Saudi Arabia: America’s Dysfunctional “Friend”

by | Feb 20, 2002

For Thanksgiving in 1990, former President George H.W. Bush went to Saudi Arabia to visit the 400,000 American soldiers stationed there as part of Operation Desert Shield. The Saudis welcomed Bush, but made it clear that no Christian worship — including grace before the Thanksgiving meal — would be permitted on Saudi soil. It was […]

For Thanksgiving in 1990, former President George H.W. Bush went to Saudi Arabia to visit the 400,000 American soldiers stationed there as part of Operation Desert Shield. The Saudis welcomed Bush, but made it clear that no Christian worship — including grace before the Thanksgiving meal — would be permitted on Saudi soil. It was a shocking , but the Americans didn’t protest. Instead, the president and his party went aboard a US ship in the Persian Gulf and said their prayers there.

As this episode suggests, the US-Saudi relationship has been dysfunctional for some time. The Saudis treat the Americans with highhandedness, and are rewarded for their disdain with military and diplomatic support.

At least part of the explanation for this obsequiousness is oil, of course: They have it, we need it, and our economy would suffer badly if it were to become unavailable. The tendency to be ingratiating with the Saudis is especially pronounced in the Bush family, with its roots in West Texas oil. In a striking demonstration of this last July, the elder George Bush telephoned Crown Prince Abdullah to assure him that his son’s “heart is in the right place” and that he was “going to do the right thing” when it came to the Middle East.

That was the last thing Abdullah should have been told.

For the point that matters is not whether we do what the Saudis want, but when the Saudis are going to begin doing what America wants. The House of Saud would be nothing without its vast oil wealth, and it would have lost that wealth long ago were it not for the American muscle that guarantees the security of the Gulf.

And what do the Saudi princes do with their wealth, besides financing luxurious lifestyles for themselves? They spend it to keep themselves in power by buying off their country’s Wahhabi religious establishment so that it will keep a lid on the discontent that seethes throughout the kingdom. And the more money they have poured into the Wahhabis’ coffers, the more they have undermined world peace and menaced the United States.

Wahhabism — radical fundamentalist Islam — is the established creed of Saudi Arabia. It is intolerant, totalitarian, and hostile to non-Wahhabis, and its influence is felt across Saudi society. “Anti-Western and Extremist Views Pervade Saudi Schools,” read the headline on a New York Times report last fall. And not only schools: Islamic supremacism and loathing of “infidels” permeates the mosques, many government ministries, and much of the media.

The Wahhabi sheiks work tirelessly to spread their brand of Islam to Muslims everywhere. The princes’ petrodollars fund Islamist killers in Kashmir and subsidize fundamentalist subversion in the Philippines. They encouraged Al Qaeda’s savagery and radicalized Pakistan. They spread the Wahhabis’ influence to the mosques of Europe and America.

And they prepared the way for Sept. 11.

“By funding religious extremists from Michigan to Mindanao,” military theorist Ralph Peters writes, “the Saudis have done their best to destroy democracies, turn back the clock on human rights, and deny religious freedom to Islamic and other populations — while the United States guarantees Saudi security. It is the most preposterous and wrongheaded policy in American history since the defense of slavery.”

A better policy would begin by retracting the elder Bush’s simpering message to Abdullah and restating instead what his son told the world on Sept. 20: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

If you are with us, we would tell Riyadh, you will immediately cut off the Wahhabis’ funds and shut down their financial pipeline. You will close the “charities” they use to finance Islamist terrorism. You will purge them from your universities, schools, and bureaucracy. You will halt the emigration of young Saudis lusting for violence and jihad. And you will order those who are abroad to return at once or lose their citizenship.

We would make it clear to the Saudi princes that we expect their full cooperation no matter where the war on terrorism takes us. And if it takes us to a land campaign in Iraq, Saudi Arabia will make its military bases — which bristle with US-made equipment — available for staging the invasion.

Will the Saudis refuse? Will they protest that complying with our demands will mean the toppling of their regime? Either way, our course will be clear: We will seize and secure the oil fields.

This would amount to retrieving American property that the Saudis nationalized in the 1970s, but our purpose would not be self-enrichment. We would appoint a respected, pro-Western Muslim ally to run the oil industry in trust for the Muslim world. No longer would the petro-wealth of Arabia be used to advance Islamist fanaticism and terror — or to maintain a decadent royal family in corrupt opulence. It would be used, rather, to promote education, health, and freedpm throughout the Middle East. The Gulf’s great riches, now a wellspring of disorder and unrest, would be transformed into a force for decency, stability, and peace. And a perpetual cloud over the global economy — the fear that oil production will be disrupted — would all but vanish.

Is it feasible? No question. But the first step — fixing our dysfunctional relationship with the House of Saud — will be the hardest. Let us see if President Bush is up to the task.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. This is an excerpt from his weekly newsletter, Arguable, and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe to Arguable at no charge, click here.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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