ISIS and the Saudis’ kingdom are ideologically similar, so attempts to challenge ISIS on ideological grounds risk undermining the Saudi state too. As Heba Saleh and Simeon Kerr noted in the Financial Times last September:
“Some of the features of Isis ideology, such as its hatred of Shia Muslims and application of strict punishments such as limb amputations, are shared with the purist Salafi thought that defines Saudi Wahhabism. ISIS has explicitly referenced early Wahhabi teachers, such as Mohammed ibn Abdulwahhab, to justify its destruction of Shia shrines and Christian churches as it cuts a swath through Iraq and Syria. Thousands of Saudi nationals have been recruited to its ranks.
Saudi efforts to confront ISIS ideologically have mainly taken the form of denunciations from tame clerics – figures who have no prospect of influencing ISIS supporters and sympathisers – but it is difficult to see what else they might do without calling their own state system into question.
The king and his princes have dug a hole for themselves by harnessing religion in the pursuit of power. Religious credentials bolstered their claim to legitimacy and helped them assert their authority. For a long time, those credentials served them well, but now they are becoming a liability and it may be too late to unfasten the harness.