How Do We Read Saudi Arabia?
by Stephen Schwartz
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia suddenly stands at the forefront of world events. Abdullah, the monarch, has called for renewal of Arab peace gestures toward Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has responded positively. But how do we read events in the kingdom? With possession of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Saudi rulers have attempted to spend their oil revenues imposing the ultra radical and violent creed of Wahhabism on the Sunni Muslims of the world. Fifteen of the nineteen homicide pilots on September 11, 2001 were Saudis, after decades in which we treated the kingdom as our best friend in the Muslim world.
Saudi-inspired extremism clashes with other realities: the kingdom has produced the largest middle class in the Arab world. How does a large and productive country reconcile middle-class attitudes and lifestyles with the crushing oppression of Wahhabism?
Saudi Arabia is undergoing a momentous encounter with the new world of individual entrepreneurship, accountability, and popular sovereignty. But the kingdom must also contend with a house afire next door, in the form of Sunni terrorism in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia is perceived as complicit in Iraqi Sunni violence. Certainly, as revealed in Saudi media, a large portion of the "foreign fighters" killing U.S. and other coalition troops in Iraq consists of Saudi subjects. When terrorists die or otherwise make news in Iraq the Saudi dailies carry their biographies and photographs.
That is an item of evidence that is hard to find in the mainstream media (MSM). There are many more. On March 28, the Iraqi foreign ministry – reporting to the Shia Muslim-led national unity government in Baghdad – told the Saudi paper Sharq Al-Awsat that the Iraqis and the Saudis are cooperating in intelligence and that Iraq will turn over two of the most-wanted terrorists from the Saudi kingdom.
The MSM, however, has concentrated its interest on an entirely different story. According to the class of propagandists posing as journalists, the main news from Saudi Arabia consisted of a puffed-up report about Abdullah's criticism of U.S. intervention in Iraq.
Abdullah said, "In beloved Iraq, blood is being shed among brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and ugly sectarianism threatens civil war."
The MSM honked long and loud, in its geese-like fashion, about the three words in English, "illegitimate foreign occupation." Headlines ran that Abdullah had "slammed" the U.S. But shadows are not much, and three words are not much of a slam.
Although I support the U.S. mission in Iraq and call for maximum protection of our forces there, especially through the action of moderate Muslim clerics on the ground, it would be foolish to deny that many people consider the Iraq intervention incorrect. Saudi King Abdullah makes such a statement to quell the discontent of Saudi Sunnis who want to support the terrorist jihad in Iraq. But Abdullah placed the three words between two statements condemning sectarian conflict in Iraq.
That is what is important in his statement, not his perfunctory condemnation of the occupation. And that is because the Iraqi Sunni extremists want Abdullah to back them against the U.S.-protected Shia Muslim majority. Abdullah has denied the terrorists the approval they desire.
Small and positive changes continue under the guidance of Abdullah, and that counts above all. On April 2 a high cleric denounced the practice under which Saudi students in foreign countries, including the U.S., routinely marry women – often non-Muslims – with the deliberate intent of divorcing them when the Saudi's period of study in the U.S. has ended. Saudi-Wahhabi lawlessness in the U.S. is a major issue for American Muslims. At the same time, the Saudi government announced that jihadist sermons would no longer be tolerated in local mosques. It remains to be seen whether this promise is good coin.
One item that tied up the Wahhabi-backed bloodshed in Iraq, including the killing of American and coalition service members, and the internal struggle by which the monarchy seeks to extricate itself from the radical grip, came when a commentator named Hassan Mufti - an imam at a Riyadh mosque and formerly a strident exponent of terrorism - was interviewed by the Saudi daily al-Hayat. Mufti, who had fought in Afghanistan, announced that he renounced jihad, stating that "he now understands that Saudis are not welcome in the world because of Jihad." Saudi terrorists who come back from Iraq seem disillusioned to find that the people there, regardless of their opinion of the U.S. presence, do not see a Taliban regime as preferable.
It is time for the MSM to be corrected on Saudi Arabia and for Westerners in general to pay closer attention to a process that could lead to the greatest historical transformation of our times: the modernization of the Saudi kingdom.