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The Empire and the Kingdom: U.S.-Saudi Relations in Crisis — Again

What will Saudi Arabia choose for the future — U.S. allies or Wahhabi Islam?

August 1, 2003

What will Saudi Arabia choose for the future — U.S. allies or Wahhabi Islam?

There is no doubt in my mind that the terrorist trail will eventually lead to Saudi Arabia financially, politically — as well as metaphorically. We must understand that in spite of its claims that it is a — if not the — Islamic State, Saudi foreign policy has consistently remained pragmatic and even rational.

Saudis have not used Islam as a criterion to determine their foreign relations — as Iran has. Rather, in their foreign policy, they have been guided by the singular overriding desire of regime preservation.

They have, however, used Islam as a legitimizing tool. This was done first within their domestic constituency — by building a strategic alliance with Wahhabi Islam.

And then, it was used within the global Muslim community — through the expansion and lavish redecoration of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and through financing “Islamic projects” worldwide.

The Saudi ambition to sustain a medieval-style Islamic society and government has resulted in a policy of uniquely Saudi Islamic imperialism.

The Saudis, in order to protect their brand of Islam, the Wahhabi Islam — a very narrow, intolerant and literalist interpretation of Islamic sources from the influence of Islamic revivalism taking place in other parts of the Muslim World, especially Egypt — adopted a policy of exporting Wahhabism to protect Wahhabism at home.

They have even tried to control the interpretation of Islam in America, in order to prevent Saudi students living here from discovering that there are other interpretations of Islam.

This applies especially to those interpretations that are tolerant — by advocating freedom of thought and the idea that Islam and democracy are compatible.

This Saudi attempt to protect Wahhabism and the continuity of their regime by reconstructing the rest of the Islamic world in their own image has contributed to the growth of intolerance and bigotry among Muslims. This tendency was most spectacularly manifest in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

All along, the Saudis were hedging their bets — by playing both the Wahhabi card and the American card.

Even as they sought to Wahhabize the Muslim World, they continued to cultivate good relations with rich and powerful Americans. They did so primarily by becoming the most important U.S. ally in moderating OPEC and maintaining the stability of oil supplies and prices.

There are numerous instances when the Saudis have helped Western economies by manipulating oil prices within acceptable limits.

Acceptable to American consumers, that is. By becoming useful to America in that way, the Saudis gained its support and protection.

The fervor of Islamic resurgence had led to a widespread call for regime change in most of the Muslim world.

Islamists tried to come to power and succeeded in Iran and Sudan — but failed everywhere else, particularly in Egypt and Algeria.

Meanwhile, the United States — in collaboration with Pakistan and the Saudis — produced a new type of Islamic fighter, the modern mujahideen. Their job was to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion — and thus bin Laden was born.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, this new breed of Islamic fighters turned to new battlefields. Some chose Kashmir — and others chose Bosnia and Chechnya. But bin Laden decided to go home — and try to make Saudi Arabia a more Islamic state.

The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which is considered by many Muslims as “off limits” for non-Muslims, infuriated bin Laden.

It helped act as a catalyst to exacerbate the conflict between the kingdom and the prince of mujahideen.

In this Saudi civil war, the United States took sides and has since worked to protect the regime from terrorists as well as other Arab threats, such as Saddam Hussein.

Over the years, Islamists in Egypt — such as Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (bin Laden's right-hand man and mentor) — had concluded that Egypt could not be transformed as long as it enjoyed U.S. support.

Bin Laden soon reached the same conclusion — that Saudi Arabia could not be transformed as long as the United States supported and protected it.

Hezbollah, which had driven both the United States and Israel out of Lebanon using truck and suicide bombers, became the strategic model. And in order to politically transform the Middle East, al Qaeda decided to drive the United States out of the region through a sustained terrorist campaign.

Thus, in many ways, America suffered the attacks of September 11 because it has supported and sustained the Wahhabi monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis inadvertently have also sowed the seeds of hatred and anger among Muslims against their greatest ally — the United States.

The spread of Wahhabi ideas — which are extremely anti-Western and anti-modernity — views the West as a threat to Islam and the United States as a barrier to Islamization.

Now, the United States faces the daunting challenge of protecting as well as reforming Saudi Arabia. It needs the present regime to stabilize geopolitics and the oil economy. Regime change in Saudi Arabia could bring pro-bin Laden forces to power.

Maintaining the status quo is also unacceptable because September 11 happened as a result of existing conditions in the kingdom.

Even though the Bush Administration has repeatedly proclaimed that it will go after all those who harbor and support terrorists — and that it hopes to democratize the entire Middle East — it is generally understood that Saudi Arabia is excluded from both these measures.

In the war on terror, the Saudi regime and the United States have common interests — and common enemies. Perhaps a more open dialogue between the two will help them protect their interests.

The Saudis have long depended on two pillars for their security — the United States and Wahhabi Islam. Perhaps it is time to choose one.