The Saudis are selling themselves as abused good guys and the State Department and the White House are buying it.
There is a tug of war going on in America between those who believe that the Saudis are directly or indirectly responsible for a good portion of Islamic terrorism, and those who believe the Saudis are good, long-standing allies of the United States and are doing everything possible to assist the U.S. in its fight against terror. The Saudis have of course been avidly promoting the false latter angle, but have simultaneously done little about the real sources of terrorist support in their country.
The Saudis are only willing to address terrorism and their role in financing it when confronted directly. Otherwise, they equivocate, hesitate and glad-hand with American politicians and reporters to prove to the world how moderate, modern and congenial they are.
Since 9/11, the Saudi public relations machine has been trying to convince the American public and government of their friendship while ardently disavowing Saudi involvement in the attacks or in al Qaeda. Shortly after the attacks, the King's nephew Prince Alwaleed bin Talal attempted to appease America with a $10 million contribution to New York City. The Saudi royal family has purchased full-page newspaper ads in national papers as well as national TV spots. Several American PR firms have been retained by the Saudis. One was used to distribute a document to Capitol Hill staffers, another is placing ads proclaiming the Kingdom as a staunch U.S. ally, and yet another was hired to push the Saudi's "peace plan," after it was released last winter. Their smiling, American and Americanized spokespersons are on a campaign to spread love of this quasi-medieval kingdom that is deeply ambivalent about America.
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah leaked his "peace plan" for Israel and Palestine to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in February 2002. The plan was a distraction attempt, since there was nothing in the peace plan that had not already been suggested, save that after Israel and Palestine became peaceful, the Saudis would graciously recognize the state of Israel. When news of the plan came out, the Saudis had been taking a beating in the American court of public opinion due to their unwillingness to work with the U.S. in the war on terror. The peace plan and the media frenzy that followed temporarily distracted attention away from the Saudi's connections to terrorist organizations, and gave them breathing space. The Saudi government, or at least its paid consultants in Washington, are nothing if not shrewd, being gifted with the political skills of the bazaar and those required to stay alive in the lethal but always-shifting political sands of the Middle East.
The Saudis did something similar in November 2002, when the news broke that Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to America, indirectly financially supported two of the 9/11 terrorists. A firestorm of outrage and accusation broke out against the Saudis. Adel al-Jubeir, a top foreign affairs aide to Crown Prince Abdullah, was the main spokesperson at a news conference December 3. He tried to put a good spin on the recently publicized details regarding how frequently Saudi royal funds end up directly supporting terrorists. Al-Jubeir, incidentally, announced new Saudi measures to regulate the flow of such funds.
The American-educated al-Jubeir, also known among the media as "the Sultan of Spin," is smooth and articulate. He presents Saudi Arabia as being much-abused and insulted by the accusations against his beloved nation. He portrays himself as the voice of reason who must somehow explain the simple ‘truth’ to befuddled American masses - who do not truly understand the real issues. He is tasked with communicating how hard the Kingdom is trying to halt terrorism. Al-Jubeir gently condemned allegations of terrorist funding, proclaiming that they were "More a function of domestic American politics. We're just the political football."
Although the Saudi government presents a friendly, supportive face to the West, it presents an entirely different one to Muslims. The Saudi state religion, Wahhabism, is an extreme sect of Islam invented in the 18th century and intimately tied up with the legitimacy of the al Saud family as rulers of the kingdom. Its closest analogy within the Judeo-Christian tradition would be one of extreme varieties of Protestantism that once existed: perhaps Calvinism in its original form, or perhaps the militarist Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell. The Sauds feel obliged to support it, both for the practical reason of maintaining the support of local clergy, and for the ideological reason that they have no other political philosophy. The two main Saudi exports are oil and religion. Without their religious foundations, it is unlikely that the nation of tribes could have held together. The discovery and drilling of oil cemented the foundation. The Saudis deliberately export, at huge financial expense, their peculiar brand of Islam around the world in an attempt to gain political influence and to placate their own extremists. The money that the Saudis receive from oil exports has been used to support various terrorist organizations and Wahhabi indoctrination centers worldwide. A majority of American mosques are Wahhabi-financed.
These indoctrination centers are publicly backed. Few people, much less the U.S. government, are alarmed, despite the fact that these centers are sowing hate among the Moslem masses all over the world. An example of this extremism can be found in a recent report by The Saudi Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This report quotes the writings being published in the U.S:
"The unbelievers, idolaters, and others like them must be hated and despised … We must stay away from them and create barriers between us and them."
The Wahhabist sect is actively encouraging Muslims to hate infidels — in other words, everyone not following their own brand of religion.
A Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored task force recently released a report that states:
"individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda; and for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem."
The Saudis naturally deny funding terrorism, but they proudly admit to exporting Islam. In March of this year, the Saudi government English-language weekly Ain Al-Yaqeen reported on the involvement of the Saudi royal family in spreading Islam. The report details the thousands of schools, mosques, and Islamic centers supported by the royal family around the world. An excerpt states:
"…it was only when oil revenues began to generate real wealth that the Kingdom could fulfill its ambitions of spreading the word of Islam to every corner of the world…."
The flood of largely unrestricted and uncontrolled Saudi funds is well-documented. The Saudis have long surreptitiously funneled money to various extremist organizations in an attempt to keep them from protesting overly much about the Kingdom's alliances with the West. Essentially, they bribe terrorists to take their terrorism elsewhere. The aforementioned CFR-sponsored report notes that although amendments to Saudi money laundering laws were made in 1999 in an attempt to bring them in line with international standards, the State Department reported these amendments have yet to be implemented. While Saudi PR firms are sending out messages of peace and goodwill to America and the West, various Saudi-backed Muslim organizations in the U.S. are printing and distributing materials decrying Christianity, Judaism and the West.
Saudi oil is also used to manipulate the West economically. Obviously, this is ultimately our own fault for not having a tariff structure in place to reduce our dependence on foreign, particularly Middle Eastern, oil. And economics, naturally, drives politics. The OPEC embargos of the ‘70s are well known, and Saudi Arabia continues to manipulate the world’s political and economic system, although not quite so obviously. Saudi Arabia has approximately 25% of the world's oil reserves. These reserves have been most frequently used as a crowbar to pry OPEC, and by extension the U.S, in the direction the Saudis want to go. Last April, during President Bush's talks with Crown Prince Abdullah, the Saudis repeatedly stated that they would not use oil as a bargaining chip. But since they have been willing to use oil as a goad in the past, why not today? They know how the game works and do not hesitate to play it when they can get away with it.
The recent announcements of new financial restrictions are meant to appease America and the West, but it is highly unlikely that anything substantial will come of them. An occasional scapegoat will probably be identified to make the Saudis appear to be doing their part in the war on terror. Sacrificial lambs will be slaughtered, with appropriate ceremony and self-congratulation to make sure the American media get the point. The Saudis do not want to be seen by the radical Islamic groups as working too closely with America. They do not want their own governmental and royal ties to those organizations publicized. The State Department, despite the aforementioned report on the lack of follow-through, issued a statement commending the Saudis for their efforts in the war on terrorism.
Why does the administration take the Saudis at their word?
Reason One: the Bush Connection?
Rumors have circulated within the last year or so that the Bush administration refuses to get tough on Saudi Arabia because of the Bush family's business and personal ties to Saudi Arabia and some of its most elevated citizens. When Princess Haifa was scrutinized recently, Barbara Bush and Alma Powell, wife of the Secretary of State, supported her. They were but two of many. White House and State Department spokespeople rarely criticize the Saudis, merely stating that while they "could do more" in the fight on terror, the Saudis were still being extremely helpful. The Secretary of State himself warned against pushing the Saudis too hard, since the Saudis have been such great friends and a strategic partner to the U.S. for "many, many years." Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Prince Bandar and Princess Haifa have all visited President Bush at his Crawford ranch. The question must be asked: is there a deeper relationship between the Bushes and the Saudi royal family? In scrupulous fairness, there exist no grounds for any explicit accusation of wrongdoing – Bush is not Clinton – but it would be remiss of the American public not to ask questions about these close relationships between our president and people who are at best very fickle friends of our country.
The U.S. needs oil. The Saudis hold the largest slice of the world’s unused oil reserves, and there are fears of yet another embargo, or at least higher prices. The U.S. could probably survive without Saudi oil, but this would cause other problems. American oil and gas companies would lose their contracts to foreign companies, leading to more economic problems. Similarly, the Saudis probably would not be hurt economically due to world-wide demand and existing customer base.
The U.S. needs Saudi military bases. The regional headquarters for the U.S. Central Command is located on the Prince Sultan Air Base. The U.S. military is understandably loathe to part with these high-tech facilities. The Saudis have not been allowing U.S. planes to make bombing runs from Saudi territory on either the Taliban or Iraq, but they are now saying that the U.S. may use Prince Sultan for command purposes, and have overflight rights in the event of war with Iraq. The Saudis would prefer that the U.S. use the other strategic locations in the Gulf available to the U.S., even though the Saudis are better positioned geographically and have more technologically advanced facilities already in place.
The Saudis have huge monetary, political and religious influence on radical Islamic fundamentalist groups worldwide. The actual level of influence has been hotly debated, but many terrorist informants would undoubtedly prefer to contact the Saudis rather than the U.S. A lot of people in Saudi Arabia, that is, may know a lot about what the terrorists are up to. So if U.S. - Saudi relations sour, what will be the cost in lost opportunities to catch terrorists before they strike? The Saudis’ radical connections could in the end cut both ways: if we are lucky, they may to some limited extent sell them out to us rather than vice-versa.
Although the Saudis are certainly trying to manipulate the Bush administration and the rest of the American political system, are they succeeding? Thankfully, their game is now largely out in the open, so the answer must be – maybe. U.S. Senators and Representatives were out in force after the firestorm surrounding Princess Haifa erupted. They demanded the administration take a tougher stance toward the Saudis. The administration avoided the issue, with spokespeople pointing out that only individual people were under investigation, not the entire nation of Saudi Arabia. Whenever the Saudi’s commitment to the war on terror has been questioned, the administration’s has always asserted that the Saudis are cooperative and supportive of the U.S.
Outwardly it appears that the Bush administration has bought the Saudis as abused good guys pitch. Or have they? There is strong fragmentary evidence that Bush is wise to the Saudi game and that his seemingly naïve public statements on the matter are so much diplomatic butter. It is impossible at present to know what is going on behind closed doors at the Bush White House. Are they truly being manipulated, or are they biding their time to take advantage of the close relationship with the Saudis? Only time will tell.