Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)
The Grim Wahhabi Face behind the Veil:
Reassessing the Saudi Role in World Affairs
Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism by Dore Gold
Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude by Robert Baer
Reviewed by Eran Lerman
As the success of Dore Gold’s book attests, one of the many casualties of 9/11 has been the thick coat of Teflon that for years had protected U.S.-Saudi relations, and shielded from scrutiny the more general questions about the Saudi role in world affairs. Serious scholars of Saudi history, such as Prof. Yossi Kostiner of Tel Aviv University, were much in demand among their colleagues but rarely in the public eye. The Saudis themselves avoided situations that would have attracted too much attention, and may have shunned congressional battles over major arms deals because the traumatic AWACS struggle of 1981 involved open discussion of unsavory aspects of their policy and society.
The Teflon Peels
The Saudis often got their way – until 2001. There were reasons for this perplexing lack of interest in a country that was clearly vital to the stability of the region and of the global economy:
- There used to be an authentic sense – which Baer tends to belittle in his book: “To listen to Foggy Bottom’s spin, you would think Saudi Arabia was Denmark” – that Saudi and Western interests were indeed the same. This was particularly true when the threats to the region were Soviet ambitions, the Iranian revolution, and later, the rise of Iraqi aggression. Israel, too, came to see things this way. The Saudis may have been the enemy in 1973, when they conspired with Sadat and Assad to turn the war into a global oil crisis and used their economic clout against Israel in the diplomatic arena. But in the decades that followed, the Saudis’ strategic dependence on the United States against powerful and menacing neighbors, which happened also to be Israel’s enemies in the region, meant both sides perceived a certain commonality of interests.
- The Saudi family – as Baer describes with some relish – invested great efforts in discouraging the U.S. government from asking uncomfortable questions. Did Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi businessman who ran mysterious errands for various Middle Eastern parties, really “forget” a briefcase with “$1 million in hundreds” at President-elect Richard Nixon’s residence in San Clemente, California, as Baer asserts? Does it really matter? Now that Prince Bandar has left Washington – his health reportedly ruined as a side effect of his efforts to keep American power brokers happy – it is safe to say that for many years he had been the grandmaster of veiling the grimace of what Gold calls “Saudi anti-Americanism.”
- Saudi society, moreover, is not easily interpreted by outsiders. Until the recent rise of relatively inquisitive, but highly localized, Saudi newspapers, and the broader accessibility provided by the Internet, it was difficult to penetrate the fa?ade of the “Desert Kingdom.” Moreover, the internal dynamics of the religious debates that shaped the political institutions of the Saudi royal family and state – the two not being entirely synonymous – were largely esoteric to all but a narrow community of scholars.
However, the simple fact that fifteen of the nineteen terrorists on 9/11 were Saudi citizens meant the society and polity that produced them could no longer escape the gaze of Americans and others who now saw a foe instead of a friend. When a 2002 Commentary article called the Saudis “enemies,” 1 this could still be dismissed as within the range of the neoconservative “cabal.” When Time magazine asked on its cover, a year later – “The Saudis: Whose Side Are They on in the War on Terror?”2 – it was a sign that the debate had entered the mainstream.
The Wall Street Journal – at least on its editorial pages – relentlessly questioned Saudi policy, and demanded, among other things, that the U.S, government no longer acquiesce in the Kingdom’s holding against their will of women who are American citizens. The Journal also exposed the hypocrisy of the rage over the alleged desecration of a Qur’an in Guantanamo, while the “Saudi government desecrates and burns Bibles that its security forces confiscate at immigration points into the kingdom or during raids on Christian expatriates worshipping privately.”3
Also contributing to the peeling of the Teflon was the work of Stephen Schwartz – despite his name, a Sufi Muslim and a sharp critic of the Wahhabi version of Islam;4 the revelations by Daniel Pipes about what is taught in Saudi-financed madrassas in America; and the study, cosponsored by the American Jewish Committee, of the content of Saudi schoolbooks.
The Wahhabi Origins of the Saudi Problem
Understanding the intensity of Saudi attitudes toward America, the West, Christianity, the Jews, and all Muslims who fail to follow the Wahhabi creed requires scrutinizing the religious and historical roots of the modern Saudi state, which Gold does in a sweeping and convincing manner. One need not approve his quoting doubtful sources, such as Said Aburish – who claims that four hundred thousand died or were injured in the Saudi wars of conquest5 – to recognize the sheer brutality that marked the emergence of the successive Wahhabi kingdoms. This began with the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Wahhabiyyah, the movement and kingdom of Wahhabi Islam, which was ultimately put down by Muhammad Ali’s Egypt on behalf of his (nominal) Ottoman sovereigns; was revived in a limited way in the nineteenth century; and was reinvigorated in the first quarter of the twentieth century by the Ikhwan (Brethren), the military order that gave ibn Saud his conquests – above all, the Hijaz with its custodianship of Mecca and Medina.
The Ikhwan ultimately had to be overcome by the House of Saud, with what Gold describes as the crucial but indirect help of British power. But the Ikhwan’s fervor left a legacy, rooted in the religious underpinnings of the First Wahhabiyyah, of treating all who do not endorse their purist version if Islam as infidels and polytheists deserving death, contrary to the historical practices and legal teachings of more tolerant interpretations of Islam. It is this legacy, effectively contained for many years because of the geopolitical realities that ibn Saud and his successors had to adjust to, that – according to Gold – has now reemerged and cast its long shadow over the region and the world.
This did not happen overnight. Once Saudi Arabia reached its present territorial extent, even a stern warrior such as ibn Saud had to turn his attention to nation-building; as Gold puts it, “the need for international contacts had overtaken his commitments to maintaining a society based on a strict interpretation of Islam.”6 First came the dependence on British subsidies; then the complex interdependence with the United States on oil and its revenues, and the symbiotic relationship with the major U.S. oil corporations and their local jointly-owned subsidiary, ARAMCO. British power held Saudi expansionism at bay; American money changed the internal balance of incentives.
So did the results of World War II. Baer notes that in ibn Saud’s meeting with Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Quincy in February 1945, “aides showed ibn Saud newsreels that glorified U.S. military operations. The message was clear: if you need protection from your enemies, who better to have on your side than the world’s preeminent military power? The reverse message – if you want oil in your future, who better to have on your side than Saudi Arabia? – didn’t need asking.”7 This, in essence, was the arrangement for years to come.
The Wahhabi idea did not die, however, nor even go underground. Baer attempts – occasionally giving a slightly ridiculous and self-serving edge to his writing – to make it look as if Wahhabism has become occult, and describes how he sought in bombed-out Beirut, or in the far reaches of the Fergana Valley in Central Asia, to trace Saudi influences and those of ibn Taymiyyah.8 There is nothing esoteric, however, about the writings of the founder of one of the four legal schools of Islam, nor about the Saudi efforts to promote his doctrine.
Gold, however, sometimes overstates the role of Wahhabism as an explanatory factor. From the rise of the Salafi movement – and the Muslim Brothers – in Egypt9 to King Faisal’s decision to use the oil weapon in 1973, much is ascribed to direct influences of the Wahhabi “elite.” True, powerful new Saudi “front” institutions such as the World Muslim League and the World Association of Muslim Youth played an active role, but so did the internal dynamics of what we today call Islamism, which became an ally of the Saudi state against Arab socialism and nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s but was never a fully owned proxy of the family in the sense that Hizbullah is a fully owned Iranian proxy. Islamism, as several studies have shown, is rooted much more in modern totalitarianism of both the fascist and Bolshevik models than in the Wahhabiyyah as such, or even in the general traditions of Islam as a civilization.10
Moreover, Gold does not give sustained attention to the role of the U.S. intelligence agencies during the Cold War in using Saudi influence to undermine the Soviets and their nationalist-socialist Arab allies. This is heavily hinted at by Baer; one illuminating item in his book is the one that is not there – “The CIA has requested that this section – related to foreign funding of the Muslim Brotherhood – be deleted.” He does say that, while in the 1950s and 1960s there was “no CIA funding, no memorandum of notification to Congress,” it was not necessary: “All the White House had to do was give a wink and a nod to countries harboring the Muslim Brothers, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.”
This practice, as is now well known, became much more extensive and overt – now with U.S. money spent in large amounts – once the decision was made to underwrite the struggle of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet invaders. Baer sums it up: “To see the explosive effect of mixing Brothers and Wahhabis, look at Osama bin Laden’s trajectory into militant Islam.”11
From Friend to Foe
Therein is the core of the present crisis. Had the Saudis desisted from this dangerous alliance, once the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan and broken as a state, there would have been no cause for either book. But they did not. Their commitments to Islamist causes soon extended from Bosnia and Kosovo to Kashmir, from aid for Hamas against Israel to funding the Chechen uprising in Russia. Saudi individuals and foundations, if not “the family” as such, went so far as to become general supporters of Al Qaeda, despite bin Laden’s fierce hostility toward the House of Saud and its American connection. Indirectly, and at times directly, Saudi Arabia became the hub of support for the “global jihad.”
Gold and Baer differ in nuance and emphasis, though not necessarily in substance, as to the underlying causes:
- Gold’s argument centers mainly on the primordial role of Wahhabi religion in creating and orienting the Saudi state and on the persistent quest by the fervent Wahhabi elements to “export” their version of Islam.
- Baer gives great scope, with many examples, to the utter corruption of Saudi society in the age of easy petrodollars – billions of them spent on such things as “Azuzi’s” (Abd al-Aziz, the spoiled son of the late King Fahd) personal Disneyland, not to mention recurrent acts of sexual depravity. As the rulers drifted further and further from common decency – let alone the stern disciplines of their heritage – they gave their subjects, and an ever-angrier opposition,12 an opportunity to turn their rage against external targets.
Taken together, what these two complementary aspects imply is a fateful pact: the royal family won the right to enjoy itself, and the Wahhabis were winked at when pouring some of the Kingdom’s riches into the projects of Islamist ambition. As opposition to the royal practices – and to the American presence – grew more vehement, and radical forces in the region – both Iran, with its links to Shiite minorities in the Gulf, and Sunni “Afghanistan graduates” coming back home – became more visible, it became ever more necessary for the regime to bring the challenge under control. In time, this came to be a typical “protection” racket: given their physical and moral vulnerability, the Saudis paid off bin Laden and his like so as to ensure that they would turn their attention elsewhere. Moreover, the Saudi educational system – long in the hands of strict Wahhabi activists – kept producing, in the Kingdom itself and beyond its borders, new cohorts of young men indoctrinated in intolerance and hatred.
Gold describes extensively how the Saudi state thus turned into the fountainhead of the jihadi terror networks. He offers the evidence – including copies and translations of relevant documents, some of them seized in the West Bank during Israeli operations in 2002 – that Saudi individuals and entities have funded, supported, and glorified suicide bombers and other terrorists, while also paying their families.
Even worse, in terms of its long-term impact, is the virulent work of the educational system, and the Wahhabi orientation of a growing number of Saudi-sponsored networks and organizations throughout the Muslim world – and among the Muslim communities in the West. The role of the IIRO (International Islamic Relief Organization), including its destructive efforts to “Wahhabize” Balkan Islam, and the cautionary tale of the radicalization of American Muslim associations such as the MSA and the ISNA, are but two examples of how Saudi influence – and money – reshaped the dynamics of Muslim communities and laid the groundwork for 9/11.
Is There a Way Out?
Gold’s book is scholarly, objective, coherent, and well organized. Baer’s, to put it succinctly, is not. Much of it, amid bursts of invective, has to do with the moral and political failings of Washington – and specifically of the CIA – as did his previous book.13 Although some of the vignettes are revealing, even frightening – including his story about a Russian “oligarch” sheltering in Israel who tries to get Baer to run weapons to Syria – others raise troubling questions: did Baer really need to take special measures to find out what any reader of open source material could have told him, and probably did tell him, as he was researching the book, about Islamic traditions and Saudi activities?
And yet these two very different works should be read in conjunction, so that Baer’s vivid sense of urgency can complement Gold’s systematic arguments. Ultimately, both cross over from the descriptive into the prescriptive realm: they demand recognition not only that the Saudi past matters, but also that the Saudi present is untenable. Gold warns that Saudi Arabia is dangerous, given its commitment to Wahhabi doctrine; Baer adds that it is also in grave danger, given the fragility of its corrupt power structure – and the vulnerability of its vital oil infrastructure. He goes on to warn that if we continue “to look the other way while it all happens, we can take the last half century of oil-fired industrial prosperity and kiss it g-o-o-d-b-y-e.”14
Thus, the status quo is not an option for much longer. Some of the alternatives, of course, are equally or even more frightening. Although not highly likely, a prolonged period of violence engulfing the oil fields, or a takeover by bin Laden, Zarqawi, or their disciples, would have ruinous consequences for the world at large. Other options, more within the realm of the possible, are discussed by Baer and Gold, albeit with varying degrees of clarity:
- One prospect is dismemberment; already there are signs of decentralization and localism in al-Hasa, Asir, and other subregions. At one point, amid rising frustrations, some Americans (e.g., Adam Garfinkle of The National Interest) went so far as to suggest that the time has come to reinstate the Hashemite family, better friends, in the Hijazi holy cities of Mecca and Medina, taken from them by force in 1925. Baer hints in the same direction. However, the costs and uncertainties involved in carving up one of the world’s most lucrative pieces of real estate may prove too prohibitive to even try.
- Another option, enshrined in the Bush speech of 6 November 2003 and reasserted in his State of the Union Address in February 2005, is “democratization,” or at least liberalization. The message is not entirely lost on its intended audience. Clear-thinking men among the princes of Al-Saud are now acutely aware of the need to come to grips with what American society has learned about Saudi practices. The decision, this year, to hold municipal elections – albeit still by a male-only electorate, the first-ever use of the ballot box in Saudi Arabia – may well reflect this realization, even if the change is largely cosmetic so far.Baer and many others may scoff at the prospect of “liberalizing” a society so deeply rotten. But as some Saudi reformists acknowledge, the demand put forward by Gold – that Saudi Arabia, along with the rest of the region, should be held to “minimal standards of international behavior,” including an end to “incitement and hatred emanating from mosques and featured in textbooks or on national television networks”15 – is bound to have a similar effect in practice: once hatred is curtailed, much of the Wahhabi structure is bound to go down with it.
- Even among the most prominent neoconservatives in America, however, some realize today that it may be a mistake to “be true to the universalist language of the President’s second inaugural address and go after the three principal Islamic autocracies: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.” Saudi Arabia has a “Byzantine culture, and an equally Byzantine method of governance, which must be delicately reformed short of overthrow.” In other words, “Not so fast, not so hard.”16Change should begin with more practical measures, of which the most important, following 9/11, is the question of terrorist finances. The strange case of the two 9/11 hijackers who were indirectly supported by Princess Hayfa, the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, is the (largely irrelevant) tip of the iceberg. Not many suspect Bandar or his wife of complicity in the plot itself; her unwitting actions may have been part of a preventive intelligence operation that Riyadh had not disclosed to the Americans.
Copious evidence, however, points to the much more dangerous role of Saudi charities – such as the “Two Holy Places” (Al-Haramayn) Foundation – in sustaining a wide variety of terrorist groups across the globe. Leaks from the U.S. intelligence community referred to National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts proving the complicity of specific princes in channeling funds to Al Qaeda, to buy it off, even though the United States never shared this knowledge and it was not widely disseminated even within the relevant American agencies.
The Saudis claim, in response, that this is beyond governmental consent – there are no taxes in Saudi Arabia, and hence no need to report the destiny of “charitable” giving. Still, clearly they could have done much more – and have begun to do more – to prevent huge amounts from going to the terrorists.
Notably, two major developments since the books were published encourage hope that such reformist work might be done. One, paradoxically, is the rise in oil prices, which may ease the Saudis’ position and give them leverage over the United States rather than vice versa;17 but at the same time, it gives the family an opportunity to use money more wisely and ease the tensions that tilted it toward radicalism. The other is King Abdullah’s ascension to the throne, after years of governing in the name of King Fahd. The latter may have been alive only in a dim technical sense, but he was nevertheless a tool of some of the more corrupt elements in the family, who feared Abdullah’s reforming instincts.18 Now free of such constraints, Abdullah may yet offer some hope of gradual change.
The Israeli Angle
Gold weaves into his narrative important but often forgotten aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. One is the order given by Yasser Arafat in March 1973 to kill the American and Belgian hostages taken by Fatah terrorists, acting under the alias of Black September, in the Saudi embassy in Khartoum. Gold cannot, however, fully footnote this episode, which is based on solid Israeli intelligence information whose source remains unavailable.19
Gold gives greater and well-deserved attention to the way in which ibn Saud, despite his visceral dislike of Jews as such, sought to avoid any serious involvement, or a break with America, over the question of Palestine. He apparently thought little of Haj Amin al-Husseini and other self-serving Arab politicians.20
The episode illustrates a broader point. The problems of the region – including the roots of Saudi hostility to the West – are not necessarily linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the “Zionist invasion,” or Palestinian suffering. The dangers inherent in the spread of the Wahhabi version of Islam, as analyzed by Gold, and the pathologies of Saudi – and American – governance, as detailed by Baer, have little or nothing to do with Israel. As Gold notes:
the almost singular Western focus on the Palestinian issue is based on the assumption that resolving this conflict would solve many other Western problems in the Middle East – from obtaining basing rights for the U.S. Air Force in the Arabian Peninsula, to forming an effective coalition against Iraq, to achieving oil price stability…. In short, the Arab world has a problem with Israel because of its deeper anger towards the West.21
This may well be true; but he should have resisted the temptation to say so. Coming from an Israeli, this is liable to be read as a piece of special pleading, thus detracting from the value of Gold’s important book. He should have trusted his own detailed evidence to lead the reader to the same conclusion.
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1. Victor David Hanson, “Our Enemies, the Saudis,” Commentary, Vol. 114, No. 1 (July-August 2002).
2. Time, 15 September 2003.
3. Ali al-Ahmed, “Hypocrisy Most Holy,” Wall Street Journal, 20 May 2005.
4. See, e.g., “The Good and the Bad: Stephen Schwartz on Islam and Wahhabism,” National Review, 18 November 2002.
5. Gold, p. 49, quoting Said K. Aburish, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud (London: Bloomsbury, 1994).
6. Gold, p. 58.
7. Baer, p .82.
8. Ibid, p. 113ff.
9. Gold repeats twice – pp. 55 and 91 – that Rashid Rida was a recipient of Saudi subsidies.
10. See, e.g., Eran Lerman, “Mawdudi’s Concept of Islam,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4 (October 1981), pp. 492-509. Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002) makes the same point.
11. Baer, pp. 99, 127. See also George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times (New York: Grove, 2003).
12. On the Saudi Islamic opposition, see Joshua Teitelbaum, Holier than Thou: Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Opposition, Policy Paper No. 52, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000.
13. Robert Baer, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism (New York: Crown, 2002).
14. Baer, Sleeping with the Devil, p. xxxii.
15. Gold, pp. 246-47.
16. Charles Krauthammer, “The Neoconservative Convergence,” Commentary, Vol. 120, No. 1 (July-August 2005), pp. 21-26.
17. Ian Bremmer, “Prices Transform Oil into a Weapon,” International Herald Tribune, 27-28 August 2005.
18. Baer, pp.169-71.
19. Gold, p. 84. The original recording of Arafat’s incriminating conversation seems to have been lost or accidentally destroyed.
20. Ibid., p. 65.
21. Ibid., pp. 9-11.
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DR. ERAN LERMAN is director of the Israel and Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee and a former senior intelligence officer in Israel’s Directorate of Military Intelligence.