Adam L. Silverman
COL Lang wrote about ISIS's probing attack across Iraq's western border into eastern Saudi Arabia. Since then several interesting commentaries have been posted about what ISIS's target is. One argues that ISIS is planning on taking Mecca. Another that the goal is the oil fields. Both authors are correct, but there is a bigger strategic picture that they are missing. ISIS has three strategic objectives that have to be achieved in Saudi Arabia: 1) take the oil fields, 2) seize Mecca, and 3) weaken or overthrow the monarchy. All three of these objectives are related to Saudi Arabia's human geography combined with several other Saudi socio-cultural dynamics, such as the official religion of Saudi Arabia and the politics of and within the House of Saud.
Saudi Arabia's Human Geography Trap
Human geography is how people, places, and physical things, such as infrastrucure interact. In the case of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province the natural resource of oil, the infrastructure for its extraction and processing, just happen to be where Saudi's Shi'a live. This can be seen in the map above. This confluence of vital natural resource and minority community has proven to be problematic in the past. ISIS's intentions to push into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia makes this coincidence of collocation into a significant pitfall. As has been seen in Syria and Iraq, ISIS does not tolerate Shi'a Islam. This intolerance is rooted in the exact same Wahabbi Islam that is the officical religion of Saudi Arabia. It is promoted by the Saudi religious authorities, as well as members of the Saudi royal family and government. Wahhabi Islam, the theological and theopolitical offshoot of Hanbali Islam has been the unifying ideational system of Saudi Arabia from the Kingdom's creation. It is also completely intolerant of Shi'a Islam viewing it as a particularly insidious form of apostasy.2
The trap is the result of Saudi Arabia's Shi'a residing in the same place where Saudi oil can be found. Should ISIS make a push to take the oil fields, they will attempt to ethno-religiously cleanse the area of Shi'a at the same time. This is going to place Saudi Arabia in a far more difficult position than just having to protect the oil fields and infrastructure. They will have to defend the Shi'a as well. Remember, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, which is the same religion that undergirds ISIS (and al Qaeda), is intolerant of Shi'a Islam. This commonality of Wahabbi religious belief makes Saudi Arabians the most easy ISIL information target. The Information Operations (IO) campaign, and the messaging that ISIL will utilize, do not have to be explained or enforced in regards to the Saudis - its the same religious message. The only discordant note, of course, may be dealing with the declared caliphate of al Baghdadi. The sameness of the belief system is what will make defense of the Eastern Province difficult. Protecting it will require that Saudi Arabia either protect the Shi'a - in place or as internally displaced Saudis - or ignoring the plight of the Shi'a who have come under ISIS control and focusing solely on the oil infrastructure and reserves. The former provides an opportunity for ISIS to effectively target Saudi Sunnis and try to pull their support away from the Saudi government through a coordinated, theologically rooted information operation decrying the Saudi government and military for protecting apostates. The latter creates external risks for the Saudis. These include problems with its foreign supporters and patrons, such as the US, who will have human right concerns regarding the protection of the Saudi Shi'a or lack thereof. Another, more regional concern, will be in regard to Saudi's regional rival Iran, which has cast itself as the protector of Shi'a. The combination of Saudi's oil infrastructure and its Shi'a in the Eastern Province is going to add a significant complication.
While Mecca is a clear ISIS target, the real ISIS objectives are capturing the oil fields and if not taking down the monarchy, then seriously compromising it. Taking the oil fields is important as it allows ISIS to add additional petroleum resources to those they have seized in Iraq. This, in turn, will allow for further sales on the black market bringing ISIS increased revenue to fund its expansion, consolidation, and operations. Capturing the Saudi oil fields would also, essentially, destroy OPEC and the global oil marketplace as we currently know it. Saudi's recent driving of oil prices to under $50.00 a barrel had multiple drivers. One was to make it financially unprofitable to extract oil from tar sands. Once the price of oil goes below $60 to $65 dollars a barrel, tar sands extraction just is not worth it. This motivation, however, quickly gave way last Fall to trying to beggar ISIS. The lower the price of oil on the global market, the less revenue ISIS can bring in selling the oil from the seized Iraqi oil fields on the black market. Should Saudi lose control of its oil, it will lose control over OPEC, which is likely to deal a serious blow to the stability of the global petroleum market.
The monarchy is ISIS's other target. It is right now going through a somewhat rough patch. King Abdullah, who is 90, has been recently hospitalized with pneumonia. The succession has been clearly established since 2013. Crown Prince Salman is the immediate heir and Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin is second in line to the throne should something befall King Abdullah. What is interesting here is that Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin is not only the youngest of the Sons of Saud, his mother was also a Yemeni consort/concubine. This has raised some questions, both within and without the Saudi royal family, about his legitimacy. The current line of succession further isolates the remnants of the Sudairi Seven, their sons and grandsons, who had long dominated the politics within the House of Saud. The next succession is also the last one that is solely under control of the king. All future successors after Abdullah's two choices will have to be approved by the Allegiance Council, which is made up of thirty-five senior princes. While the succession has been clearly delineated, the ill health of King Abdullah creates opportunities for ISIS to further their objectives against the Kingdom.
ISIS has three different objectives it needs to achieve in Saudi Arabia. The first is taking the oil fields, which will provide ISIS with increased revenue on the black market. It will also be an additional economic weapon in ISIS's arsenal in the attempt to consolidate and expand its caliphate. The second is to drive across the country and seize Mecca. Control of the holiest city of Islam will further enhance ISIS's theocratic and theopolitical messaging, justifications, and IO campaign. Taking Mecca would also create an additional opening to further weaken or bring down the monarchy. Saudi Arabia, specifically the monarchy and the religious authorities, have always been the target of al Qaeda. ISIS, as an al Qaeda offshoot, is partially driven by the same theopolitical calculus: that Islam cannot be returned to the straight path until the House of Saud is removed and the religious authority is purged and replaced with a proper Islamic system of governance, religion, economics, and social control. It is perhaps this reality that shows just the extremism and unreality of the reactionary Islam promoted by al Qaeda and ISIS - the belief that Saudi Arabia is not properly Muslim or not Islamic enough!
2 As`ad Abu Khalil's The Battle for Saudi Arabia has one of the best written and documented histories of the creation, development, politics, and religion of the Saudi monarchy.