Time To Tone Down Criticism of Saudis

By Edward S. Walker Jr.

Published January 16, 2004, issue of January 16, 2004.

With the American presidential campaign heating up, many candidates have been tempted to take a swing at Saudi Arabia. It is a soft target and, as is frequently the case in political campaigns, candidates often fail to consider carefully the facts of the situation or the long-term consequences of their rhetoric for our country’s foreign relations.

Nevertheless, I had tended to doubt that the current wave of criticism would have a lasting impact on American-Saudi relations. After all, campaign rhetoric should always be taken with a grain of salt. How many presidential candidates, for instance, have promised to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and how many have made good on their pledge?

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah, when we spoke during my visit to the kingdom in December, agreed with my assessment. He said that the mounting criticism of his country in the United States was of limited significance. The crown prince said he saw nothing new in the current American political rhetoric. In any event, he seemed to have given up on trying to convince the American media or members of Congress that Saudi Arabia is committed to genuine reform and the fight against terrorism. And, to be blunt, he didn’t seem to care what we thought. In the overall scheme of things, the crown prince told me, it didn’t matter what the United States said or did on these issues because Saudi Arabia was engaged in fighting terrorism for its own reasons, its own interests and its own survival.

Based on other conversations I had during my visit, however, I fear that the crown prince and I may have been wrong to discount the significance of American criticism. Indeed, at the very time Saudi Arabia is on the brink of profound change, we are distancing ourselves from the ruling family and the Saudi people. This development, I fear, has the potential to undermine the implementation of crucial reforms in Saudi Arabia and, consequently, undercut our own war on terrorism.

The criticism of the Saudis has many aspects, some of which are clearly justified from our perspective. The Saudis were slow to recognize the problems they were creating through uncontrolled funding of Islamic fundamentalist causes. And they were hesitant to cooperate fully with the United States in the war on terrorism until this past year.

But if you ask the question “Are the Saudis fully engaged with us in the war on terrorism today?” the answer has to be “yes.” And perhaps, given the religious overtones of the terrorist threat, Saudi efforts will be more critical to our success than anything we can do. The Saudis have the credibility and the religious credentials in the Islamic world to challenge and defeat the radical fundamentalist interpretations of Islam that underpin the terrorists’ ideology.

Since May, when the Saudis began to suffer from suicide bombings by Islamic extremists in their own country, they have shown a substantial commitment to fighting their homegrown terrorists and cooperating with American authorities; at least this is what my friends in our government tell me.

In fact, the Saudis are going further than I had expected or hoped in their fight against terrorism. In addition to rounding up suspects, cooperating with the FBI and amending their laws to control the flow of funds to Islamic charities, the Saudi ruling family is engaged in a unified effort to delegitimize extremists and deny terrorists theological justification for their heinous acts. The Saudis are going to the root of the problem, while we can only address its symptoms.

While I was in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, a highly publicized speech to a body of leading Islamic religious scholars was delivered in the name of the long-incapacitated King Fahd. The speech urged the scholars to “highlight the dangers which extremism poses to the Muslim faith” and to work to “correct the flaws in the thinking of some Muslims through dialogue in seminars, conferences and the media.” The speech stressed that “deviant thinking” has led to terrorism in the kingdom and encouraged the scholars to devise religious arguments to annul “aberrant fatwas,” or religious decrees, that legitimize militancy and suicide bombings.

In and of itself, this was an extraordinary statement that threw down the gauntlet to those, such as Al Qaeda, who advocate an extremist form of Islam. But the king’s statement is being backed up on the ground by a series of actions. More than 2,000 imams who preached militancy have been removed from their pulpits, and 1,500 have been jailed or sent for reeducation. In December, while I was in the kingdom, two very prominent Saudi imams publicly recanted fatwas in which they had justified terrorism.

The Saudi war against religious extremism is a struggle that is critical to the future of Saudi Arabia, and the outcome could have a profound impact on the United States and our friends in Israel and Europe. Should extremism prevail in the kingdom, it will have a pernicious impact on other Arab states. Indeed, an extremist takeover in Saudi Arabia would be far more likely to have a “domino effect” on other countries than would the example of a democratic state in Iraq.

Saudi businessmen I met with emphasized that the struggle against extremism needed to be accompanied by an agenda of political reforms — an agenda that the crown prince has embraced. In June, the crown prince declared a reform initiative calling for the development of political participation through a “national dialogue,” a formal series of discussions along the lines of town hall meetings. He said the purpose of this initiative was to build a consensus for reforms rather than creating a political process that would divide people along ideological lines. The crown prince told me that this effort would include all segments of society, including Shiites and other groups that had long been relegated to the margins of Saudi life. Moreover, in October, Saudi authorities announced that they would prepare for elections to be held within one year that would select half the members of each of the kingdom’s municipal councils, an unprecedented step toward democratization.

Still, government officials and businessmen sounded a note of caution in our discussions. Many cited the example of King Faisal, who undertook reforms only to be assassinated in 1975 by a fanatically religious nephew. The crown prince made it clear that he was dealing with a traditional and deeply religious society and that he did not want to follow the example of Kuwait, where the government sought to include women in the parliament only to have its efforts rebuffed by the legislature itself. The crown prince advocated moving forward slowly but steadily.

Still, for the first time in my memory, Saudi businessmen were quietly optimistic about the direction in which the kingdom was headed on essential reforms. But they warned that in order for it to succeed the reform process must be internally driven. And because the forces opposed to reform are so deeply entrenched in Saudi society, only the royal family has the ability to bring about fundamental change.

In addition, they disagreed with the crown prince’s assessment of the significance of American criticism. They said that the criticism of the royal family tends to delegitimize the regime and provides ammunition to extremists. Moreover, they warned, the criticism has helped fuel a growing estrangement between the United States and the Saudi people.

At the popular level there is a great deal of anger and frustration directed at the United States, not so much because of our criticisms, but rather stemming from the perception that we have abandoned the Palestinians and our close identification in Saudi minds with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s policies. At the level of the elites, however, we are being driven apart because American criticisms of Saudi Arabia are seen as creating an atmosphere in the United States of paranoia and fear of Saudis. Businessmen are afraid to travel to the United States. Fathers are afraid to send their sons to American universities. According to the American embassy in Riyadh, we have seen a 70% decline in visa applications to the United States. The fact that most of the Saudi elite has been educated in the United States has been a substantial part of the glue that has held our two countries together. It is this elite that supports reform efforts and opposes extremism. And it is this elite that we are walking away from.

The future of Saudi-American relations is in doubt at the very time that the future of our wars on terrorism and extremism may depend more than ever on the success of Saudi efforts. Of course we need to be candid in conveying our concerns to the Saudi authorities as they arise, but we also need to recognize that reform of any society is a long process. To make that process work, the Saudi leadership needs the friendship and understanding of the American people and particularly of our president.

Edward S. Walker Jr. is the president of the Middle East Institute. He has served as American ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel and was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from January 2000 to May 2001.



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