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reflections

Jul 6, 2016 | 01:51 GMT

6 mins read

Ramadan Attacks Shake Saudi Security

Ramadan Attacks Shake Saudi Security
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

A spate of bloody jihadist attacks that ripped through the Muslim world over the past week accelerated during the weekend as the end of Ramadan approached. Two of the week's deadliest attacks — an explosion in a market in Iraq and an airport assault in Turkey — were attributed to the Islamic State. Attacks in Bangladesh and Malaysia, also linked to the Islamic State, targeted foreigners specifically. Today, Indonesia experienced attempted attacks reportedly involving Islamic State sympathizers. Of the weekend's mayhem, though, some of the least successful attacks posed some of the toughest implications moving forward: three suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia, specifically the blast in Medina, which targeted a mosque revered by Muslims worldwide.

The botched July 4 attacks in three Saudi cities are further evidence of the existing but slow-growing trend toward Sunni militancy in the country. They also reveal how Saudi security forces are adept at responding to and, so far, containing the threat. The bombing in the city of Qatif, which has long experienced low-level unrest targeting and originating from the Shiite community there, was the least remarkable of the attacks: No casualties aside from the bomber were reported. More notable was the suicide bomb attack in the parking lot of the Haram al-Nabawi (Prophet's Mosque) in Medina, which killed four security officers and injured five others. The attack near the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah left the attacker dead and the two police officers who confronted him wounded. Despite the relatively low body count, the timing and coordination of the Qatif and Medina attacks, which occurred almost simultaneously, raises concerns about possible escalation. Other questions loom in the wake of the Jeddah attack about how the radicalization of the bomber, identified by Saudi officials as a driver from Pakistan, was not previously detected.

The Medina bombing drew international attention for its proximity to Islam's second-holiest site, cutting across the religion's doctrinal lines. The Saudis bear responsibility to protect the Prophet's Mosque, and the incident will prompt diplomatic discussions on security among the kingdom's friends and foes in the Muslim world. The bombing also draws questions about Saudi Arabia's continued ability to shoulder the burden of hosting what are, at their core, international spaces. As the Hajj season approaches, Riyadh is actively discussing a plan to issue pilgrims in Mecca wrist bracelets that use GPS as a navigational aid. Even as they help pilgrims find their way around a chaotic and crowded space, the bracelets would also function as surveillance and tracking tools for Saudi security forces. As security restrictions inevitably tighten in response to Monday's bombing, the monitoring of the millions of foreigners working in Saudi Arabia will be a tougher challenge still.

The Pakistani blamed for the Jeddah bombing had lived in Saudi Arabia for at least 12 years, prompting deep concern about the potential threat posed by one of the largest portions of the Saudi population — foreign labor, primarily from Asia. Expatriates do not outnumber Saudi citizens overall but significantly outstrip them in the labor market. In other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the number of expatriates well outpaces the entire local population. GCC labor ministries have long prioritized bringing in Asian labor as a means of safeguarding internal security by containing possible pan-Arab political activism brought by workers from other nations in the Middle East.

If it comes to light that the Jeddah bomber was radicalized within the borders of Saudi Arabia, however, the debate about foreign versus local labor will delay implementation of new revenue-generating ideas, such as a green card system that could formalize the residency of many of the 10 million foreigners living there. By December, significant changes in labor law could accelerate prioritization schemes that seek to provide more employment to Saudi citizens. But until then, foreign nationals who enter the country to work could face deeper scrutiny. It is difficult to imagine, though, how much tighter the Saudi surveillance system could get. One of the primary functions of much-criticized and often-abusive foreign labor laws in GCC countries is to monitor the activities and whereabouts of the millions of workers who call the monarchies home. Though swifter economic reform will require Saudi Arabia to loosen the tight strictures of that monitoring system, incidents such as the Jeddah attack will slow the pace of change.

Aside from the concern that radicalized expatriates can pose, the developing threat of increased Sunni militancy in the kingdom dovetails with the beginning of a period of economic and social instability for Saudi citizens. A series of reforms that Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has started to implement are an effort to transform the Saudi economy but threaten the status quo. Saudi intelligence services and police agencies, under the leadership of Interior Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, have been fairly effective in identifying and containing security threats. But other pieces of the puzzle, such as Saudi Arabia's military footprint outside the borders of the kingdom, are shifting. Further changes will accompany the flurry of reform efforts championed by bin Salman. Some of those reforms, intended to solve issues such as youth unemployment, will require shifting societal boundaries long ago established by religious scholars.

Those scholars, who soundly condemned this weekend's attacks, have played a crucial role in containing the spread of jihadism in Saudi Arabia. A growing concern is whether limiting the scholars' influence in an effort to catalyze reforms will weaken their power to contain such threats. The 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, led by a Saudi extremist, confirmed the risk of homegrown terrorism. That threat still exists, and as radicalized Saudi fighters return home from Iraq and Syria, they bring with them not only jihadist philosophies but also the skills to carry out attacks. The emergence of leaders capable of organizing and instructing unorganized nascent jihadist cells, along with the appearance of larger or more sophisticated explosive devices in Saudi Arabia, would indicate that the threat in the kingdom has metastasized.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this report incorrectly linked a July 5 attack in Thailand to the Islamic State.

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