The Curious Case of Nawaf Obaid and Prince Turki
by Stephen Schwartz
Nawaf Obaid is a glib Saudi representative who for some time sported a luxuriant, back-of-the-collar hairdo on American television – rather a novelty among those speaking for the desert kingdom, where mullahs are preferred to mullets. He has been known since the mid-1990s as an indefatigable Washington gadfly.
Obaid has been associated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), and most recently was affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In 1999 he published, in the Middle East Quarterly (MEQ), a study of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist cult that is the Saudi state religion and which inspires Al-Qaida. There he issued a warning against the Wahhabis – who he called by that name, without adopting the term "Salafi" or any other deceptive terms. He wrote, "American analysts have underestimated, overlooked, or misunderstood the nature, strength, and goals of the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia. This led to a failure to predict the oil embargo, the ferocity of anti-American sentiments after the Kuwait war, and to understand what the Taliban would become."
After the atrocities of September 11, 2001, Nawaf Obaid could have added the rise of Al-Qaida to his roster of unexpected results of Western obliviousness about the Wahhabis. But curiously, he did not. Rather, he suddenly forgot all that he had previously said about Wahhabism, and on cable TV talk shows tried to deny that "Wahhabism" even existed. According to him, the concept was an invention of authors like myself, who he claimed knew nothing of the kingdom.
Last year Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz, the wheeling, dealing, and vodka-serving Saudi ambassador to the U.S., departed Washington. Bandar had once bragged that unlike Israel, the Saudis did not need a formal lobby in America, because they had a grip on the White House. The kingdom appointed a new ambassador, Prince Turki al-Faisal. Turki is more sophisticated than most of the desert denizens who come to Washington, and he hired the slick Obaid as his "private security and energy adviser." Obaid therefore operated in the shadow world powerful Saudis typically prefer – he was both a D.C. think-tank "expert" and a semi-official functionary. He remained a narcissistic fool, according to Saudi dissidents.
Then Nawaf Obaid did something extremely provocative. On November 29, 2006, The Washington Post published a shocking op-ed column signed by him, titled "Stepping Into Iraq." Therein, Obaid warned, in aggressive language, that "massive Saudi intervention" would support Sunni Arab terrorists if the U.S.-led coalition were to leave Iraq abruptly. Further, according to the arrogant Obaid, "it would be impossible to ensure that Saudi-funded militias wouldn't attack U.S. troops." A Saudi thrust into Iraq on the Sunni side must be considered inevitable: "Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks – it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse."
Obaid was even impudent enough to allege that when Vice President Dick Cheney met with Saudi King Abdullah late in November, Abdullah delivered the same menacing message to Cheney. Obaid's inciting language was especially outrageous to those like myself who follow Saudi events closely, because it has been obvious in recent months that King Abdullah wants exactly the opposite outcome. The king, as Obaid himself admits, seeks reconciliation between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias, not more Sunni violence.
Extremist Saudis (among whom I do not count King Abdullah) were, not long ago, happy to see Wahhabi bloodshed carried out far from their borders, in the U.S. on 9/11, in Israel, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. But the fire of the Sunni jihad burns too hot for them when it flares up on the northern border of the kingdom itself. No normal person wants a house ablaze next door.
The consequences are already felt: Sunni Arab terror in Iraq draws most of its "foreign fighter" volunteers from the Saudi kingdom. When they are killed, their biographies and photographs appear in Saudi media. Some of them have come back to Saudi Arabia complaining that the Iraqis did not desire the establishment of a Taliban regime; but these veterans of mass murder in Iraq nonetheless express a renewed desire to halt change in the Saudi kingdom.
So Nawaf Obaid, speaking from the pages of one of America's leading newspapers, issued a threat: play the Saudi way or risk even worse terrorism in Iraq. Soon, more curious events transpired. The Saudi government immediately repudiated Obaid's statements, and within a week he who had once flaunted his mullet in the green rooms of American cable networks was fired from his job as a Saudi adviser. In an admirably cold-blooded and even amusing dismissal comment, Ambassador Turki said of Obaid, "We felt that we could add more credibility to his claims as an independent contractor by terminating our consultancy agreement with him."
What really happened here? Will Saudi Arabia send armed fighters into Iraq on the pretext of protecting Sunni Arabs, but also with the inclination to attack U.S.-led coalition forces? Credible sources from inside the kingdom say no. Rather, they point out that an anti-reform clique in the royal family opposes King Abdullah's efforts for peace in Iraq. Nawaf Obaid allegedly published his screed in the Post as a trial balloon for these ultra-reactionaries. Post columnist David Ignatius called it a "bargaining chip" [note: the italics appeared in Ignatius' column]. But Ambassador Turki reported to King Abdullah, and Obaid was supposed to work for Turki. Obaid overstepped his bounds, as a pawn in an anti-Abdullah conspiracy... or so it appeared.
But then Prince Turki abruptly resigned and flew home. Was he a victim of Obaid's intrigues, or a participant in them? Following on his hilarious explanation for Obaid's firing, Turki had recourse to the oldest excuse known in Washington: he suddenly "wanted to spend more time with his family."
If it is not beyond imagining that Wahhabi maniacs could try to bring about a Saudi invasion of Iraq, it is much more realistic to think that the moment is coming, and soon, when Abdullah will consolidate his power and may strike decisively against the Wahhabis. While Nawaf Obaid lost his job, some of those who share his dreams of aggravated meddling in Iraq may lose their heads.
Another question remains: how did Obaid's manifesto make into the pages of the Post? The newspaper reported on Obaid's firing from Saudi service in a diffident manner, merely reprinting a wire service account but inserting the following novel comment: "[Fred Hiatt, The Post's editorial page editor, declined to comment on Turki's announcement.]"
As a former op-ed editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, I see more issues here: will the Post now publish columns by Saudi dissidents and their supporters, to provide balance? Did Obaid himself submit his text, was it offered by Turki's embassy, or was it solicited by someone at the Post who shares the crazed view that the Saudis must be appeased at any price?
The curiosities that accompany Saudi actions in the West will get more, rather than less, common. Nawaf Obaid may have revealed, and prevented, a major change for the worse. Don't believe the Saudi hype, and watch this space!