Saudi armed or civil services. In January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed the leading Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr, along with 46 others (GSN 1,007/1). In 2017, Saudi forces mounted a full-scale air and ground assault which levelled the Shia (Nimr’s native) town of Al-Awamiyah.

Brutal suppression has been effective in curbing public dissent and extremist activity, but tensions have not gone away. Security forces killed an Al-Nimr family member and three other men armed with assault weapons, explosives and Molotov cocktails in a shoot-out in Dammam on 1 January. This is an area in which post-Soleimani Iran might seek to create mischief, adding to General Al-Howairini’s problems.

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