Following their ruler's lead, public turns anger on Assad over bloody conflict, but kingdom continues to grapple with how far its support for rebels should go
When King Abdullah announced a national fundraising drive to aid Syrian refugees in late July, Saudis quickly donated nearly $150 million.
Saudi national television hosted a telethon, with banks of men in traditional robes manning phone lines and computers. Donations came by text, by direct deposit into special bank accounts, or from families stuffing crumpled Riyal notes into collection boxes or donating their cars and even their watches.
Abdullah, normally a discreet behind-the-scenes conciliator, has denounced the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with rare royal rage, and his people have joined in with gusto.
Beyond humanitarian concerns, Abdullah sees an opportunity to strike a key strategic blow against Iran, Syria’s key ally and Saudi Arabia’s main rival for power in the Middle East, analysts and government officials said in interviews across this oil-rich kingdom.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran each claim to be the world’s true center of Islam. Both nations are struggling to expand their influence in a region upended by popular revolts that are shifting governments and long-standing alliances.
Assad’s government serves as Tehran’s key pipeline for transferring money and arms to Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon. Abdullah sees Assad’s potential ouster as a way to choke off that flow and diminish the influence of an increasingly belligerent Iran, officials and analysts said.
“Syria is Iran’s entry into the Arab world,” said one Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Take down Assad and you inflict a strategic blow on Iran.”
The official said Iran is “really on the ropes” because of international sanctions over its nuclear program. He said removing an ally as pivotal as Assad would make Iran “more vulnerable to sanctions.”
Saudi officials have been circumspect about their direct support to Syrian rebels, although government officials privately said Riyadh is buying arms and ammunition, as well as paying salaries for soldiers who defected from the Syrian military to join the rebels.
Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television and an influential political analyst, said Saudi officials have paid for Kalashnikov rifles and other Russian-made weapons for defected Syrian soldiers who have been trained on Russian arms. Saudi officials have also financed shipments of millions of rounds of ammunition for the rebels, he said, echoing a common assessment among Saudi analysts.
Some analysts here said Abdullah wants to do more for the Syrian opposition, but he is being restrained by Washington. They said U.S. officials have discouraged Riyadh from sending heavier weapons, particularly shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADS, to combat Syrian government air attacks. They said U.S. officials are worried about such weapons ending up in the hands of extremist elements among the opposition forces, a concern reported over the weekend in the New York Times.
“They wanted to send MANPADS to the Syrians, but the Americans are worried — the Americans are blocking that,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and media executive with close ties to the Saudi elite.
Abdullah has resisted calls for more military action, including a recent proposal from Qatar for a coordinated Arab diplomatic and military response to Syria’s violence.
Government officials insist that Saudi Arabia has not sent armed fighters to Syria. Analysts here said a few Saudi militants may be fighting in Syria, but they are not sanctioned by the government.
Abdullah has cracked down on clerics who have called for young men to travel to Syria, and Saudi Arabia’s official clerics have issued warnings telling young people not to join the fight.
The Saudi government fears kindling another generation of Saudi religious warriors like those who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. Those fighters, including Osama bin Laden, eventually became a radicalized fighting force that turned on the Saudi royal family and gave rise to al-Qaeda.
“Saudis don’t want their youth going there. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of Afghanistan,” Khashoggi said. “Saudis in Syria are a recipe for terrorism.”
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Simon Henderson, a Saudi Arabia specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said “exporting jihadis is what the Saudis have always done — to Afghanistan, to Bosnia, to Chechnya.”
“Of course, the Saudis, both in public and private, say that they are not sending jihadis to Syria,” he said. “Do I believe them? No, although I have yet to see evidence to confirm my suspicions. . . . If, as I suspect, we have allowed another generation of Saudi extremist youth to receive battle training, then it is easy to predict the probable consequences — a new al-Qaeda-type of terrorism, threatening us all.”
Abdullah became the first Arab leader to publicly rebuke Assad in August 2011, when he said the crackdown in Syria was “not acceptable to Saudi Arabia” and called for Assad’s government to make “comprehensive reforms” before it is “too late.”
“Either it chooses wisdom on its own, or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss, God forbid,” Abdullah said.
Saud Kabli, political and foreign affairs columnist for the al-Watan newspaper, said the Saudi public was growing increasingly angry about the situation in Syria, which has put pressure on Abdullah to take a tougher stance. “This is the first time that the Saudi government bends to the will of the people on foreign policy,” Kabli said.
Abdullah’s relations with Assad have been strained at least since the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon. The Syrian government is widely believed to have been involved.
“Abdullah was extremely close to Hariri,” said Robert Lacey, a British author who has written extensively on Saudi Arabia. “Hariri became a Saudi citizen, he was Saudi’s man in Lebanon. His death was very painful for Abdullah, and he holds a personal grudge against Assad.”
Many here have argued for the government to help overthrow Assad by force, either by more aggressively arming the Free Syrian Army or intervening as part of an international military force.
“I think we should be doing more,” said Sondus Al-Aidrous, 23, a therapist at a private hospital. Like almost all Saudi women, she was fully veiled in black, with only her eyes visible, as she shopped for makeup at the chic Kingdom Mall in Riyadh. “I know we send money, but we should have stopped the violence.”
The Saudi public’s connection to Syria is strengthened by the fact that more than a million Syrians live in Saudi Arabia. Jameel Daghestani, a Syrian community leader in Riyadh, said many are long-time residents, but he estimated that up to 90,000 have come to the kingdom to stay with family or friends since the violence in Syria began. Many of them are benefiting from a recent decree by Abdullah that Syrians visiting Saudi Arabia may indefinitely renew their visas.
Bashir al-Azem, a Syrian who runs a construction company and has lived in Saudi Arabia since 1966, said the Syrian community has raised millions of dollars — mainly for humanitarian relief, but also to support the rebels. He said he personally has donated more than $530,000, and his company contributed an additional $266,000 during the national telethon.
“For the first six or seven months after the revolution, I said whatever money I send, I do not want it to buy any weapons,” he said. “But after seeing all the killing, I don’t mind. I tell them, if you need bullets, buy them.”
Reem Fuad Mohammed, 46, a wealthy Saudi from Jiddah whose family is in the construction machinery business, said she was so saddened by televised images of the Syria violence that she collected $500,000 in cash and goods and shipped them to Syrian refugees in Lebanon in May.
She spent an additional $100,000 of her own money to equip a small health clinic in Lebanon and pay for medical treatment.
During an interview in her elegant Jiddah home, she picked up her iPhone and dialed Hasna Hassoun, a Syrian woman she met in Lebanon who lost her husband, two children and both legs in a Syrian government attack.
Hassoun spoke on the phone as she was lying in a hospital bed while a doctor measured her for prosthetic legs. “I was so happy that the people of Saudi Arabia were helping,” she said. “I felt like a whole family was taking care of me.”