The Saudi choice
by Rich Lowry
The Palestinian suicide bomber didn't spring out of nowhere in 1993, when he (and eventually she) began showing up at Israeli supermarkets, pizzerias, and discos. The bomber had a pedigree-in the jihadist philosophy of Khomeini's Iran (which sent young men in suicide waves against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war and to carry out suicide bombings against American interests in Lebanon); in the cult of revolutionary violence created by Leninism and fascism prior to World War II; and in a tiny northern Arabian village called al-Artawiya in 1912.
It was there, as Robert Lacey recounts in his book The Kingdom, that a band of Wahhabi religious fanatics settled to start a movement that would become known as the Ikhwan (the Brotherhood). The Ikhwan sought to bring their Islamic puritanism to the religiously wayward Bedouins of Arabia, spreading a hatred of all things modern-with the prominent exception of the rifle. It was the genius of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, to realize what a potent force the Ikhwan could be for his political and military ambitions in Arabia. Political turf battles were amenable to haggling and bargains. "But when the question is one of religion," Ibn Saud's grandfather, an expert in the family business, once explained, "we kill everybody."
The Saudi leader had his prized gramophone smashed publicly to confirm his Wahhabi credentials for the Ikhwan. Then he fostered Ikhwan settlements throughout Arabia, creating cadres of militants that he eventually hurled against his Hashemite enemies. The Ikhwan made extraordinary warriors, not just because they were born to the Bedouin tradition of raiding, but because, as Lacey puts it, "each brother rode into battle confident that he was a soldier of God, destined for immediate entry, if killed, to Allah's garden of streams, greenery, and luscious houris [maidens]." In other words, they welcomed death, in terms that live on in Palestinian suicide bombers today.
Ibn Saud rode to his mastery of Arabia on the back of the murderous Ikhwan, but fanatics sometimes become inconvenient. When the Ikhwan began attacking British positions in Iraq, the Saudi saw his relationship with his chief foreign sponsor endangered. "Having planted and fostered fanaticism in these simple folk," Lacey writes, "encouraging them to fear no earthly power and to welcome death as the gateway to paradise, [Ibn Saud] could not now argue the futility of charging against Britain's planes and armored cars. Having incited them to suspect and hate every non-Wahhabi as an agent of the devil, he could not now plead the merits of compromise with the infidel British."
Ibn Saud broke with the Ikhwan, at considerable risk to his survival, to maintain his even more important alliance with the British. Today, Crown Prince Abdullah should have to face a similar choice: between Palestinian murderers whom he helps incite and pay for; the jihadist militancy that is represented by al-Qaeda and is an outgrowth of Saudi Wahhabism; the budding PalestinianIraqi-Iranian geopolitical axis to which he has seemed increasingly sympatheticbetween those things and his relationship with the United States. The decision will be no less painful than Ibn Saud's in the late 1920s, but the U.S. shouldn't be any more willing to accept no for an answer than Ibn Saud's British paymasters were then.
It is too much to ask the Saudi monarchy to reject Wahhabism, a variant of Islam that, as Stephen Schwartz has argued (see his Nov. 19 NR piece, "Liberation, Not Containment"), represents a break from the faith's mainstream traditions. But the U.S. can demand that the regime be minimally responsible in the tradition of Ibn Saud. The Bush Doctrine-"If you harbor, fund, or sponsor a terrorist, you are a terrorist"-has been criticized as "simple-minded" and too "black and white." But there is a method in the simplicity: to try to deny terrorist-friendly regimes the kind of wiggle room that allows them to back the U.S. on the one hand while fostering militancy on the other. It was the starkness of the Bush Doctrine that helped prompt President Musharraf of Pakistan to break (at least for the time being) with Islamic radicalism. Now it should be Abdullah's turn.
As a start, the crown prince should be required to carry out a full and complete investigation of the Saudi connections to Sept. 11. This would be the first step toward the real task: rolling up the radical clerics and the al-Qaeda operatives and supporters who thrive in the kingdom. This would require arresting-and perhaps killing-people, since this wrenching break with Wahhabi radicalism might prompt a low-intensity civil war. Ibn Saud's break with the Ikhwan caused exactly this sort of conflict. Al-Qaeda is a direct descendant of those early-20th-century militants. One of the radical clerics who led the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, in a direct challenge to the regime, was the grandson of a leader of the Ikwhan revolt of 1927, and the Grand Mosque rebels were, in turn, a precursor to al-Qaeda.
Abdullah should be pressured to make an equally sharp turn in foreign policy. The Saudis now operate in frank opposition to the U.S. goal of "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq in the Persian Gulf. The Saudis have hammered out security and oil pacts with their traditional Iranian competitors, and Abdullah literally (at the Arab League summit) kissed and made up with representatives of Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the Saudis have joined Iran and Iraq in lavishing money, along with moral support, on Palestinian militants. So the Saudis are fellowtraveling with the Arafat/Hussein/ayatollah axis in the Middle East, while resisting U.S. action against Saddam, which is intended to strengthen the inchoate moderate bloc of Jordan and Turkey with a liberalizing, reformist Iraq.
Since a U.S.-sponsored regime in Baghdad would threaten the status quo in the Middle East generally, and in Riyadh in particular (by increasing U.S. leverage and providing an example of decent governance next door), the Saudis will have to be pushed hard to acquiesce in it. All signs from the Crawford summit are that the U.S. is not yet ready to apply such pressure. The U.S.-and especially the State Department and old hands from Bush I, including the former president himselfstill apparently buy the Saudis' inflated self-image. The Saudis have long considered themselves a budding world power. In their view, the growth of the jihadist movement around the world was a sign of Saudi vibrancy. The Saudis helped bring down one superpower, the Soviet Union, and held the key to economic health of the other.
Constant pandering from the U.S., intent on maintaining its oil "partnership" with the Saudis, could only fuel this Saudi self-regard. In fact, as the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor argues, the Saudis maintain their vaunted excess-oilproducing capacity not primarily to cushion the U.S. from volatility in the world market, but to maintain their power over OPEC. (The potential surge of low-cost production is a threat to other OPEC countries, which would be swamped by it.) In any case, the Saudis don't have quite the lock on the world market that they once did, with new production coming online in Russia, West Africa, and (one hopes, after a U.S. invasion) Iraq. Fully 50 percent of American oil imports come from the Western Hemisphere, and the U.S. imports as much oil from West Africa as from the Saudis. But no one is tip-toeing around the president of Nigeria, afraid he might unleash his "oil weapon.
Indeed, by any reasonable standard, the Saudis are hardly an international power at all. As Paul Michael Wihbey of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies points out, Saudi Arabia has the national income of the state of Connecticut (no one is tip-toeing around Gov. John Rowland either, for that matter). It has a bankrupt one-sector economy that is carrying almost $200 billion worth of debt. It is utterly incapable of defending itself, despite years of gaudy big-arms purchases from the West (which it can no longer afford). If this isn't the very picture of a regime that the United States can bend to its will, no such regime exists.
Abdullah surely wants nothing more than that the House of Saud survive. If it's clear to him that only by appeasing the United States, and embracing its vision of a changed, liberalized Middle East, will that be possible, he may reluctantly make a turn. The Saudis, after all, have always had a strong streak of pragmatism. Winston Churchill praised Ibn Saud after World War II as a "steadfast, unswerving and unflinching" friend. Not quite. "Ibn Saud kept his options open between 1939 and 1945," Robert Lacey writes, "and it is not difficult to see how Hitler, if he had won the Second World War, would surely have been talking of Ibn Saud in the same glowing terms that Churchill was to employ." Abdullah now is keeping his options open in the finest Saudi tradition, hoping he can help preserve and ride out the status quo in the Middle East. The U.S. must convince him that he has only one option-and it's one that the new Ikhwan won't like.
Related Topics: Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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