What’s the difference between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State?

One has captured the rent associated with being a state in the post-World War II world order. This means that one of these polities gets to build embassies in other states. It gets to participate in congresses. It gets to fly its flag at the United Nations and has access to the World Bank, military hardware markets (“for defense”), and FIFA tournaments.

Rent capture isn’t all good, of course. There are still costs. When Saudi Arabia beheads people, for example, it gets condemned internationally. Its reputation suffers. It has to repair relationships and launch rigorous public relations campaigns. Saudi Arabia has to do these things because if it looks intransigent to enough of its fellow states, there might be official repercussions for its actions. Saudi Arabia can’t just go around killing and looting and raping at will. It has to formalize its killing, looting, and raping through the international order by coming up with a national interest. (A national interest is also important for shoring up domestic support for such activities.)

But incorporating Islamic State into the international order is unfathomable. It’s an immoral action rewarding an immoral pseudo-polity. Besides, the sovereignty of the states of Iraq and Syria would be violated and their borders destroyed. It’s better to just keep bombing the region Islamic State claims to govern and arming the factions that claim to be its enemies. That’s been our policy towards the post-colonial world since 1945 and, while imperfect, it’s been working out well so far…

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8 thoughts on “What’s the difference between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State?

  1. Yep, pretty much.

    It is very interesting to trace the history of how Saudi Arabia (and the other Gulf states) got integrated into the global order. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, US planners were primarily concerned about the threat that the rising tide of Arab Nationalism (lead by Egypt’s Nasser) and Communism (lead partly by the Soviet Union, but also by locally-rooted Marxist movements) posed to the ability of the West to continue exploiting Middle Eastern oil resources; and as such, pro-Western monarchies like those in Saudi Arabia and Jordan were supported.

    And even beyond this, many officials thought that Islam was something that ought to be encouraged and spread, as an ideological counter-weight to that of atheist secular communism–but consequently ended up supporting the spread of ultra-conservative, sectarian Wahhabism (that was at odds with the majority of the Muslim world). The spread of Wahhabism was hugely boosted by the rise in oil prices after ’73, which dumped billions into Saudi coffers, which in turn dumped huge sums into organizations run by fundamentalists, who subsequently spread their faith into new areas like Pakistan and Indonesia; and all of this worked quite nicely in the eyes of US planners, especially when it came to coordinating a covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the ’80s.

    If anything, the rise of the Islamic State is simply the sundering of a decades-long foreign policy strategy, where the “outsourcing” of a security strategy to Islamist proxies has run amok.

    • Thanks Arjun.

      One interesting puzzle to think about here is how Wahhabism, which – as you mention – was not popular in the Muslim world, captured the rent associated with American foreign policy in the Cold War era. That the Saudis were close allies of the US is a given, but it doesn’t follow that Washington purposely supported Wahhabism because of Riyadh’s loyalty. The Jordanians, to name one example, followed a much more moderate, bourgeois form of Islam that would seem a likelier candidate for American power balancing aspirations.

      My intuition tells me that Wahhabism’s openness to violent recourse simply fit the times better than did the regular, boring Sunni Islam of Mediterranean and Levantine Arabs.

      • I think the main difference between Jordan and Saudi Arabia is that the latter has way, way more resources in the form of its vast oil reserves, and has been able to leverage this to fund the export of Wahhabism. This became especially true after the 1973 oil shock, and the subsequent explosion in the amount of wealth the House of Saud was accumulating. As such, they were easily able to shore up allied religious organizations and movements.

        The US supported all of this in the ’60s, because the regional Islamic bloc that King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was creating was resolutely anti-communist, and this was the main priority; and as a result, saw non-aligned, socialist governments in the region fall to or get co-opted by pro-Western Islamist movements, like in Sadat’s Egypt in the ’70s or in General Zia’s Pakistan in the ’80s.

        However, yes, it is also important to put into context what kinds of ideologies fit the times; the fall of Arab Nationalist and Marxist ideologies didn’t erase the local demand for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist arguments, so more militant and political variations of Wahhabism began to fill that niche.

      • Thanks Arjun.

        Oil money certainly played an important role in Saudi Arabia‘s rise to prominence in regional affairs (as did the US-USSR rivalry), but these two factors don’t explain how Wahhabism and other Islamist ideologies rose to prominence.

        Islamism has also had a profound effect in the Shia world, too. It’s influencing Muslims in Europe, East Asia, North America, and South Asia in various ways (digressionary link on Muslims in Latin America, or at least in Mexico). Political economy and geopolitics simply cannot be understood very well without an understanding of culture and history. This is an oft-repeated cliché, of course, but I am surprised at how often this cliché is ignored in the public sphere. (I am sure you feel the same way.)

        Such ignorance works both ways, too. Do you think the Persian press or the Arab press (or the Chinese press or…) is any better at producing work that seeks to incorporate an understanding – even a superficial one – of Western culture or history? Incidentally, this is one of the main reasons why I support further efforts aimed at “globalizing” the economy. Chhay Lin’s recent comments on Cambodian culture are as good a way to end my reply as I can think of.

  2. Seperating iraq, Syria, and Lebanon into sunni, shia, Christian and alwaite and Kurdish states is the only way to go.

    Isis is only succeeding because it is strongly supported by a marginalised sunni Arab population in Syria and iraq and it is only a matter of time before Lebanon also descends into civil war.

    The middle east looks like Europe before wwii with ethnicities living everywhere, making nationalism a continent wide ticking time bomb.

    I see isis like the nazis and putin in crimea: the borders don’t match with ethnicities/religions well. Crimea is part of Ukraine but is majority russian and Hungary/poland/bohemia had huge German populations.

    Americans assume because Catholics and jews and protestants can live side by side in America, nationalism overcomes religious and ethnic divisions. It doesn’t in most nations and is a perfect recipe for civil war.

    I think isis should be given its proper borders as long as proper population exchanges are done by ethnicity and religion.

    These intolerant ideologies are a symptom of poorly drawn borders, not character deficiencies.

    • An interesting analysis, thanks Jonah.

      One thing I want to quickly point out is that I am completely against “Seperating [sic] iraq [sic], Syria, and Lebanon into sunni [sic], shia [sic], Christian and alwaite [sic] and Kurdish states.” That’s not my argument for a more libertarian foreign policy at all.

      What I am in favor of is getting the international order, however imperfect it may be, to recognize the legitimacy of breakaway regions in the post-colonial world by incorporating them into the existing world order (through IGOs such as the UN and World Bank and through bi- or multilateral trade treaties).

      I am also in favor of more fluidity in governance in the West and elsewhere (see my argument about the EU; about the US), but different situations call for different policies, even if such policies are influenced by the same individualist worldview.

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