Stop Scapegoating the Saudis

Maybe they’re not responsible for everything that ails Islam.

Craig Unger, author of the just published House of Bush, House of Saud, believes that “the secret relationship between these two families helped to trigger the Age of Terrorism and give rise to the tragedy of 9/11.” The book contains some very nice details about the natural sympathy between Saudis and Texans, especially their shared affinity for guns and horses and oil, but the fact that the Bushes were close to the Saudis is hardly news. Indeed, the United States’ special relationship with Saudi Arabia has been the only consistent aspect of American foreign policy in the Middle East since Saudi wells started pumping oil in 1938.

Part of the unspoken bargain was that the United States would not interfere in internal Saudi affairs. To ensure that American policymakers were too distracted to nose around, the kingdom insisted that the United States adopt their position on the Arab-Israeli conflict: A just resolution to the Palestinian issue is the key to ensuring peace and stability in the region.

It was an idea first articulated by the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, when in order to outmaneuver the Hashemites and Egyptians for influence in the region, he petitioned the British on behalf of the Palestinians in the late 1930s. Over time, it’s become axiomatic that the Palestinian issue is the region’s central problem—but it’s not necessarily true. If it is possible to imagine a peace that both Israelis and Palestinians would find just, it is also possible that resolving the conflict might not bring stability to a region that has many serious problems. One obvious concern is that the Arab states are constantly trying to undermine each other, a fact nicely illustrated by the bizarre last-minute cancellation of this week’s Arab League summit.

For whatever reason, the current White House is one of the few in recent memory to have acted as if solving the Arab-Israeli conflict might not be as important as the kingdom says it is. As Unger notes, this angered the Saudis so much they went over the president’s head and complained to his dad. After all, the president’s mom had once called the Saudi ambassador to the United States “Bandar Bush.”

So, how did it happen that these once dear friends of the United States’ came to be regarded as—in the words of one Rand Corp. analyst—a “kernel of evil, the most dangerous opponent of the United States”?

Everyone has their own reason for hating the Saudis. As one writer notes, the American right dislikes the Saudis because it needs evil empires against which to set its agenda, and since 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis, the kingdom will do nicely for now. The American left distrusts them because they actually are big oil—and, as Unger reminds us, in bed with the Bushes.

Scapegoating the kingdom comes as a great boon to the rest of the Arab world, especially Egypt, which has many long-standing reasons of its own for hating the Saudis. One is cultural: In the summer, Saudis flee the gulf in huge numbers for the relatively cooler climates of other Arab capitals, most famously Cairo, where many of the men spend their time, and money, drinking and hunting for prostitutes. The Egyptians like the cash the Saudis spend, but they don’t like the arrogance that comes with it; and they don’t like the hypocrisy of ostensibly devout Muslims buying their women—and to a lesser extent, their men—for sex.

There’s a political reason as well. Saudi Arabia has oil, but all Egypt has to offer the United States is its position as regional peace-broker. When the Saudis encroach on that role, as Crown Prince Abdullah did with his 2002 Israeli-Arab peace initiative, the Egyptian government bristles. Hence, it’s to Egypt’s benefit that Saudi Arabia is perceived, in Unger’s words, to bear “more responsibility for 9/11 than any other nation.”

Certainly, as Unger reports, Saudi individuals and institutions seem to have contributed more money than anyone else to jihadist causes. Still, while the basic conceit of American investigative reporting is, in the words of Watergate’s Deep Throat, to follow the money, financing isn’t the central issue here. Take 9/11, for instance, a low-cost operation where most of the overhead seems to have been travel costs and living expenses for 19 hijackers.

Ideology is much more important than money, and because Wahhabism, often referred to as the kingdom’s state religion, is an intolerant, fundamentalist version of Islam, the Saudis are held accountable for that too. After all, the Saudis fund mosques and cultural centers all over the world that indoctrinate Muslims with Wahhabist Islam. That’s definitely a problem, but the Pakistanis, Bosnians, and Americans, among others, who take the Saudis’ money certainly share the responsibility. Besides, blaming Saudi Wahhabism isn’t really quite accurate.

Muhammad bin abd-el Wahhab, the 18th-century cleric after whom the movement is named, was just one in a series of influential Muslim thinkers who believed that the true path lay in following only the primary sources of Islam—the Quran, the example of the prophet Muhammad, his companions, and their immediate successors. First was Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, a 9th-century Baghdad-born scholar who was so influential he gave his name to one of the four schools of Sunni Islam. Then there was Ibn Taimiya, a 14th-century Syrian jurist who said that it was acceptable to kill a Muslim leader whose rule was bad for the nation.

This was a very important innovation, which the 20th-century Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb turned into a general principle. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser took the implication seriously and dealt roughly with the Islamists. Most didn’t suffer the fate of Qutb, executed in 1966, but many Islamists were jailed and others exiled. Some wound up in Saudi Arabia. Since, during part of that time, Nasser was fighting a proxy war with the Saudis in Yemen, he must’ve taken great pleasure that Qutbists were busily publicizing their new ideas in the kingdom, notions like perpetual jihad and death to infidel Muslim leaders.

So, Wahhabism and Qutb-style jihadism issue from the same basic fundamentalist idea, but they differ in a very important way. Insofar as it conjoins the religious establishment with the state, Wahhabism represents an accommodation with political power and a means of exercising it within existing institutions. Islamism is a radical critique of all institutions, in the Muslim world and outside it. The domestic insurgents who’ve attacked the kingdom in the last year are only Wahhabis in name; their program is Qutbist.

In a sense, the Saudis passed on to the rest of the world what the Egyptians handed off to them. It’s ridiculous to scapegoat either for what is a much wider problem in the Arab world, and one, moreover, that’s not going to be solved with a just resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Playing the Arab world blame game only serves the interests of Arab regimes, not the United States’ and not those of Arab citizens.

Internal reform in Saudi Arabia, as throughout the region, is imperative, and it’s worth noting that while there are bold, independent activists inside the kingdom like the feminist writer Wajeha al-Huwaider, Saudi money funds much of the Arab press’s most moderate organs—the London-based newspapers Al Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the satellite news network Al-Arabiya, and the liberal Web site Elaph, a kind of Arab Slate.

In the meantime, while it’s good that we know things about the Saudis we didn’t know before, and there’s a lot that should never be forgiven, we still want the Saudis to survive their own ongoing Islamist insurgency. Otherwise, what kind of friends would we be?