The Project on Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council Security focuses on national and regional security issues in the Gulf.  Made possible through a gift from HRH Prince Turki bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, the Project uses research, reports, events, and a speaker series to explore and present ideas and recommendations for the United States and allies/partners in the Saudi/GCC region so they can work more effectively together to maintain security and stability.

The project gathers insights and understanding from current and former national security practitioners from the United States and from the region such as ambassadors from the Gulf States and Gulf State military experts.

The Project on Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council Security is made possible through a gift from HRH Prince Turki bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. 


Bottom Lines

  • WHO: Harvard graduate students and fellows with interested in or currently researching terrorism and Middle East (especially GCC) security issues.
  • WHAT: Harvard delegation to the King Faisal Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia sponsored by the Saudi & GCC Security Project. Participants will present their research, attend lectures and participate in focus group, interact with local students and families, visit and enjoy the culture of various cities in Saudi Arabia.
  • WHERE: Riyadh, Al Ula, Jeddah, and Dammam
  • WHEN: 2019 dates TBD.
  • WHY: (1) Present and promote the research being done at Harvard (2) To facilitate dialogue and promote cultural exchange amongst students and experts researching Gulf security and terrorism issues (3) To strengthen and grow the relationship between Harvard and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies
  • HOW: Email a CV and interest statement to Caitlin_chase@hks.harvard.edu

Student Delegation to Saudi Arabia

The Saudi & GCC Security Project is pleased to announce the launch of an exciting new educational program that is offering a small delegation of Harvard students and fellows the chance to experience the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and witness firsthand the huge changes that are happening today, in this ever-evolving global powerhouse.

The Saudi & GCC Security Project at Harvard Kennedy School is partnering with the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies and Gateway KSA, a company that specializes in organizing educational trips to Saudi Arabia, to offer Harvard graduate students and fellows an annual university-sponsored trip to the Kingdom.

The trip offers students a multifaceted approach to learning, driven by authentic, real-world experiences, and will include the opportunity to present and discuss research being done at Harvard, and participate in lectures and focus groups at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies.

During this nine-day trip, students visit the King Faisal Centere for Research and Islamic Studies and see the sights of Riyadh, Al Ula, Jeddah, and Dammam. There are multiple opportunities for interaction and cultural exchange with local students and families. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, the Director of the Intelligence Project and Saudi & GCC Security Project at Harvard Kennedy School, leads the trip.

Applications for the Spring 2019 trip will open in September 2018. Please reach out to Caitlin_chase@hks.harvard.edu with any questions.

For further information on the Gateway KSA program, please visit their website at: www.gatewayksa.com

Student Research

The Saudi & GCC Security Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs offers opportunities for student researchers interested in topics surrounding how policy, intelligence, and security issues impact on the Gulf region.

The research will be conducted under the advisement of expert “mentors” from the HKS community, including the Director of the Saudi & GCC Security Project and Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. Finished products will not receive a grade or academic credits, and Saudi & GCC Security Project will publish worthy products and present research through the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs upon completion.

If interested, please send a CV/resume and a short proposal outlining your research interests and background to Caitlin_chase@hks.harvard.edu.

Student Reflections from the 2018 Harvard Kennedy School Delegation to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The Five Ms of Saudi Arabia’s Rehabilitation

Pete Knoetgen | May 24, 2018

The Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center occupies a well-manicured plot of land on the outskirts of Riyadh. It serves as the temporary home of former terrorists who have completed their prison sentences and face the prospect of reintegration into Saudi society. But the guests of the bin Nayef Center—referred to by staff as “beneficiaries”—are not the only Saudis undergoing transformation: the entire Kingdom is a sort of “beneficiary,” looking to reform itself in the face of an untenable future. As a result, King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are leading efforts to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s society and economy, most clearly embodied in the government’s Vision 2030 development plan.

The bin Nayef Center tells former extremists that five groups—the “Five Ms”—will complicate their path to reformation. While the Five Ms provide a useful window into the rehabilitation of terrorists, they can also prove instructive in understanding the stakeholders shaping Saudi modernization efforts. The royal family, pro-government reformists, Saudi citizens, regional opponents, the West, the religious establishment, the privileged business community, the domestic security apparatus—all have roles to play as the Saudi government attempts to rehabilitate its stultified society, and each fits within the Five M framework.

The Five Ms

As they guide “beneficiaries” through their recovery, the bin Nayef Center’s army of psychologists, sociologists, and religious scholars warn their students about five types of people:

  1. al-Muhib ( المحب )—“The Well-Wisher.” Literally meaning “the one who loves you,” these are the people closest to you, who wish you well, but may ultimately try too hard to help. al-Muhib will kill you with kindness: the term comes from the 8th century Iraqi poet al-Asmai’s famous phrase Wa man al-hubee ma qatl,or “too much love kills you.” The well-wisher’s overbearing commitment to your rehabilitation could be your undoing.
  2. al-Muatib ( المعاتب )—“The Blamer.” The more distant relatives who blame you for bringing shame and dishonor to the family name. They are bitter that they have suffered the consequences of your actions and will attack or ostracize you for your prior misdeeds.
  3. al-Mushakik ( المشكك )—“The Doubter.” The employer, neighbor, or former acquaintance who doesn’t want to deal with you. They doubt that you have really changed and would prefer to keep their distance rather than be a partner in your reintegration.
  4. al-Mumajid ( الممجد )—“The Glorifier.” Your former compatriots in extremist organizations. They seek to pull you back into the jihadist fold. They glorify your previous actions, tell you that you were a great mujahid, and try to convince you that you should return to your old ways.
  5. al-Muraqib ( المراقب )—“The Watcher.” The institutions of the state, who are watching your every move after your release. If you stray from the virtuous path, know that they are watching, they will see you, and they will take appropriate action. This is the threat, the enforcement mechanism. Do right—or else.

Each of these actors have parallels to stakeholders engaged with the modernization initiatives unfolding in the Kingdom. By identifying the well-wishers, the blamers, the doubters, the glorifiers, and the watchers, analysts can begin to map out the key players—and how those actors could impact the likelihood that reform efforts will succeed or fail.

“The Well-Wishers”: MBS and the Regime-Affiliated Reformists

The bloc most likely to harm the Kingdom through their overbearing approach are the reformists themselves: Mohammed bin Salman and his cohort of youthful modernizers. A new generation of Saudi leaders, often, like bin Salman, only in their mid-30s, draw much of their support from the 70 percent of Saudi society that are 29 or younger. A large number of them have tasted freedom and modernity in their travels outside of the Kingdom, and they want to see those same opportunities brought to their own country. But they also run the risk of going “too far, too fast,” and thus upending the system that has made Saudi Arabia one of the few Middle Eastern countries to have achieved long-term stability.

In the social domain, the reformists espouse one of the key goals that Western leaders have long-urged Saudi Arabia to embrace: a less repressive version of Islam, characterized by improved women’s rights and expanded social freedoms. They claim that, rather than introducing new concepts into Saudi society, they are simply returning Saudi Arabia to a pre-1979 mindset. They are “taking Saudi Arabia back to what we were, a moderate form of Islam.”

In the narrative of Saudi reformists, 1979 was the year that everything went wrong, when a Saudi royal family weary of domestic unrest capitulated to the demands of ultra-conservative religious leaders. The al-Saud family’s fears stemmed from two events that sent shockwaves through the Kingdom: the seizure of Mecca’s Holy Mosque by jihadi extremist Juhayman al-Otaybi and Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Juhayman, which means “Angry Face,” is a still reviled but oft-muttered name in Saudi Arabia. At the time, his movement represented growing resentment among religious hardliners who were convinced that the royal family had sold out their country’s religious purity in exchange for Western money and power. Within the Kingdom today, Juhayman represents the “original extremist” to many Saudis and is viewed as the forefather of modern anti-government jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. When combined with the wave of revolutionary Islamist spirit that gripped the region after Khomeini seized power in Iran, King Khalid and his advisors decided to coopt rather than confront the increasingly outspoken ulema. The royal family caved, solidifying their powerbase by allowing religious leaders to impose an increasingly draconian version of Islam during the early 1980s.

Now the reformists want to turn back the clock. The older generation, those that have suffered through the consequences of 1979, are upset that they lost the last 30 years to hardliner intolerance. The younger reformists refuse to accept the status quo, to live another 30 years of social repression. But their commitment to correcting the wrongs of the past also threatens Saudi Arabia’s longstanding political system. Saudi leadership has historically been cautious in its attempts to promote change. Rather than instituting wholesale reform, the royal family, which tends to be more liberal than their countrymen in private if not in public, has selectively chosen cases where high-level intervention could signal the adoption of more modern societal norms. Mohammed bin Salman and his father have eschewed that approach, instead moving to swiftly overturn some of the Kingdom’s most egregious social restrictions on a systemic level rather than through incremental progress.

But the current leadership’s commitment to change has required them to take a variety of controversial measures to solidify their power. The elevation of Mohammed bin Salman to the role of Crown Prince marked a significant departure from traditional Saudi succession plans. Whereas previous leadership transitions were predicated on the notion that power would shift among half-brothers who were the sons (and, eventually, grandsons) of the original Saudi patriarch, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the sidelining of former Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef in favor of bin Salman stipulates a father-son transition. As a result, the various branches of the royal family, once guaranteed an eventual shot at the throne through a lateral rather than primogeniture succession system, may instead find themselves frozen out of the upper echelons of Saudi power. Whether or not this change will generate instability within the royal family remains to be seen. Formerly powerful figures, such as deposed Crown Prince bin Nayef and Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, the fired head of the National Guard, both command formidable power bases within the House of Saud. They—or other similarly diminished figures—may eventually seek to reassert their influence within the Kingdom’s political system.

Having solidified the formal basis of his power, Mohammed bin Salman has further marginalized opponents to his authority and his reform efforts through often brutal coercion. After having reportedly been forced to relinquish his claim to the throne by means of sleep deprivation and denial to medication, bin Nayef was also placed under house arrest for several months, had his bank accounts frozen, and was subjected to a public assault on his character in order to justify his removal. Similar actions were taken against potential rivals as part of an anticorruption campaign that doubled as a royal purge. Allegations that regime opponents held captive in the Ritz-Carlton were subjected to torture have become rampant. Opposition to the government reformists appears to come at the risk of significant personal peril.

In summary, the well-wishers’commitment to their version of social reform may spawn political turmoil and human rights abuses. This group’s determination to create change—today—gives rise to significant drawbacks. In the most extreme scenarios, their desire to see their reform program succeed could harm the very society they seek to rehabilitate.

“The Blamers”: Victims of Extremism and Sectarianism

The muatib does not forgive easily. He reflects on the wrongs that Saudi policy have visited upon him and can scarcely look at the royal family and the Crown Prince but with contempt. He blames Saudi Arabia for two problems roiling the Middle East: extremism and sectarianism. Domestic Saudi reforms mean little to him when compared to the proliferation of Sunni extremist groups and Saudi involvement in regional conflicts. The core of this camp are liberal Arabs, Americans who bear the scars of 9-11, and those within the Iranian orbit.

Iranian proxies in Iraq invariably describe ISIS as a Wahhabi or even Saudi organization. They accuse Saudi Arabia of serving as the organization’s lifeblood by supporting the ISIS ideology, providing the organization with recruits, and offering it direct support. Even some within Sunni Arab communities consider Saudi Arabia to be the source of the problem, in part because of the Kingdom’s well-known reputation for religious conservatism, and in part due to the desire to point the finger at someone other than their own countrymen. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere, liberals and religious moderates who feel that groups like al-Qaeda espouse religious interpretations at odds with more tolerant local practices blame Saudis for exporting fundamentalism and infecting the traditions of their home country. Much like the distant relatives of terrorists, the anti-Saudi muatib believes that the Kingdom has brought shame to his region and his religion, wrongly making both seem like bastions of intolerance and backwards thinking. Regional “blamers” are joined by those in the US who similarly hold Saudi Arabia responsible for terrorism—particularly the 9-11 attacks. The belief that the Kingdom should pay for the sins of al-Qaeda runs strong in the American public and US Congress. Few within this camp believe that Saudi Arabia is interested in real change. The Saudi leadership is a force to be confronted, not celebrated.

The same narrative courses through discussions on sectarianism. Much like the Saudis blame Iranians for the modern explosion of sectarian politics in the Middle East, the Iranians and their allies blame the Saudis. Those caught in the middle tend to blame both. In their view, Mohammed bin Salman’s direct involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and his interference in Lebanese politics puts lie to the idea that he is a reformist. His actions show that he is the same as those who came before him—he deserves scorn for his brash actions, human rights abuses, and attempts to divide the Middle East.

“The Doubters”: The West and Vulnerable Saudi Citizens

As the government-affiliated reformists push for change, they face skepticism from both their Western counterparts and from Saudi citizens hesitant to overtly participate in the “new Saudi Arabia.”

Western politicians, business leaders, media, and academics harbor significant doubts that the Saudi leadership will successfully implement their ambitious reform agenda. They point to the deep conservatism of Saudi society and the leadership’s seemingly contradictory desire to both limit the societal impact of foreign influence while simultaneously attempting to encourage increased foreign direct investments. They look at the Kingdom’s long history of financing ultraconservative religious institutions throughout the world, and wonder whether the Saudis will truly change their ways. They point to the massive obstacles that prevent the diversification of the Saudi economy after years of reliance on oil, including a hugely bloated public sector, a stifling, innovation-killing bureaucracy, and a labor pool that has grown largely unaccustomed to doing serious work while they have lived off of state patronage. In some cases, Western observers raise the possibility that bin Salman’s actions are merely a power grab cleverly disguised as reforms. As a result, Western observers who adopt stridently pro-regime positions tend to face equally strident pushback, as exemplified by the reaction to Thomas Friedman’s widely vilified piece in the New York Times.

In response to these accusations, the reformists claim that they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. After years of enduring Western criticism that reform efforts in Saudi Arabia were “too little, too late,” they now face allegations that their movement is going “too far, too fast,” or that their approach to rehabilitating their society is unacceptable. They acknowledge the hurdles to reform but claim that they have developed realistic plans—complete with consultant-speak and “key performance indicators”—to address potential pitfalls. They claim that rather than representing a radical new approach, Vision 2030 is indicative of continuity since it is merely the latest in a series of national development plans that the Kingdom has periodically updated since 1970. They argue that they have generated buy-in among wide swaths of their population through comprehensive communication campaigns, to include the use of “Dialogue Caravans” meant to explain changes to those in rural communities. But skepticism lingers in the West, and few are willing to enthusiastically support Mohammed bin Salman in public. The Western mushakik prefers to sit on the sidelines, neither fully embracing nor fully condemning the Kingdom’s domestic evolution.

Inside Saudi Arabia, the government faces a different group of skeptics: Saudis who may support change, but who worry about the backlash which they could suffer if they publicly exercise their newfound freedoms. This group worries that their family, their friends, or their neighbors may ostracize them for breaking social taboos—even if the government has deemed such actions permissible. They worry that the religious establishment and their enforcers—the morality police—may take matters into their own hands rather than strictly adhering to the intent of senior leaders. Some wonder if the changes are permanent, or simply fleeting. They look at continuing government hostility towards independent activists, and wonder if the King and the Crown Prince are really as committed to reforms as they proclaim. As a result, many who stand to benefit from the loosening of social restrictions will move cautiously, constantly evaluating the risks. Many women in Saudi Arabia report that they will not begin driving immediately after the lifting of the anti-women driving ban. Instead, they will wait for at least a few months, watching how events unfold. The government tries to bring these doubters on board through public assurances, such as anti-cyber bullying laws that allow Saudis to report abusive harassment on social media, although the same laws can be used to prosecute individuals accused of “infringing on religious boundaries and social morals.” While the state seeks to persuade fence-sitters of its sincerity, it has been guilty of mixed signaling, and ultimately must contend with a variety of more proximate actors like friends and family who exert profound influence on the decision making of individuals.

“The Glorifiers”: The Religious Establishment and Business Elites

While there are many within the Kingdom who want to see their country chart a new course, ultra-religious leaders and businessmen who profit handsomely from the status quo are not among them. Instead of encouraging reform, they extol the virtues of the old ways, when their remit was expansive and their wallets fat. They attempt to lure the Kingdom back to its glorious past rather than allowing it to look to a more modern future.

As the religious hardliners survey the current political landscape, they see the unwinding of a long-running bargain between their community and the House of Saud. The Saudi government goes to great lengths to distinguish Wahhabi ideology (when it acknowledge the concept at all) from the beliefs of extremist organizations. But it generally does not do so on the basis of Wahhabism’s more moderate stances on public punishments, women’s rights, or social freedoms. In fact, the stonings, lashings, religious police patrols, and even crucifixions employed by ISIS bear more than a passing resemblance to practices with longstanding precedence in Saudi Arabia. Rather than attempting to portray Wahhabism as more tolerant than jihadist organizations, Saudi leaders instead tend to point to the fact that Wahhabism requires obedience to the wali al-amr, the rightfully appointed leader who, in the case of Saudi Arabia, happens to be the King. Wahhabism, while espousing fanatical social conservativism, is also conservative in its opposition to state authority. The principle sin of groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and even the Muslim Brotherhood is not necessarily their retrograde interpretations of Islamic law, but rather the fact that they resist duly constituted states by means of vocal opposition and force. In exchange for the ability to rule as they see fit on religious issues, Wahhabis are expected to practice a form of quietism on matters of governance. Wahhabis may preach highly conservative beliefs, but they are generally forbidden from challenging a state seen as inadequately implementing their ideas. It is this bedrock deal of Saudi politics which is increasingly at risk.

Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to rehabilitate “moderate Islam” within his country by rolling back the edicts of hardliners and reigning in the power of the morality police—known as the Mutawa’ah—directly encroach on the turf that had previously fallen within the purview of the religious establishment. Although reform decisions have typically been accompanied by religious justifications issued by the Kingdom’s Council of Senior Scholars, such proclamations are generally couched with language that indicates the scholars’ less than enthusiastic support. The statements do not mean that the hardliners have willingly relented to the changes sweeping Saudi Arabia. Rather, it means that they and their Mutawa’ah enforcers have been compelled to stand aside by means of coercion. Even in the face of widespread arrests, some hardliners have still voiced their opposition to reforms, often in crude terms. In their mind, the old way was better, when they enjoyed carte blanche to promote virtue and prohibit vice based on their own beliefs.

Many entrenched business elites similarly view reforms as a potential threat to their empires. Nepotism, corruption, and a lack of true competition has allowed some within the Kingdom to amass huge fortunes and wield significant power. Were the current system to change, their wealth and influence may dramatically decline. While the detention of billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has been the most public rebuke to the entrenched business elite, he is far from the only Saudi businessman to suffer from anticorruption measures and attempts to wean companies off of public sector funding. As a result, many of these powerbrokers are likely to slow roll or sidestep economic reforms in a bid to preserve already-favorable arrangements. The businessman mumajid makes his appeal by pointing to the good life that many Saudis have come to enjoy: what’s so bad about wide ranging subsidies and stable government jobs? Why change now?

“The Watchers”: The Instruments of State Coercion

Saudi Arabia’s domestic security apparatus ensures that recidivist “beneficiaries” are captured or killed when they revert to their jihadist ways. In the context of reform, the same apparatus ensures compliance with royal edicts. Their conduct is at the core of Saudi Arabia’s reformist contradiction: can greater social freedom and economic progress truly be attained through increased repression? And, perhaps more importantly, should reformists really look the other way if such measures seem to be working?

For decades, the General Investigation Directorate, commonly known as the Mubahith, have gained a reputation for their efficiency and ruthlessness. Those who run afoul of the state are subjected to Mubahith-led investigations, interrogations, and detentions. As part of Mohammed bin Salman’s power consolidation, a July 2017 royal decree placed the Mubahith under the direct supervision of the King and the Prime Minister’s office (lead by Prince Mohammed) through the creation of a new body called the Presidency of State Security. The change weakens the role of the Ministry of Interior and gives bin Salman increased control over the tools of state coercion, allowing him to silence opponents and advance his policy prescriptions.

Although the Mubahith were never as committed to enforcing social-religious norms as the Mutawa’ah, and in fact have historically arrested religious leaders who spoke out against the government, they have still played an important role in the state’s support for the religious establishment. However, it is now increasingly the case that they will serve as the tool used to ensure the capitulation of their former bedfellows. When conservative sheikhs or Mutawa’ah leaders push back against social reforms, the Mubahith and their counterparts in the Presidency of State Security are the ones who compel compliance. When angry family members or neighbors attempt to harm women exercising their right to drive, the Mubahith will be the ones who take them away with little public justification—in many cases, to prisons notorious for mistreatment of their inmates. The bad guys may still be bad, but they may also increasingly find themselves in alliance with those who want to push Saudi Arabia into modernity. This is the nature of the Saudi government’s social rehabilitation program: it is backed by force, an autocratic approach for ostensibly liberal purposes. Those who oppose the state’s program should know that they are being watched, and that a misstep could result in swift retribution by the muraqib.


As Saudi Arabia continues to chart new territory with its domestic reforms, each camp within the Five M framework will pose challenges to progress. The well-wishers’ devotion to reform, and specifically to the implementation of their own agenda, may lead to drastic approaches and overreach. The blamers may be blinded to the real changes taking place in the Kingdom, instead choosing to dwell on geopolitics and the past. The Western doubters prefer to hedge rather than throw their weight behind progress, potentially depriving the movement of the support that it needs to ensure its resiliency. Vulnerable Saudi citizens may prudently opt to moderate their risk taking, but, similarly to their Western doubter counterparts, such actions may stall the momentum of reform projects. The glorifiers in the religious establishment and the privileged business elite, both who stand to lose power and influence, will look for avenues to undercut change and return the Kingdom to the good old days. The security apparatus will perform the functions that come to it naturally—namely, repression—as it watches for dissent in the face of royal decree. Each camp can play a constructive role in the rehabilitation of Saudi society. Whether they choose to confront their own shortcomings in the pursuit of a new path remains an open question.