Let’s try a different theory: that the Saudis know exactly what they’re doing. That they are, in fact, geniuses at exporting trouble while keeping the homeland quiet. What other Middle Eastern faction has held power as long as the House of Saud? They’re coming up on a century in control of the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and in that century they’ve buried a lot of groups that looked a lot shinier and more modern, starting with the Al Rashidi, who were more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and adaptable than the Sauds. The Sauds crushed them anyway.
Same with the Hashemites, although they've hung on to little Jordan.
Then there was the rise of the Communists. Nobody even remembers that 50 years ago the Middle East was crowded with clever, university-educated Marxist Arabs who were going to sweep the bad old monarchies away. Now, the last Marxists in Syria are a very small, weird militia fighting with Assad against a tidal wave of Sunni jihadism.
The Ba’ath, who were going to secularize and modernize the Arab world, have seen their ideology vanish completely, so that even the guys fighting for so-called Ba’athists like Assad are openly fighting for their sect, not pan-Arab socialism.
The Middle East has been Saudi-ized while we looked on and laughed at those goofy Saudis who didn’t understand progress. No wonder they’re content to play dumb. If we took a serious look at them, they’d be terrifying.
And of all their many skills, the one the Saudis have mastered most thoroughly is disruption. Not the cute tech-geek kind of disruption, but the real, ugly thing-in-itself. They don’t just “turn a blind eye” to young Saudi men going off to do jihad—they cheer them on. It’s a brilliant strategy that kills two very dangerous birds with one plane ticket. By exporting their dangerous young men, the Saudis rid themselves of a potential troublemaker while creating a huge amount of pain for the people who live wherever those men end up.
Saudis have shipped money, sermons, and volunteers to Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Russia’s North Caucasus just as they’re doing now in Syria. It’s a package deal—to get the money, you have to accept the Wahhabism and the volunteers. And it works. The Saudi package is usually resented at first, like it was by the Afghans who were outraged to be told they were “bad Muslims” by Saudi volunteers.
But Afghan Islam has been Wahhabized over time. The same thing happened much more dramatically in Chechnya, where Saudi volunteers showed they were serious about war and religion, a nice change from the coopted quasi-Soviet imams the Chechens had known before. Saudis like Ibn al-Khattab, Abu al-Walid, and Muhannad (all noms de guerre) provided the only real jobs a young man could get in Chechnya, and in the process did a great job of miring the Chechens in an endless war that has killed something like 160,000 people while forcing Chechen women into Saudi-style isolation, eventually leaving Chechnya under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov, a second-generation death-squad commander who does most of the Kremlin’s killing for them. This is a typical Saudi aid result: A disaster for the recipients, the Chechens, and their enemies, the Russians, but a huge win for Saudi. Same thing is going on in the rest of Russia’s North Caucasus, especially in Dagestan, where the Boston Marathon bombers’ parents live.
And one aspect of that victory is the elimination of potentially troublesome young males who might have made trouble inside Saudi.
Are there more general lessons that can be learned from the success of the Sauds? Maybe they are the wave of the future?