Saudi Arabia: Islamists Rising and Falling

Religious Radicalism after the Arab Uprisings

In Chapter 6 of Religious Radicalism after the Arab Uprisings, Jon Alterman and William McCants argue that since its inception, the Saudi state has not defined radicalism in terms of the violent, autocratic, or regressive content of an ideology. What really concerns the Saudis is perceived threats to their continued rule of the Kingdom, including challenges to their claim on Islamic legitimacy. Within this context, the Arab uprisings in 2011 presented two new challenges to Saudi Arabia. One stemmed from the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral successes across the region, raising the specter that political Islamists inside the Kingdom would demand reforms or even revolution. The second challenge emerged from the proliferation of militant groups operating in Syria against the Assad regime and later in Iraq. The Saudi state has treated them both as security threats, outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, imprisoning or silencing Islamists critical of the political stances the state has taken, and seeking—albeit not very effectively—to stem material and ideological support to the most extreme elements in Syria and Iraq. The state’s current zero tolerance for domestic dissent—whether Sunni or Shi’ite—and its effort to delegitimize the Islamic State’s claims to authority indicate the depth of its concern.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program

William McCants