DAVID IGNATIUS: Saudi challenge: The Islamic State

DAVID IGNATIUS

DAVID IGNATIUS

With Iraq and Syria ablaze, the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems almost an afterthought. But Riyadh will be a crucial, if quixotic, ally as the U.S. seeks to mobilize Sunni Muslims against the terrorist Islamic State.

The kingdom’s many critics argue that Saudi Arabia itself helped spread the toxic virus by bankrolling Islamist rebels and their extremist Salafist Muslim ideology. As if to insulate itself from such criticism, the kingdom recently donated $100 million to a new U.N. counterterrorism center, and its senior religious leader, the grand mufti, declared the Islamic State and its al-Qaida forebear “enemy No. 1 of Islam.”

King Abdullah remains in power, a generally popular and respected monarch. But at 90, his energy and attention span are limited.

For a generation, Americans and Saudis have worried that the kingdom was a potential tinderbox. But whatever their internal disagreements, the sons and grandsons of King Abdul Aziz have been able to maintain the family consensus necessary to preserve their rule.

U.S. and Arab experts describe a kingdom that is worried about three dangers: the rise of Iran and its Shiite Muslim allies; the resurgence of Sunni extremism embodied by the Islamic State; and the reliability of the United States, the kingdom’s protector, which is seen by many Saudis as a superpower in retreat.

The unsettled situation is illustrated by the mercurial Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He was ousted as intelligence chief last April, then rehabilitated this summer with the honorific title of chairman of the national security council. The outcome is probably a net gain for Saudi stability: Khaled bin Bandar bin Abdul Aziz, the new chief of the spy service, is seen as a more reliable and professional operator; he works well with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister who is trusted by the U.S.

The new spy chief and the interior minister, accompanied by Bandar and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, traveled to Qatar this week, presenting a common front to a regional rival that has often bedeviled Saudi and U.S. policy.

One question mark has been Crown Prince Salman, 78, the defense minister, who is reportedly in poor health. The wild card in the Saudi deck is Bandar, the flamboyant former ambassador to Washington. Some Americans feared Bandar’s covert efforts in the Syrian civil war were unintentionally spawning al-Qaida terrorists.

It has been Saudi Arabia’s recurring nightmare to fight external enemies by encouraging Sunni movements that turn extremist and threaten the kingdom itself. This happened in the 1980s, when the Saudis joined the CIA in sponsoring the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

The Saudis must worry that a similar process has happened again. Some of the Sunni fighters they backed against Iran have drifted toward the Islamic State. The Saudis didn’t intend the ensuing disaster, but they must now deal with it.

Analysts credit Mohammed bin Nayef and Khaled bin Bandar for seeking to build more competent, professional security services at Interior and Intelligence. They’ll need that skill, and luck, too. For Saudi Arabia, big challenges lie just over the horizon.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.