Saudi Arabia's rulers are now paying lip-service to supporting an experiment with a Gorbachev-like program of Perestroika and Glasnost. But are they serious? If they are, why did they recently crackdown on reform demonstrators? And if the political system were to be "opened up," wouldn't there be a danger that Taliban-like fanatics would just gain more power? Moreover, what does Saudi "reform" even mean if the Saudis continue to foment their hate against America and Israel in their mosques and classrooms? And what policy should the Bush administration be pursuing toward these Saudi realities?
To discuss these and other aspects regarding Saudi Arabia today, Frontpage Symposium is joined by Khalid Al-Dakhil, an assistant professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. He has been a columnist for London's Al Hayat newspaper and is now a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment in DC; Andrew Apostolou, Director of Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute created after 9/11 and focusing on terrorism; Laurent Murawiec, a former Seniolr Rand Corp. analyst is now a Senior Fellow with the Hudson Institute. His book on Saudi Arabia, "Taking Saudi out of Arabia" ["La Guerre d'apres"] came out last month in Paris; and Kenneth R. Timmerman, an investigative reporter and author who has spent twenty years reporting on Europe and the Middle East. His latest book, Preachers of Hate: Islam and the War on America, raises serious questions about Saudi government funding of terror and Saudi funding of radical Wahhabi preachers and schools that are training new generations of Muslims to hate Jews and hate America. He is also the author of Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson, and The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq, and writes regularly for Insight Magazine. Information on his latest book and recent articles are available at preachersofhate.com;
Interlocutor: Welcome gentlemen to Frontpage Symposium. It is a pleasure to have you here. Let's begin with this question: Are the recently announced Saudi "reforms" credible? And if there is going to be a successful “reform movement” in Saudi Arabia, is it going to be led by Saudis wanting more democracy, or by fanatics who want more Talibanization?
Al-Dakhil: The first part of your question assumes that the announced reforms are unprecedented. Well, they are not. There were such reform before, I mean municipal election, as far back as 1965. And what was announced few weeks ago was simply a revival of a law that was decreed by the late king Khalid in 1979. That law was about administrative and legal reforms at the municipal level. So on that basis, it could easily be said that the announced reforms are credible indeed. But, the real question should be about whether this announcement is the beginning of a real and comprehensive reform plan that would include political, economic, and constitutional reforms? Or simply another attempt at going back to the old game of starting something, then leaving it suffocate under the laws of bureaucracy and time.
The second part of the question is loaded and suggestive, as so many things that are being said about Saudi Arabia in the US capital these days. Not all religious oriented people are like Taliban. And it should be stressed here that Taliban belong to a different Islamic school of law, i.e. the Hanafi school, from the one followed by the majority in Saudi Arabia, i.e. the Hanbali school. I expect us to go back to this later on during our dialogue.
I don't expect the fanatics to win the election in Saudi Arabia. However, it's almost certain that the conservatives, both from the religious and the tribal circles, will dominate such elections. This is natural and expected, considering that the society has been exposed for so long to one perspective, i.e., the conservative religious perspective. But then, there's nothing wrong with the conservative wining the election. After all, election and freedom is for all, and not only for the liberals and the progressives. The most important is to start the reform, institute freedom of expression and pluralism. That way the society's floor will be opened to different point views, and the people will be exposed to more than one discourse. After that they'll have more than one choice to make.
Apostolou: The just announced proposed changes, one hesitates to call them “reforms”, are a belated regime response to internal and external pressure. There was a similar response following the 1991 Gulf War. The question that one has to ask is what does the ruling family want to get out of these changes? It is rather unlikely that they want to emancipate their subjects and turn them into citizens. Indeed, it is implausible that the ruling family, which is rather like a vast, sprawling conglomerate, would surrender any real power. It is more likely that they want to co-opt elements of the population that they fear may move from indifference towards opposition.
There are various currents of opposition calling for change in Saudi Arabia and there has long been opposition to the ruling family. These currents of opinion are diverse, fractious and in some rather famous cases, more extreme than the clerical establishment which provides religious legitimacy to the ruling regime. How strong these currents are, however, is hard to tell given how closed Saudi Arabia is to even the people who live there, let alone outsiders. Political trends within society, let alone the ruling family, are difficult to get a handle on.
It is also worth remembering that it was Saudi Arabia which helped to fund and train the Taliban (Pakistan provided manpower, military support and training, the UAE made a cash contribution), so arguably the Taliban went through “Saudi-isation”. Al-Qaida, which is now attacking targets in Saudi Arabia, therefore counts as a “returned export” rather than an “import”.
Timmerman: I would go even further than Andrew Apostolou. There was not merely a “Saudiasation” of the Taliban; the Taliban where a Saudi creation. They were educated at madrassas in Pakistan that had been built with Saudi money and were staffed with wahhabi clerics sent on mission by the Saudi government. While in power, their regime was propped up by non-stop deliveries of Saudi wheat and Saudi cash. (I witnessed one of those convoys blocking the border beyond Peshawar in March 1998; it stretched more than a mile long, bumper to bumper).
The Saudis modeled the system they set up in Pakistan to train the Taliban on their own state-run schools. The Saudi national Education Policy doctrine, translated recently by the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, states that “the purpose of education is understanding Islam correctly and completely, implanting and spreading the Islamic faith, providing the student with Islamic values, instructions and ideals…” Among those Islamic values is “jihad,” the doctrine states. “Jihad in God’s cause is a firm religious duty, a norm to be followed and an existing necessity. It is to continue [so] until the Day of Resurrection.”
It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for “reformers” to emerge from within the Saudi system until the Saudis reform the school system that continues to teach hatred of Jews, hatred of Western values and hatred of the West as its basic values. In fifth grade, students are given this “yes-no” quiz:
€ “The religion of Islam is the path that leads to Paradise.”
€ The other religions destroy their followers.”
In ninth grade, students are taught, “There is no doubt that the Muslims’ power irritate the infidels and spread envy in the hearts of the enemies of Islam – Christians, Jews and others… a malicious Crusader-Jewish alliance [is] striving to eliminate Islam from all the continents.”
Dramatic changes in the Saudi school curricula should be the first measure of the credibility of any reform. Why have we never heard the Saudis even mention this?
Murawiec: It is the umpteenth time that “reforms” are announced. Take none of it seriously. It is a useful rabbit to take out of the royal hat every time the outside world has to be impressed. Periodically the alcoholic announces that he intends to reform himself. The al-Saud are addicted to power and its perks and the wealth it gives them. Going cold turkey is not something the regime is able, let alone willing to do. The gullibility of foreigners makes that talk into headlines. In 1975 municipal elections were announced. Today they’re talking of electing half the councils in 14 municipalities…
The al-Saud-Wahhabi nexus has created a monstrous creature, as an extension of itself: decades of brainwashing of youth to a doctrine that is inherently nihilistic, that preaches enmity toward and destruction of “apostates and schismatics” (Shiites) “apes and pigs” (Christians and Jews), hatred for the West. The doctrine and the associated practices have not remained internal but have been massively exported. As a result, what is happening inside Saudi Arabia has ceased to be an internal Saudi affair: it is an urgent danger for the world. Since the Saudi regime is Talibans with oil - the Talibans were Saudis without oil - there is a serious danger. If need be it should be pre-empted. The al-Saud-Wahhabi nexus has taken over most Sunni extremist (fundamentalist, revivalist) movements in the world over the last few decades: Moslem Brotherhood, Deobandi, Tablighi, etc. What matters is not whether they are Hanafi or Hanbali, but that they have been “Wahhabized.”
If we’re talking reform, the reintroduction of the three other major Sunni madhdhab in Mecca and of the Shiites should be a priority. Moslem pluralism sounds like a good beginning. It was the case from time immemorial and was only abolished, in blood and violence, in 1925, when ibn Saud and the Ikhwan conquered Hijaz.
Democracy is not a matter of elections. Elections are the crowning, last chapter of democratic development. Rule of law, equality for all, legal and civil rights, transparent governance, accountability of those who hold office – that’s what begins democracy. Saddam’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria, Mubarak’s Egypt have had plenty of elections – a sham.
Interlocutor: So if the announced reforms are just a sham, the crackdown really shouldn't be a surprise, right? What exactly was the scope of the crackdown anyway?
Al-Dakhil: Demonstrations are prohibited by law in Saudi Arabia. So crackdowns should be expected by a regime that is not used to the idea of the people going out to demonstrate as a way of expressing their views and grievances. As to the scope, it seems to be big. Official figures of those who were arrested is put at more than 150. Unofficial figures is much more than that.
Apostolou: The structure of Saudi politics is an ongoing crackdown. North Korea is sometimes referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom”. The same could be said of Saudi Arabia, a country largely closed to outside analysts and whose political system is opaque. There is always repression in Saudi Arabia. Arguably what defines a “crackdown” is when the regime goes after genuinely dangerous people and publicizes its pursuit of these extremists. During late 2001 and 2002 the attitude towards Saudi nationals returning from Afghanistan was lax. Many were briefly detained and interrogated, too few remained in jail.
Murawiec: The al-Saud don’t like to lose face: they did with the Riyadh explosions. They did with the recent demonstration. It is a totalitarian society tempered by tribalism. So they crack down. The problem is that, beyond the street extremists, they would have to arrest themselves. Prince Nayef, prince Sultan, Prince Turki, to name but a few very senior members of the royal family, have been involved at the highest level in the establishment, the sustenance and the action of terrorist organizations. The feedback loop has been reaching Arabia ever since Turki’s protégé bin Laden first returned from Afghanistan. Note also that there is a continuum rather than a gap between the regime and their “opponents.” Arab politics is never simple. Saudi affairs are never wysiwyg. You’ll see an opponent, a dissenting faction, maintaining contact with and receiving support from some senior member of the Royals or a member of his Majlis.
There is a proper context to assess all that: the succession struggle. Who will be king, who wil be crown prince, who will be next in line? Understand, none of the contenders if “pro-American” or “anti,” they’re only pro-al Saud, and they play the American card as opportunity dictates. But the succession is played like succession struggles in closed societies, late Soviet Union or last years of Mao: never look at the face of the conjuror, look at his hands and fingers. It is now the various shows that matter, what happens on the front-stage of the theater, but the backstage maneuvering, negotiations, back-stabbings, etc. The family is coming down the wire. All major factions have tried to postpone crucial decisions in the hope of gathering more factional power, more allies, and position themselves better. Time is running out. We should expect more eruptions, none of which will be dictated by “popular” sentiment, all of which will be the expression of court and clan factions.
Timmerman: Khalid al-Dakhil is right: why should we be surprised if the Saudis arrest rural clerics who might stir up the population against their rule – especially when those clerics are Shias, whom they consider as “heretics”? More significant would be the replacement of government clerics such as Sheikh Saad al Buraik, who raised $109 million last year for the families of suicide bombers and had this to say on Saudi state television: “I am against America until this life ends, until the Day of Judgment… O Muslim Ummah, don’t take the Jews and Christians as allies.” (p119-120, Preachers of Hate).
Interlocutor: Fair enough gentlemen, but hasn't there been some kind of general "shift," or an "evolution," in Saudi policies?
Dakhil: The question is so general that I'm not sure what you mean; internal or foreign policies. If what you have in mind is the internal policy, then I would say that there are signs that a shift or an evolution is about to take place. The crown prince, Abdullah Ibn Abdul-Aziz, is talking about expanding political participation. And it is significant to note here that he is the first in the ruling family, and in such a high position, to ever use the expression "political participation". Education is being reformed. Promises have been made to go beyond municipal elections. These are a mixed bag of promises and signs on the one hand, and real steps on the ground, on the other. However, considering the fact that the society on the basis of which the state was created is different now in many ways than what it use to be in the past, and considering the challenges the Saudis are facing now, both internal external, makes political shifts, or reforms the only option available.
Apostolou: It took the al-Qaida attacks in May for the ruling family to recognize that they have a terrorism problem. Until then, they thought that they only had a PR problem. Americans, having suffered 3,000 casualties courtesy of the Saudi terrorism problem, thought otherwise.
Until these attacks the measures taken to curb both incitement to terrorism and the funding of terrorism were largely geared towards appeasing the US. The perception within the kingdom was, accurately, that the terrorism is a threat to others. The ruling family knows that it has to change in some way, but is unsure what to do. After all, it does not want to lose its control of power and wealth. We have had hints of possible change coming out of the ruling family in the past and they have always come to very little.
Timmerman: Andrew Apostolou is right, in my view, to emphasize the importance of the Riyadh bombings this May. The Saudis claimed the bombings created a popular backlash against al Qaeda, and helped dry up recruitment. They also claim they prompted the government to take a hard look at their approach toward terror. But we have very few windows into the hearts and minds of ordinary Saudis other than what the Saudi government wants to provide us, and this should give us pause, especially as the Saudi media and Saudi schools continue to preach a doctrine of hate – hatred of Jews, hatred of Christians, hatred of all those who do not embrace their militant faith.
Murawiec: Change? Dunes change every day as the wind dictates. In closed systems, like totalitarian regimes, biology is the prime factor of direct change - King Fahd is clinically dead but not politically. Pressures mount from within and from without. The al-Saud are poorly able to perceive pressures (everything is a threat) and to adjust and adapt - their modus operandi is to buy, cajole, threaten, arrest, torture, kill - not to devise new policies.
While the art of survival has been the only conspicuous talent of the al-Sauds (with consumption, I hasten to add), I wonder if they haven't entered what ibn Khaldun calls the "fourth [dynastic] generation" which squanders the legacy of its forebears - except that doom would come with the fourth king, not even the fourth generation.
Interlocutor: Ok, so what do we make of the reported nuclear deals and ambitions the Saudis are engaged in? They are brewing trouble aren't they?
Murawiec: Saudi Arabia has been pursuing a nuclear option for years. The kingdom desires nukes all the more urgently that the 60-year window of partnership with the U.S. is closing. The royals want nukes to acquire a strategic immunity – which they once enjoyed under the American umbrella. They funded both Saddam’s nuclear program, pre-1991, and Pakistan. Their “buy me a country” policy concerned Pakistan in the first place, since Ali Bhutto and Zia ul-Haq. The “Islamic Bomb” Islamabad bragged of was the financial offspring of Riyad. The transfer of designs, technologies and material both in the nuclear and in the ballistic sectors have been intense between China, North Korea, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – it all started with the sale of China’s Silkworm missiles to Saudi Arabia. Both Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic programs have been godfathered by the Saudis. Crown Prince Abdullah’s mid-October state visit was concerned with this in priority.
Timmerman: Already in the mid-1980s, Saudi Arabia, with U.S. help, began building a series of deep underground bases that were designed to withstand a nuclear attack. From Communist China, the Saudis purchased long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. In both cases, the Saudis claimed they were responding to a threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran. That is what they are doing today. The Saudi response to Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions should demonstrate the extraordinary folly of the Non-proliferation Treaty, which in essence legitimates and even enhances clandestine nuclear weapons development in aspiring nuclear weapons states by encouraging the nuclear powers to transfer technology to them behind the fig leaf of civilian nuclear cooperation. As every nuclear engineer, physicist and weapons designer I have ever interviewed has told me, shifting from civilian nuclear power to nuclear weapons is like crossing the street with the light. It is time to impose far more draconian controls on all nuclear technology transfers than those that currently exist.
Apostolou: The Saudis are interested in a nuclear option for obvious reasons (Patrick Clawson at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has written well on this matter). They do not, however, appear to be particularly advanced towards such a capability. They have potential delivery systems but nothing to deliver. There has been speculation that Pakistan would hand Saudi Arabia a bomb if it needed it and the irresponsible way in which Pakistan behaves with its nuclear technology gives credibility to such speculation. Much will depend on how the EU and IAEA deal with Iran in coming months. My personal suspicion is that they will, at best, delay the Iranian programme, but no more. In the meantime, one expects that the Saudis will consider other options, such as repairing their relations with the US. Despite the problems in Saudi-US relations, Saudi Arabia needs the US to be its security guarantor. The Saudi desire to have that guarantee reaffirmed gives the US important leverage which it should use.
Al-Dakhil: What is the relationship between a "deal", presumabley sealed off, and an ambition of reaching such a deal? Either Saudi Arabia has the ambition to have nuclear weapons, or it did reach such a deal with one of the nuclear powers to have it. We should always remember that practically every country that does not have nuclear power may have an ambition to acquire it. So trying to pick on this country or that just for the assumption of having such an ambition is not more than an attempt to drive a political agenda, and not out of concern for the security and stability of the world.
The concern, if there's ever one, must be about states that already have the nuclear weapons and threaten the stability of the region, like the state of Israel. With regard to Saudi Arabia, every thing that has been said that it has reached a deal with Pakistan to exchange oil for the nukes is simply just talk, and empty rhetoric. There is no substance to it, for there isn't a shred of evidence to support it. Even the Bush administration, which is leading the campaign against proliferation, says so. It's interesting that the same people who are taking on the Saudis just on the basis an assumption that that they may have the aspiration for acquiring nuclear weapons while silent about those who do have these weapons.
Interlocutor: Overall, it looks like Saudi Arabia is our enemy. The heavy indoctrination of the Saudi youth by the Mullas preaching hate for Americans, Jews, and all things Western is evidence enough. What kind of friends are these?
Murawiec: The essential point is that nothing and nobody can split or separate Wahhabi from al-Saud. They have been business and clanic-family partners since the mid-18th century! Wahhabi ideology is intrinsic to the power of the al-Saud, the might of the al-Saud the key to the survival and spread of Wahhabism. The doctrine itself is a backward, desert-bound, simplistic mish-mash of pagan mores and practices with Islamic slogans. It is intrinsically a violent and ruthlessly-bigoted doctrine. This is reflected in the sermons, the schoolbooks, the fatwas and juridico-religious debates in the kingdom. The al-Saud-Wahhabi nexus has a layered view of a divinely-ordered hierarchy of beings: the worst are the Chiite “apostates and schismatics,” the Jews are just an inch above, below Christians who are hated. Non-Wahhabi Moslems are not much above, all of them way down the food chain on top of which the Saudi Royals have established their seats. The West is inherently an enemy to be destroyed. In the Bedouin way of war, you only wage battle if and when you can win it. Otherwise, bid your time and strike as soon as you may. Infidels anew to be destroyed. Some friends.
Timmerman: The United States is walking a tightrope in our relations with the Saudi royal family. To one side, we see the criminal behavior of senior Saudi princes, who sponsor the preachers of hate, export Wahhabism, and who in some cases continue to provide financial support to Osama Bin Laden and to the network of charities and commercial entities that feed him. On the other, lies Bin Laden himself. The Saudis like to remind us that what comes after them is far worse. While that may be true, the Saudis have consciously created the swamps that lie on either side of the tightrope. I detail in Preachers of Hate how the Saudis, starting with King Fahd in person, made a pact with the devil starting in 1979 to export wahhabism around the world in order to protect them from the wahhabis at home. As part of that pact, they have failed to educate their population, or instill in them the values that would allow them to navigate the modern world as responsible (and peaceful) citizens. They have failed to create a middle class of skilled professionals; they have failed to empower half of their population (women). Indeed, for all their hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenues since 1979, the Saudi royal family have failed to create a single monument to civilization, unless you count pleasure palace King Fahd has built on the French Riviera near Monaco that is so vast it takes a commercial jet five full minutes to fly beyond it.
Apostolou: Many countries indoctrinate schoolchildren with varying degrees of success. By contrast, in Britain, we attempt to bore children to death in school. So why does indoctrination in Saudi Arabia matter to the US? The answer is because it has helped to fuel terrorism and encourages people to fund terrorism. It is not just that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, but that around half of the 660 inmates of Guantanamo Bay are also Saudi nationals. The problem we have, however, is that indoctrination alone does not lead to terrorism. After all, some millions have been exposed to the sort of inflammatory and chauvinistic ideas that Americans have now realized are part of a Saudi education, but the number of terrorists is in the thousands. The population of Saudi Arabia is around 22 million (5 million foreigners, 17 million Saudi nationals), of which probably 20% is composed of native males under the age of 15. The implication of the incitement argument is that there are 3.4 million potential terrorists being bred. If that is the case, then our problems have only just begun. Similarly, it is worth remembering that while Saudi Arabia sells many tens of billions of dollars of oil each year, the amount of money that finds its way from Saudi nationals to terrorists is in the millions (for the sake of argument, if Saudi Arabia exports 8m b/d for $25/b, that is $73 billion per annum. Al-Qaida’s annual budget before September 11 was estimated at some $30 million, some of which did not come from Saudi sources). Most of this money comes from individuals, some of whom are readily identifiable.
For the first time this administration is publicly challenging Arab government on the question of democracy, and this is a change. But in order for the speech to represent a real turning point, it has to be based on a reconceptualization of US policy toward the region; this policy has to be even handed between the Arabs and the Israelis, it has to abandon the idea that Israel is the only viable and reliable ally in the region, it has to come up with a formula in which US interests do not clash with the people's rights and aspiration for freedom and democracy, and it should be based on the assumption that political reform in each country must be initiated from within, and must be free of any outside intervention. After all, no democracy has ever been imported or imposed from the outside. And the Arabs, among them the Saudis, just like other peoples, are capable of charting their own path of reform and democratization.