For Saudi Arabia, Security Challenges Mount at Home and Abroad

Security and forensic personnel inspect the bombing site at the Imam Hussein mosque. Damman, Saudi Arabia, May 29, 2015. (AFP/Getty Images)

A suicide bomber struck the Shiite Imam Ali mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia’s al-Qadeeh village during Friday prayers on May 22, leaving 22 people dead and dozens more wounded. The bombing, claimed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), was the most significant attack in the country in years and revived memories of the mass casualty attacks—mainly targeting foreigners—of the 1990s and early 2000s. While recent international attention has focused on Saudi Arabia’s more expansive foreign policy, the incident highlighted an increasing climate of instability within the kingdom’s borders.

In response to the May attack, Saudi authorities deployed additional security personnel to mosques across the region. However, these measures did not prevent a second assault on May 29. This time security personnel stopped a bomber from entering the Imam Hussein mosque in Damman, but failed to prevent his detonation, which left at least four people dead. Again, ISIS claimed the attack.

The violence comes as the Saudis are embroiled in an increasingly drawn out and costly conflict against the Shiite Muslim Houthi group in Yemen and also involved in an air coalition led by the United States against ISIS in Syria. The latter conflict has raised concerns of spillover along Saudi Arabia’s incredibly porous northern border. This concern was realized in January when gunmen, and possibly one suicide bomber, attacked a security checkpoint in Arar, killing three security force personnel. The Arar attack was also claimed by ISIS.

More broadly, Saudi ambitions for regional dominance, at least on the Arabian Peninsula, are being challenged by a resurgent Iran, which is viewed as supporting both the Houthis in Yemen and Shiite protesters in Bahrain. The links between Iran and the majority Shiite religious and political establishment in southern Iraq pose yet another threat to the kingdom.

These geopolitical dynamics have increased Saudi anxiety about its security readiness. The recent attacks will serve to heighten concern further, particularly given the location of the recent bombings in the country’s Eastern Province. This is arguably the most strategically important region in Saudi Arabia, given that the kingdom’s vast oil and gas reserves are located there. The Eastern Province is also home to a large Shiite community that has agitated for a number of years against the Sunni-dominated regime in Riyadh.

Viewed as heretics by many Sunnis, including those in the principle Saudi religious establishment, the Shiites have pressed for greater political freedoms, the release of political prisoners, and the empowerment of the Shiite majority in nearby Bahrain. This agitation has largely occurred in the Qatif governorate, located near Damman, where one of the two recent suicide attacks occurred, and in the Ahsa governorate, located further south.

The ISIS decision to strike in an already restive area will serve to heighten sectarian tensions and will, as a consequence, weaken the regime’s grip further. It is noteworthy that following the May 23 attack, large Shiite demonstrations denouncing the violence and the poor security provided by the government were reported in the east. Meanwhile, many other protesters decried the presence of even more security force personnel in the area and linked the attacks to the alleged discrimination of the state against the Shiite community. There were reports that following the bombings, local police were acting more to prevent protests rather than prevent ISIS members from infiltrating the area.

The bombings were not, however, without warning. In November 2014, the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a recorded statement threatening the states acting against it. In specific reference to the Saudis, he called for attacks against the Shiite community first, before turning to the ruling al-Sauds. A week before the May 23 bombing al-Baghdadi issued another statement calling the al-Sauds “guard dogs of the West” and Shiites “allies of Satan.”

Saudi Arabia has also experienced a spike in low-level attacks in recent months. Starting with a shooting targeting US nationals in Riyadh in October 2014, there have been a further three attacks against foreigners, including two separate incidents in Riyadh and Dhahran in November, and one further shooting in January in the Ahsa governorate. These incidents were accompanied by a high profile shooting in Ahsa governorate’s al-Dalwah area on November 3, which left seven Shiite Muslims dead, and a number of shootings targeting police personnel in Riyadh from March to May this year.

The government blamed a number of these incidents on ISIS. However, given their relatively unsophisticated nature, a connection to self-radicalized individuals is also plausible. In a further sign of government unease, the authorities have claimed to have disrupted several high profile bombings, including in April when they reportedly foiled an ISIS plot in Riyadh. This counter-terrorism action followed shortly after the authorities released a warning that militants were planning attacks against shopping malls in Riyadh, and Aramco oil facilities.

The Saudi regime and its various institutions have rushed to ease concern over the May suicide attacks. Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef stated that the situation was “under control.” Leading Sunni cleric Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz Al al-Sheik labelled the attacks a criminal plot and appealed for unity. One of the country’s top Shiite clerics, Sheik Mohammed Obeidan, also called for calm.

The government’s confidence in defending against militant incursions and attacks has not, however, been matched by its principle international ally, the US, which has maintained a standing travel advisory that reads, in part, the “…Department of State urges US citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia.” The US government cites the recent attacks and ongoing threat from ISIS and the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for this position.

Saudi Arabia’s increasing involvement in wars in the region, the persistent security vacuum along its borders and the increasing prominence of Iran have posed immediate concerns for the country’s new head of state, Abdulaziz Al Saud Salman, who was crowned only in January. In response, the new king has already initiated various reforms, and sought to place his allies in key positions of power, including outlining his immediate successors, to cement his position and strengthen the state. Still, the threat of ISIS continues to grow and there is a concern that the country may be taking on too many foreign entanglements to ensure security at home.