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Saudi-US Relations in Crisis Again

The Empire and the Kingdom: Saudi-US Relations in Crisis Again

By Dr. Muqtedar Khan

This article was published in The Globalist 08.01.2003,
The Star Ledger 08.03.2003 and more. See… You can listen/watch Dr. Khan speak on the issue on
Voice of American Television worldwide on 08.04.2003 at 1.00 pm EST USA.

A joint congressional report on the intelligence community and its role in investigation of September 11 attacks has once again brought attention to the troubled relations between the US and Saudi Arabia over the Kingdom's involvement in the attacks. The report that deals with Saudi connection is classified and in spite of pressure from lawmakers, the media and even the Saudi government, the Bush administration has decided to keep details about Saudi support for the terrorists classified while investigations are still in progress. Understandably the Saudis are disturbed since everyone now thinks that there is a link and without knowing what the link is they cannot argue their innocence.

Saudi Arabia, a strongly conservative Islamic monarchy with a terrible human rights record, has been a close ally, friend and business partner of the United States for over sixty years. Saudi Arabia is also at the heart of all the key elements that have contributed to the attacks on America. Fifteen of the nineteen Arabs involved in the September 11th attacks were Saudi nationals. Bin Laden, whose organization, Al Qaeda has taken credit for the attacks and promised more, is from Saudi Arabia. The intelligence community is strongly convinced that much of Al Qaeda's finances come from private Saudi sources. The question that remains unresolved is if Al Qaeda has managed to penetrate the Saudi ruling elite and whether it has received any support, intelligence, logistical or financial from official Saudi sources.

Saudi Use and Abuse of Islam

There is no doubt in my mind that the terrorist trail will eventually lead to Saudi Arabia financially, politically as well as metaphorically. We must understand that in spite of its claims that it is a if not the Islamic State, Saudi Arabian foreign policy has consistently remained pragmatic and even rational. They have not used Islam as a criterion to determine their foreign relations as Iran has. They have been guided by the singular overriding desire of regime continuity in their foreign policy. They have however used Islam as a legitimizing tool first within their domestic constituency by building a strategic alliance with Wahhabi Islam, and then within the global Muslim community through the expansion and lavish redecoration of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and through financing "Islamic projects" worldwide.

The Saudi ambition to sustain a medieval style Islamic society and government has resulted in a policy of uniquely Saudi Islamic imperialism. The Saudis in order to protect their Islam - the Wahhabi Islam that is very narrow, intolerant and literalist interpretation of Islamic sources - from the influence of Islamic revivalism taking place in other parts of the Muslim World, specially Egypt, adopted a policy of exporting Wahhabism to protect
Wahhabism at home. They have also tried to control the interpretation of Islam even in America to prevent Saudi students living here from discovering that there are other interpretations of Islam, some of which are even tolerant and advocate freedom of thought and claim that Islam and democracy are compatible. This Saudi attempt to protect Wahhabism and the continuity of their regime by reconstructing the rest of the Islamic world in their own image has contributed to the growth of intolerance and bigotry among Muslims. This tendency was most spectacularly manifest in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

America and the Saudi Civil War

The Saudis were hedging their bets and playing both the Wahhabi card and the American card. Even as they sought to Wahhabize the Muslim World they continued to maintain good relations with rich and powerful Americans and cultivated the US by becoming their most important ally in moderating OPEC and maintaining the stability of oil supplies and prices. There are numerous instances when the Saudis have helped western economies by manipulating oil prices and keeping it within acceptable limits; acceptable to American consumers. By becoming useful to America they gained its support and protection. The fervor of Islamic resurgence had led to a widespread call for regime changes in most of the Muslim World. Islamists tried to come to power and succeeded in Iran and Sudan but failed every where else, particularly in Egypt and Algeria. Meanwhile the US in collaboration with Pakistan and the Saudis produced a new type of Islamic fighter - the modern mujahideen - to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and thus Bin laden was born. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan this new breed of Islamic fighters turned to new battlefields. Some chose Kashmir and others chose Bosnia and Chechnya. But bin laden decided to go home and try to make Saudi Arabia a more Islamic state.

The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which is considered by many Muslims as "off limits" for non-Muslims, infuriated bin Laden and helped act as a catalyst to exacerbate the conflict between the kingdom and the prince of mujahideen. In this Saudi civil war, the US took sides and has since worked to protect the regime from terrorists as well as other Arab threats such as Saddam Hussein. Over the years Islamists in Egypt such as Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (bin Laden's right hand man and mentor) had concluded that Egypt could not be transformed as long as it enjoyed US support. Bin Laden soon reached the same conclusion that Saudi Arabia could not be transformed as long as the US supported and protected it.

Hezbollah, which had driven both the US and Israel out of Lebanon using truck and suicide bombers, became the strategic model and in order to politically transform the Middle East, Al Qaeda decided to drive the US out of the region through a sustained terrorist campaign. Thus in many ways America suffered the attacks of September 11 -because it has supported and sustained the Wahhabi monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis inadvertently have also sowed the seeds of hatred and anger among Muslims against their greatest ally, the USA. The spread of Wahhabi ideas which are extremely anti-Western and anti-modernity see the West as a threat to Islam and the US as a barrier to Islamization.

American Dilemma

Now the US faces the daunting challenge of protecting as well as reforming Saudi Arabia. It needs the present regime to stabilize geopolitics and the oil economy. Regime change in Saudi Arabia could bring pro-bin Laden forces to power. Maintaining status quo is also unacceptable because September 11 happened as a result of existing conditions in the kingdom. Even though the administration has repeatedly proclaimed that it will go after all those who harbor and support terrorists and that it hopes to democratize the entire Middle East, it is generally understood that Saudi Arabia is excluded from both these measures.

But the United Sates cannot continue to keep the Saudi Arabian issue on the back burner. If democracy will reduce terrorism then we must talk about democracy in Saudi Arabia. If liberal Islam promoted dialogue and co-existence then we must support liberal Muslims in the Kingdom and make their voices heard over the cacophony of the fatwa regime. There are many issues and questions with regards to Saudi Arabia; they cannot remain classified" for long.

In the war on terror the Saudi regime and the US have common interests and common enemies. Perhaps a more open dialogue between the two will help them protect their interests. The Saudis have dependent on two pillars for their security - the US and Wahhabi Islam. Perhaps it is time to choose one.

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