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What Saudi Arabia is (and isn’t) doing in the fight against the Islamic State

Riyadh's Kingdom Tower, owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, is seen illuminated in the colors of the French national flag on Nov. 17 following deadly attacks in Paris. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

The rise of the Islamic State has led to remarkable growth in Western criticism of Saudi Arabia. Often, these critics go far further than simply claiming that the Gulf kingdom, one of the West's most important allies in the region, is not pulling its weight in the fight against the Islamic State.

Instead, they argue that the very theology upon which the Saudi state depends — an ultraconservative brand of Islam dubbed Wahhabism — is the same as the apocalyptic distortion of Islam that drives that group to terrible acts. They argue that, far from being two enemies opposed to each other, the two powers are hopelessly intertwined.

A number of human rights scandals in Saudi Arabia (including cases of public floggings, beheadings and "crucifixions") have further added fuel to that criticism.  In the aftermath of the Islamic State's attacks in Paris, Algerian writer Kamel Daoud summed up what many were thinking with a powerful article for the New York Times. "Daesh has a mother: the invasion of Iraq," Daoud explained, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex."

It's a harsh criticism and one that Saudi officials have gone to lengths to deflect and counter. At least on the surface, the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia are clearly opposed to each other, with the extremist organization believing that the Saudi state is run by apostates. Militants from the Islamic State have carried out at least four bombings on Saudi mosques in the past year.

The Saudi state does appear to have thrown its weight behind the fight against the Islamic State, with considerable amounts of funds and resources going to projects designed to counter terrorism and extremism. "I think the Saudis view themselves as being at the forefront of the global effort to combat terrorism," Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington and a senior political analyst at JTG, said.

So is Saudi Arabia doing enough in the fight against the Islamic State? And is it enough?

On the military fight in Syria and Iraq

Saudi Arabia has one of the largest military budgets in the world and its military is one of the most capable in the region. It has been involved in the military fight against the Islamic State since last year, joining the U.S.-led coalition against the group in September and before that working with the United States to train rebels. Remarkably, Saudi princes even took part in the initial bombing run against the Islamic State — an apparent sign of how seriously the royal family was taking the fight.

However, some analysts believe that the initial willingness to militarily engage with the Islamic State has ended and that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf powers are taking a back seat to Western powers in the fight. The extent of the withdrawal is hard to gauge, as Saudi Arabia has shown little transparency with regard to its involvement.

"Beyond the release of a photo purportedly showing F-15 pilots who flew the initial strike missions in Syria, the Saudis have said nothing about their role in the U.S.-led coalition," said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. Bowen added that the United States has been very vague about the involvement of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in the strikes on the Islamic State. (He notes that some Department of Defense statements now refer to their involvement in the past tense.)

Disagreements between the Gulf states over the plan of action may well have been a factor in this withdrawal. However, it's also likely that the Saudi-led proxy war in Yemen against Iran-backed forces may well be diverting its attention.

"I agree that Yemen has supplanted ISIS, not least given that Riyadh regards the conventional Iran threat in the region as its greatest long-term headache," Christopher Davidson, a British academic specializing in Middle East politics, said. "After all, the kingdom has seen other jihadist organizations come and go."

On refugees

An integral part of the crisis in Syria and, by extension, the fight against the Islamic State, has been the refugee crisis that the civil war has created. The United Nations has estimated that half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced in the conflict and the Islamic State has shown itself willing to exploit the chaos for its own gain.

In Europe and the United States, there has been a wave of criticism against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for their apparent refusal to take significant numbers of refugees in. Last December, Amnesty International accused these states of offering "zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees."

Months later, Saudi Arabia hit back at these criticisms, saying that it had in fact given residency to a huge 2.5 million or so Syrian refugees. It has also made significant donations to the U.N. refugee agency, it said, totaling at least $90 million in 2015.

At least part of the confusion seems to be based on the fact that Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are not signatories to the U.N. Convention on Refugees, meaning that they do not follow the internationally accepted procedure for the relocation of refugees. One unnamed Saudi official told the Guardian that the country had “made it a point not to deal with them as refugees” and that it had not wanted to “to show off or brag in the media."

Experts have concluded that Saudi Arabia has taken in a large number of Syrians, though it has not been transparent in how it went about this and it has not given them the rights that refugee status would confer. Instead, most seem to come into the country on visas for foreign workers.

On resources and funding

There has been a long-standing theory that the Saudi kingdom had been supplying funds to the Islamic State — some even go so far as to say that Saudi Arabia "created" the Islamic State. In June 2014, Lori Plotkin Boghardt of the Washington Institute published a policy analysis that attempted to confirm or deny these claims.

She concluded that there was "no credible evidence that the Saudi government is financially supporting ISIS."

Boghardt did note that there appeared to have been significant numbers of donations to the group from private Saudi citizens, despite the Saudi state's attempts to block these fundraising efforts. "Arab Gulf donors as a whole — of which Saudis are believed to be the most charitable — have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Syria in recent years, including to ISIS and other groups," Boghardt noted.

These funds likely played an important role in the development of the Islamic State and groups like it. However, given the growing scale of the Islamic State's other fundraising operations, it's unlikely that private donations from Gulf states are particularly important to the group anymore.

Perhaps more worrying are the high numbers of Saudi citizens who have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. It's believed that at least 2,500 Saudis have traveled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State, making the country one of the main sources of foreign recruits for the organization.

It's also worth noting that the Islamic State is far from the only Islamist group to receive foreign backing. Charles Lister, an analyst for the Brookings Institution in Doha, has pointed out that the rival group Ahrar al-Sham appears to be favored by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

On theology

While the Islamic State and the Saudi kingdom view each other as enemies, it is hard to deny that there are many areas of crossover in their theological viewpoints.

According to a report from the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick, when the Islamic State began closing schools in the areas it conquered, it actually printed out copies of Saudi state textbooks it found online. Others have noted that some of the Islamic State's most notorious penalties — death by stoning for adultery, for example — can often  be found in Saudi Arabia (though they are used with far more discretion in the kingdom).

Saudi authorities have made attempts to rein in some of the imams and preachers who preach a more extreme version of Islam. "Reform-minded Saudis also called for the reevaluation of the educational system and curricula and some advised that they be 'cleansed' of materials that they argued fostered intolerance and extremism," Nazer said. Additionally, the country has made a big investment in institutions that are designed to reform extremists and terrorists. The Washington Post's Kevin Sullivan visited al-Hair high-security prison in March, a facility that attempts to rehabilitation former terrorists, including former Islamic State recruits. (Its success rate is unclear.)

However, there may be a limit to how much Saudi authorities would do here. It's often said that most Saudi officials and members of the ruling elite would favor some kind of reform in their country but that they are beholden to the Wahhabi clerics who hold significant sway there. Nazer notes that while the Saudi state has clamped down on the preachers who espouse support for the Islamic State, those who  preach a sectarianism that feeds into extremism have not been targeted.

One big worry is that, ultimately, Saudi Arabia is simply more focused on its sectarian fight against Iran, the regional Shiite power, than the Islamic State, a weaker yet still dangerous Sunni threat. "There is also a sense that ISIS, ugly as it may seem, is actually a useful temporary ally for Saudi Arabia so long as it can be corralled in the direction of Iran and its allies rather than Sunni majority states," Davidson said. "The latter will likely trump any pressure that may be placed on Riyadh from the U.S., France, etc."

More on WorldViews

The facts — and a few myths — about Saudi Arabia and human rights

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly described Algerian writer Kamel Daoud as French. It has been amended to correct this mistake.