The so called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant came to the attention of mainstream Western media in mid 2014, when the group uploaded a video depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley.
Since then news of ISIS’ actions across the Middle East, and recently further abroad, has dominated our newspapers, websites, and TV screens leading most to question how on earth we can defeat this group. There has been mixed responses from various global actors, ranging from sustained airstrike campaigns to economic sanctions. However, none have been particularly effective yet and the world has begun to look to the Middle East in the hope of a regional solution and whilst Jordan appeared to be committed to an intensive bombing campaign, ultimately both Jordan and the region as a whole eased away from the direct conflict.
Saudi Arabia has sadly been the victim of three terrorist attacks, claimed by ISIS, in one day. This has prompted King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to reaffirm that his kingdom “will strike with an iron hand those who target the minds and thoughts… of our dear youth”. Now Saudi Arabia has repeatedly been compared to ISIS for its extreme punishments still present in their social and legal systems. However, the kingdom is actually perfectly posed to destroy ISIS’ foothold within the region and possibly destroy them all together, here’s why.
Firstly, the Kingdom is more than well-equipped in terms of its military to make a serious impact on ISIS’ operations, the Kingdom funnels 25% of its annual budget into its military. In terms of manpower it has about 225,000 army troops and roughly 40,000 navy members as does its air force. Furthermore, they have a well-established military intelligence service, as well as the Saudi Arabian National Guard tasked with protecting members of the monarchy. Saudi Arabia also has the benefit of geopolitics on its side, as they are close enough to the heart of the conflict to understand its ever-changing nature as well as being protected from the major conflict zones. The Kingdom is also well aware of the numerous cultural nuances throughout the region that have been a major hindrance to majority of the international community’s attempts at a peaceful resolution.
Most notably, Saudi Arabia is in a prime position to target ISIS due to its religious and cultural beliefs and values. Now as I stated earlier the Kingdom has caught a significant amount of flak for the way its legal system sounds not to dissimilar to that of the Islamic State, however, earlier this year Saudi Arabia announced their Vision 2030 plan that is set to reinvigorate all aspects of their society. Vision 2030 has three distinct themes: A Vibrant Society, A Thriving Economy, and an Ambitious Nation. The plan aims to transform the Kingdom to be a pioneering and successful global model of excellence, on all fronts.
The plan signals a shift away from a predominantly oil based economy, which currently accounts for 97% of the country’s export earnings, and focuses on creating a prosperous services based industry. The plan boldly announces that the real wealth of Saudi Arabia lies in their people and their society as well as outlining the importance of happiness and fulfillment in their lives. Most importantly, the plan signals the Kingdom’s desire to promote and reinvigorate social development to build a strong and productive society. This includes improvements to the rights of women in the kingdom, the plan itself specifically states that it aims to “invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy”.
It is this plan that indicates that Saudi Arabia can not only stop the threat of ISIS throughout the Middle East, it could quite possibly be the force that brings long standing peace and stability to the region. The Kingdom has demonstrated that despite having conservative views deeply entrenched in their society and legal system it can still adapt and develop itself to fit inside the modern world. Saudi Arabia is still holding true to its beliefs and values but modernizing itself to be a major power within the region. ISIS has been capitalizing on failed or failing states that have not managed to diversify their economy, develop their social systems, or ensure stable political systems. These issues have largely come from the fear of becoming too westernized and as a result, most states fall back to their conservative Islamic roots that led to these conflicts in the first place. It is these states, like Libya and Iraq, that have allowed ISIS to develop such a strong grip on the region and the world as a whole.
If Saudi Arabia is able to utilize public diplomacy to export Vision 2030 to its neighbors and assist them in the implementation of these drastic social and economic reforms, it would allow many states across the region to stabilize themselves and develop a strong system of governance. Furthermore, if the Kingdom is prepared to take hardline military action against ISIS, it could be the leader that is needed to wipe them from the region. If Saudi Arabia was to incorporate Vision 2030 into their public diplomacy, it would not only make leaps and bounds towards stabilizing the region but it would also slingshot the Kingdom into the position of a regional power.
James Schiphorst is a former BUUNSA executive member and is undetaking a Bachelor of International Relations.