Now that the excitement and posturing by Canadian politicians over the sale of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia has simmered down, we might explore a more significant question: why do the Saudis want them? Canadians might flatter themselves by thinking our LAVs are the best in the world so everybody would want them. Even if that were true, an enhanced Saudi need for internal security is more important.
Though officially committed to a quietist religious Salafism, Saudi Arabia has contributed to its polar opposite, the worldwide development of militant jihadism. The key components of Saudi support for militants, including terrorists, particularly prior to the 2001 attack on the United States, were Wahhabism, a dogmatic sect within Sunni Islam, oil wealth, and the continuing importance of tribal ties within Saudi society.
Saudi support for jihadis and other extremists looked to Western governments like the classic strategy of exporting trouble-makers –to the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Caucasus. Osama bin Laden’s residence in several different countries exemplified this strategy. After 9/11 such a strategy was no longer possible.
Now consider the problem from the perspective of domestic Saudi security. The government must deal with Sunni extremists, organized for a decade as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) but also with Shiites supported by their geopolitical rival, Iran. The fundamental Saudi security dilemma is that of a Salafist regime that must suppress Sunni Salafists at home and abroad in order to maintain order among its own Shia population.
Sectarian division and competing forms of fundamentalism have been a perennial problem for the House of Saud. During the 1920s, the aspiring king, Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud was the first to have to defeat a group of religious extremists, the Ikhwan. Initially they had helped Abdul-Aziz in his conquest of what is now Saudi territory, but they wanted to push north into Iraq, then controlled by the British. The king’s ambitions were more modest and the British were happy to assist him in extinguishing the Ikhwan.
Central to Saudi success was the combination of tribalism, which emphasized the importance of obedience to rulers, and the long-standing alliance between the Saudi family and the family of Muhamad bin Abdel-Wahhab and his successors, the Wahhabi ulema. This combination has enabled the Saudis to use Islam against their opponents by marginalizing them as “deviants.” As with the Ikhwan, militant jihadists within the Kingdom were identified with disorder and chaos.
The interesting question today, however, is whether the skill of the Saudis at managing tribal conflict and the alliance with the Wahhabis are sufficient to maintain political order in the modern world. There are several disturbing symptoms.
On August 28th, 2009, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who was in charge of Saudi counterterrorism, including their rehabilitation program, held a public reception during Ramadan. He was to meet Abdulla al-Asiri, a former AQAP militant, who claimed to have renounced terrorism. Al-Asiri wanted to meet the prince, who had previously met hundreds of repentant jihadis, and join the program. In fact, he was on a murder-suicide mission. In the event, when he activated an explosive device he had hidden in his anal cavity, he blew himself to bits but only shocked his intended target. Many Saudis concluded that the rehabilitation program wasn’t working.
Second was an attack in November, 2014 by Sunni extremists with ties to the tribal and clerical establishments as well as to the Islamic State, on a Shia mosque in al-Ahsa, in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Usually conflicts with Shia are managed by the Saudi security forces. That Sunni militants attacked the Shia on their own suggests an erosion of the legitimacy of traditional Saudi Salafism.
Other geopolitical changes, from the rapprochement between the US and Iran to the instability engendered by the Islamic State have added to Saudi anxieties. More importantly, the recently increased tempo of attacks, from Taif near Mecca in the west, to the capital Riyadh, to Quatif on the Persian Gulf, has worsened the threat environment. As the Islamic State is degraded, the return of experienced Saudi fighters will pose additional security threats.
In short, the purchase of Canadian-built LAVs looks like evidence that the Saudis perceive a growing existential threat to its own regime, and Canadian arms technology will be an important part of holding onto power.