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Learning From Saudi Arabia

Is Saudi Arabia doing more than it is getting credit for?

January 6, 2005

Is Saudi Arabia doing more than it is getting credit for?

When Islamist terrorists detonated two bombs outside Saudi Arabian security centers last week, within hours three of the leading terror suspects in the kingdom had been killed and others apprehended by Saudi security forces.

Yet, when similar terrorists in Iraq slaughtered 30 government soldiers in attacks on succeeding days, they did so with impunity — and many more massacres are feared in the coming weeks.

According to the neo-conservative policymakers who have shaped U.S. Middle East policy in the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, it was not supposed to be this way.

Indeed, it was supposed to be precisely the opposite: Iraq two years after the toppling of President Saddam Hussein was supposed to be a pillar of regional stability, pumping out enough oil to break the power of the OPEC cartel.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was expected to remain a dangerous breeding ground for active Islamist terrorists.

The situation in Saudi Arabia, the neo-cons assumed, would only change over time as the Saudi people — fed up with their regime — would be tempted to follow the Iraqi example of democracy and prosperity.

Clearly, it did not happen that way. More than six times the number of American soldiers has been killed in Iraq since President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1, 2003, than died during the actual invasion.

Yet the neo-cons in the Bush Administration still believe Iraq policy is “on track.” They believe that the elections for a new National Assembly on Jan. 30, 2004, will produce a united Shiite bloc that will look to Washington far more than to Tehran.

And they still have faith that their old favorite, Ahmed Chalabi — head of the Iraqi National Congress and one of the top ten figures on the united Shiite list of candidates — will steer the new majority in the way Washington wants.

Then, the neo-cons believe, the Sunni Islamist guerrilla insurrection across Iraq will finally be crushed.

Yet, the harsh, grim, unrelenting fact remains that the new Iraqi security forces that were rapidly rushed into existence over the past 20 months to take the burden off the overstretched U.S. troops in Iraq have so far shown no ability to do the job.

Their morale of most Iraqi security forces is poor, their equipment miserable and their training derisory. U.S. military analysts fear the new forces are riddled with Islamist and former Ba’ath agents, making them even less efficient.

In Washington, many Middle East experts now opine that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should have opted for slowly building an elite, carefully screened, much smaller Iraqi force.

The Iraq guerrillas had demonstrated their reach and determination by August 2003, in attacks that killed United Nations special envoy to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello and Shiite Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim in the same month.

Still, neo-con pundits publicly predicted the insurrection was tiny, unrepresentative, could not last and would not spread. All those predictions have been proven false.

Another prediction by the neo-cons turned out to be just as wrong. They repeatedly argued that catastrophe and doom would rapidly fall upon Saudi Arabia once the United States got serious about reforming the Middle East.

Five years ago, with global oil prices down to an historic low of nearly $10 per barrel, there was indeed good reason to believe that the Saudis might be running out of cash to fund the generous and expensive social contract that has bought them decades of peace.

But today, with global oil prices still well above $40 a barrel, the Saudis certainly do not lack for financial resources to fund either their social programs or their security services.

Instead, over the past year, their revitalized security services — which were always, in reality, far more effective than hostile critics in the U.S. media often painted them — have scored one success against Islamist terrorists after another.

Al Qaeda’s organization in the Desert Kingdom has been reeling, with at least three of its directors of operations in succession killed by Saudi security in only 12 months.

As a result, the Saudis have done more to dent the image of invincibility that al Qaeda instantly gained across the Middle East after 9/11 than 22 months of U.S. military operations in Iraq.

The neo-cons — with the enthusiastic support of Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush — were convinced that they could “drain the swamp” of the Middle East by sweeping away repressive regimes and creating U.S.-style democracies.

They have argued that doing so would almost instantaneously eliminate popular support for al-Qaeda and its cohorts. Instead, the opposite has occurred.

Far from it. Thus far, the most dangerous and effective enemies of al Qaeda outside Afghanistan have been the security forces of existing Arab governments.

Among them are the Saudi security services, the small but highly efficient security forces of King Abdullah II in Jordan or the Mukhabarat intelligence service of Baathist Syria under President Bashar Assad.

Indeed, Syria has been an invaluable source of intelligence on al-Qaeda to the U.S. intelligence services over the past three years.

At least for the moment, the Saudi security authorities continue to have murder by the throat in their own country. But in neighboring Iraq, murder still has the Bush Administration by the throat, not the other way round.

Perhaps it is time Bush Administration policymakers abandoned some of their prejudices — and took a few tips from Riyadh.