Saudi Arabia will have to contain al Qaeda if it wants to successfully counter Iranian regional influence. Currently, Riyadh and the transnational jihadist network are competing with one another for primacy in the sectarian struggle that erupted after the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda has the ability to hijack that struggle, and preventing it from doing so may prove difficult for Riyadh.
On Monday, a senior Iranian official said that Tehran was ready to help the Iraqi government fight al Qaeda, which recently has been trying to capitalize on the Sunni unrest in western Anbar province that threatens the Iranian regional position. In Fallujah and Ramadi, jihadists are fighting pro-Iranian Iraqi forces even as they are clashing with Iranian interests in Beirut. Indeed, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which controls several areas in Syria, has claimed responsibility for the bombing in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut and has sent capable fighters to combat Iraqi security forces.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
Al Qaeda's presence in the region complicates matters for Saudi Arabia. Of course, by waging war against Iran and its Arab Shiite allies, jihadists help Riyadh undermine Tehran. However, they are also a major liability for the Saudis because they weaken Riyadh's position in its fight against the al Assad regime — and by extension, Iran — because the international community does not want to trade Shiite radicalism for Sunni radicalism.
More important, al Qaeda represents a much larger threat to Saudi Arabia than it does to Iran. The group sees the Saudi-led sectarian conflict against Iran and the Shia as a way to advance its position in the Sunni world. This is the crux of the issue: Jihadists who want to establish themselves in the Sunni community will have to compete with Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of the Sunni Arab Middle East.
In this context, al Qaeda represents a much bigger threat to Saudi Arabia than Iran ever could. Iran and its allies are Shia, which means they can expand only so far into the Sunni Arab world. But al Qaeda is Sunni and Salafist, which enables the group to operate more freely in the Saudi sphere of influence and indeed the kingdom itself.
For this reason, Riyadh has been working hard to isolate al Qaeda's two main franchise groups in Syria — Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — from the rest of the Salafist-jihadist rebels. In Syria, Saudi Arabia can use the network of Salafist-jihadist rebel groups to marginalize al Qaeda. Hence the recent formation of the Islamic Front, an alliance of Salafist-jihadist groups that have begun to fight al Qaeda even as they fight the al Assad regime.
However, things are different in Iraq and Lebanon, where the line is blurred between al Qaeda and Saudi-aligned militant groups. In these countries, Riyadh is less able to ensure that the fight against Iran does not also empower al Qaeda.
It is unclear whether the sons and the grandsons of the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom, King Abdulaziz, will be able to rid themselves of religious extremists the way Abdulaziz did in the 1920s. The kingdom used a tribal militia known as al-Ikhwan to consolidate control over Saudi Arabia, but it eliminated al-Ikhwan after the group had served its purpose and began pursuing its own interests. The problem for the current generation of Saudi leaders is that unlike al-Ikhwan, al Qaeda is a major transnational entity, and Abdulaziz was not faced with an Iranian or Shiite threat.
Therefore, Saudi Arabia will need to undermine al Qaeda in order to be successful in countering Iran, which involves an intra-Salafist-jihadist war, which could further complicate the existing sectarian struggle.