How do you solve a problem like Saudi Arabia?
President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week will have little impact on the mounting American hostility toward the Saudis. Now that the United States is no longer dependent on Riyadh for oil, U.S. officials feel free to vent the pent-up anger that has been building for years.
The most recent example is the bill in Congress that would allow Americans to sue the Saudi government if it was found to have played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks – 15 of 19 hijackers were Saudis. Meantime, Obama may finally release 28 redacted pages of a 2002 congressional report on the attacks that may or may not implicate some Saudi officials.
Mind you, the 9/11 Commission found no evidence that the Saudi government or senior Saudi officials funded the attack. And if U.S. law were changed to permit bringing suit against a country, other nations would do the same to us.
Yet the congressional bill reflects a growing frustration at the hard-line Saudi version of Islam that has contributed in one way or another to the growth of jihadi terrorism. The legislation is a symptom of our failure to address the real Saudi problem, which no U.S. leader has figured out how to resolve.
The problem is bigger than the fact that Saudi charities and sheikhs have helped finance Islamists. The desert monarchy has curbed such support in recent years, and other Gulf countries are also conduits of funds. The existential threat revolves around the Saudis’ determination, over the past three decades, to spread their harsh Wahhabi variant of Islam around the world.
Wahhabism is a product of a long-ago deal between the tribal founders of Saudi Arabia and the 18th-century Sunni preacher, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This religious strain scorns other faiths, detests Shiite Muslims and praises jihad.
Saudi schools teach intolerance, and the monarchy permits hard-line imams to export their poison on the Internet. Since the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has spent a fortune building mosques and religious schools in other Muslim countries, while sending Saudi imams to promote fundamentalist thinking. I have seen the negative impact: on the West Bank in the 1980s; in Central Asia, Bosnia, and Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s; and in Pakistan, where for three decades Saudi-funded madrassas have trained generations of Taliban.
The Saudis defend themselves by claiming they are the targets of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. But their religious ideology has laid the theological groundwork for such violent jihadis. The main difference between them is that those groups consider current Arab regimes to be insufficiently faithful to these puritan precepts and deserving of destruction.
Obama recognizes the Saudi problem. Last year, according to a much-discussed article in the Atlantic Monthly, the president complained that Saudi funding of religious schools and seminaries in Indonesia had moved that country from a more tolerant Islam to the more extreme Saudi version.
“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?” the president was asked.
“It’s complicated,” Obama supposedly replied. True. But that doesn’t explain why presidents from both parties have gone along with Saudi proselytizing for decades.
The answer, of course, is that, in the past, the Saudis provided things that U.S. presidents wanted. Of course there was oil, and – with some spectacular exceptions – the Saudis kept prices stable and supplies flowing.
And there was money: the Saudis helped Ronald Reagan finance the Afghan war against the Soviets (even though they funneled the funds to the worst Afghan fundamentalist groups). The Saudis also paid for most of the first Gulf War. They make huge purchases of U.S. weapons.
End even today – at a time when Americans want Mideast rulers to take greater responsibility for stabilizing their region – presidential candidates from both U.S. political parties are urging the Saudis to do more to fight the Islamic State. Never mind that what the Saudis have done already has only made the civil war in Syria – and Yemen – worse.
So how do you solve a problem like Saudi Arabia? I wish I had an answer.
But for starters, it’s time to get the problem out into the public sphere.
Obama should release the 28 redacted pages, so the public can finally see if there is any smoke. Even the Saudis have been asking for years to have the pages declassified.
Beyond that, this White House and the next must get realistic about what to expect from Saudi Arabia. It would be lovely to imagine that Saudi rulers could “find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace (with Iran),” as Obama urged in the Atlantic Monthly. But this ain’t going to happen anytime soon, not just because the Sunni Saudis fear and loathe Iran’s Shiite ayatollahs, but because the feeling is mutual.
Rather than hope for miracles, the next president should assume that a larger regional role for the Saudis will only increase the level of sectarian conflict – until Riyadh and Tehran finally tire of this folly. U.S. policy will have to accept this hard truth. If that happy day comes when both sides are ready for a truce, the Saudis should be pressured to help finance the reconstruction of Syria and Yemen.
But long before that, the next president should promote an intensified debate within both Western and Muslim countries on how to prevent Saudi proselytizing from poisoning the minds of innumerable young Muslims.
“There is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction – a tiny faction – within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated,” Obama told the Atlantic.
The Saudis must be discouraged from helping that faction to grow.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.