Saudi Arabia's Toxic Royals

Is Saudi Arabia refusing to contribute to economic rebuilding efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere?

January 9, 2003

Is Saudi Arabia refusing to contribute to economic rebuilding efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere?

Who was the biggest loser from the 9/11 tragedy? The answer is simple: Saudi Arabia.

This erstwhile ally of the United States has come under the gun for the strange priorities that it demonstrates as it spreads its money around the world.

Faced with a crescendo of criticism all across the United States after the September 11 attacks, the Saudi government struck back with a PR offensive to charm and convince the U.S. public at large that Saudi Arabia is really a very nice place that shares the same values as Americans do.

These PR efforts notwithstanding, two recent events underscore that the Saudis have not — or cannot? — really change. One occurred in Afghanistan, the other in Kosovo.

In Afghanistan, the Saudis proved that they are … well, cheap, not to put too fine a word on it. In September 2002, as part of its contribution to the global donors conference the Saudis promised $50 million in grant money for rebuilding Afghanistan's roads.

That perhaps seems only just — because of the original Saudi financial contributions to the Taliban absurdity that helped to bring such misery onto Afghanistan.

But recently, the Saudis have had second thoughts — or perhaps decided that they could use their money better elsewhere. Aid officials in Afghanistan watched the $50 million grant turn into a $30 million loan.

Sensibly, the Afghanis themselves turned down the loan. With little way to earn foreign currency other than growing opium, taking out loans could be downright dangerous for the country's economic future.

Thus, what had seemed like Saudi generosity simply disappeared.

Just what better use is there for that money? Well, it seems Saudi Arabia is ensuring that religious schools — the infamous madrassahs — remain well-funded in other regions like Indonesia and Kosovo. It is worth looking a little more closely at these educational institutions.

Many madrassahs are hardly benign educational institutions. With an almost exclusively religious curriculum, they do not prepare their students for any form of participation in the global job market. Quite the opposite.

They encourage students to avoid that world — by steeping them in a medieval world view. That helps to ensure the continued poverty of their charges.

The Saudis, in other words, are not only refusing to contribute to economic development — they are spending money to actively undermine it.

Of course, the resulting combination of poverty and religious rigidity is the perfect breeding ground for violence and terrorism. That has been amply demonstrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As it stands now, Saudi Arabia seems to be quite happily taking that lesson out of Southwest Asia — and applying it to other developing countries as well. Apparently, Saudi authorities believe that it is worth spending money only on institutions that actively prevent real development.

In contrast, they prefer to have other nations put up the funds for rebuilding the roads on which Afghan drivers are supposed to burn oil from Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, U.S. motorists, for their part, are busily filling up their tanks — and filling up the coffers of Saudi extremists at the same time. That suggests that Saudi Arabia is not the only country that has failed to draw important lessons from 9/11.