Saudi Ara­bia coun­ters Iran, and other myths about the king­dom.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Madawi Al-Rasheed Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Saudi Ara­bian scholar of so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy, is a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Mid­dle East Cen­ter at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence.

Saudi Ara­bia is dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend. Blessed with al­most lim­it­less oil wealth and tremen­dous sway in global af­fairs, its lead­ers still feel pre­car­i­ous enough in their power that they im­prison royal ri­vals and as­sas­si­nate crit­ics like Wash­ing­ton Post columnist Ja­mal Khashoggi. Myths about the king­dom and its af­fairs con­tinue to flour­ish.

MYTH NO. 1 Saudi Ara­bia is a good part­ner against Iran.

Pres­i­dent Trump has sug­gested that the world needs an Arab NATO to con­front Iran, with Saudi Ara­bia play­ing a cen­tral role. An­a­lysts like An­thony Cordes­man ar­gue that Saudi Ara­bia is a crit­i­cal se­cu­rity part­ner, es­pe­cially in check­ing Iran, a long­time Amer­i­can foe.

But Saudi Ara­bia is not a great U.S. part­ner in this con­test. De­spite a bo­nanza of spend­ing on weapons and mil­i­tary tech — it is the world’s third-largest buyer of ar­ma­ments — the Saudi regime can­not fight a war alone and can’t even ef­fec­tively con­front Iran in a proxy con­flict. In 2015, the Saudis launched a war in Ye­men in part to halt Ira­nian in­flu­ence on their south­ern bor­der. Al­most four years later, the Saudis have suc­ceeded only in de­stroy­ing the coun­try, in­creas­ing Iran’s sway among the Houthi rebels there and mak­ing Saudi cities vul­ner­a­ble to Houthi mis­siles.

In Le­banon, Saudi ef­forts on be­half of its client-leader, Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri, only made Ira­nian-backed Hezbol­lah stronger. In Iraq, Saudi lead­ers des­per­ately re­cruited acolytes among tribal, sec­u­lar and even rad­i­cal Sunni rebels, with the hope of in­flu­enc­ing Iraqi pol­i­tics to counter Iran’s pull. All of those ef­forts were doomed.

MYTH NO. 2 Saudi Ara­bia is a key ally in the fight against ter­ror­ism.

“We need Saudi Ara­bia in terms of our fight against all of the ter­ror­ism,” Trump said in Oc­to­ber, re­it­er­at­ing con­ven­tional wis­dom about the king­dom’s abil­ity to help con­tain Is­lamist po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence. The 9/11 Com­mis­sion re­port in 2004 praised Saudi Ara­bia be­cause it “openly dis­cussed the prob­lem of rad­i­cal­ism, crit­i­cized the ter­ror­ists as re­li­giously de­viant, re­duced of­fi­cial sup­port for re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity over­seas . . . and pub­li­cized ar­rests.”

But the Saudi state has played a cen­tral role in spread­ing a splin­ter fun­da­men­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy that has jus­ti­fied ter­ror across the globe. The siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, al-Qaeda’s ac­tiv­i­ties in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the 9/11 at­tacks on New York and the Pen­tagon, and the rise of the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014 were based on the idea of “ji­had against un­be­liev­ers” and the ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion of those who do not share Wah­habi re­li­gious out­looks, which are Saudi-spon­sored in­ter­pre­ta­tions. Riyadh ex­pected its fun­da­men­tal­ists to launch ji­had abroad and re­main obe­di­ent at home. But the pol­icy back­fired, with fight­ers even­tu­ally tar­get­ing the na­tion’s gov­ern­ment.

Now, the qual­ity of Saudi in­tel­li­gence on ter­ror­ism has been fall­ing, ac­cord­ing to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House of­fi­cial, since Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man pushed out the former in­tel­li­gence chief. And its proxy bat­tles in Ye­men, Syria and Iraq are help­ing to fo­ment vi­o­lent re­sis­tance among some of the re­gion’s Shi­ites.

MYTH NO. 3 Saudi Ara­bi­ans are Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ists.

The king­dom seems to have an un­for­tu­nate knack for pro­duc­ing fun­da­men­tal­ist ter­ror­ists: 15 of the 19 hi­jack­ers of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as Osama bin Laden him­self. In a re­port on Saudi re­li­gious in­flu­ence, a se­nior Is­lamic cleric in Turkey noted that while he was meet­ing with Saudi cler­ics in Riyadh, the gov­ern­ment ex­e­cuted 45 Saudi ci­ti­zens for ter­ror­ism. “I said: ‘These peo­ple stud­ied Is­lam for 10 or 15 years in your coun­try. Is there a prob­lem with the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem?’ ” In his book “Force and Fa­nati­cism,” Si­mon Ross Valen­tine de­scribes the na­tion as a hotbed of re­li­gious rad­i­cal­ism driven by the fun­da­men­tal­ist Wah­habi strain of Is­lam. Valen­tine wit­nessed the de­mo­li­tion of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites around Mecca and blamed Wah­habis, who ob­ject to saint ven­er­a­tion around sa­cred sites.

But while Wah­habism is a state ide­ol­ogy, not many Saudis sub­scribe to it. Re­searcher Man­soor Moad­del con­firms that a moder­ate un­der­cur­rent per­vades Saudi so­ci­ety — and that Saudis are less re­li­gious over­all than peo­ple in other Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries.

In other Arab re­publics, in­clud­ing Egypt, Syria and Al­ge­ria, Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism rose against sec­u­lar regimes, but in Saudi Ara­bia, it was a prod­uct of the state, and it never be­came a true so­cial move­ment. Al­though a mi­nor­ity of Saudis en­dorsed this project, the ma­jor­ity re­mained un­con­vinced, and many ve­he­mently re­fused to be en­listed in it. The prob­lem is that the state-con­trolled pub­lic sphere is closed to di­rect crit­i­cism of its Is­lamist poli­cies. Crit­i­cal Saudi voices who have re­jected fun­da­men­tal­ism, in­clud­ing ac­tivist Raif Badawi, blog­ger Hamza Kash­gari and writer Has­san Farhan al-Ma­liki, have been si­lenced, im­pris­oned or sub­jected to phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment.

MYTH NO. 4 Saudi Ara­bia’s lead­ers are di­rect­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary re­form.

The Guardian re­ported in 2017 that “a trans­for­ma­tion started by the new Saudi lead­er­ship of King Sal­man and his son and heir, Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, has al­ready shaken most cor­ners of the coun­try.” In the New York Times last year, Thomas Fried­man praised the crown prince for ush­er­ing in a mod­ern rev­o­lu­tion: con­duct­ing an anti-cor­rup­tion drive, end­ing the ban on women driv­ing, rein­tro­duc­ing pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment and pre­par­ing the econ­omy for a post-oil era. And un­like other rev­o­lu­tions, Fried­man wrote, “this one is led from the top down.”

This no­tion makes a mock­ery of both rev­o­lu­tion and re­form. A rev­o­lu­tion is a com­plete over­throw of a gov­ern­ment and so­cial or­der, which has not hap­pened in Saudi Ara­bia. Cine­mas, the­aters and cir­cuses are not sym­bols of real trans­for­ma­tion. Young peo­ple may en­joy these su­per­fi­cial changes for the time be­ing, but the gov­ern­ment is still an ab­so­lute monar­chy, now with even greater power con­cen­trated in the hands of one in­di­vid­ual. The eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion is stum­bling, with the un­em­ploy­ment rate rising to more than 12 per­cent, and the so­cial or­der has be­come more re­stric­tive, re­pres­sive and dan­ger­ous. From de­ten­tions of crit­i­cal cler­ics and fe­male ac­tivists to the mur­der of Khashoggi, the ter­ror of­ten as­so­ci­ated with rev­o­lu­tions is be­ing used to deny real po­lit­i­cal change.

MYTH NO. 5 Saudi Ara­bia is a sta­bi­liz­ing force in the Mid­dle East.

Mar­celle Wahba, a former U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Arab Emi­rates, ar­gued in 2017 that the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil na­tions, in­clud­ing Saudi Ara­bia, help main­tain sta­sis. “The GCC coun­tries are essen­tially sta­tus quo-ori­ented monar­chies, and re­gional sta­bil­ity is a core goal,” she wrote. Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, the top com­man­der of U.S. troops in the Mid­dle East, said in late Oc­to­ber that there is no change in U.S.-Saudi Ara­bia mil­i­tary re­la­tions, de­spite pub­lic out­rage over Khashoggi’s mur­der. “Saudi Ara­bia is an ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­flu­en­tial and im­por­tant leader of the Arab world within the re­gion,” he said. “. . . Other part­ners in the re­gion of­ten look to Saudi Ara­bia for a lead, for lead­er­ship, di­rec­tion, and how they ap­proach broader se­cu­rity con­cerns.”

The sta­tus quo is, how­ever, one of the ma­jor sources of in­sta­bil­ity in the re­gion. The 2011 Arab up­ris­ings came at a time when this sta­tus quo — namely, decades of au­thor­i­tar­ian rule — ap­peared to ex­plode un­der de­mo­graphic, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal pres­sure from truly pro-demo­cratic forces. Saudi Ara­bia and its alarmed Per­sian Gulf al­lies acted as counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies de­ter­mined to pre­serve the au­to­cratic state of af­fairs.

In Egypt, Saudi money back­ing dic­ta­tor Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi re­turned the coun­try to mil­i­tary rule, re­pres­sion and po­lit­i­cal stag­na­tion. In Syria, Saudi fi­nan­cial and mil­i­tary spon­sor­ship of some rebels sti­fled demo­cratic forces and started a sec­tar­ian civil war. In Bahrain, a di­rect Saudi mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion led to the re­ver­sal of years of mass mo­bi­liza­tion and the quash­ing of dis­sent. By os­tra­ciz­ing and sanc­tion­ing Qatar over its me­dia and sup­port for the Mus­lim Brother­hood, Saudi ac­tions have caused the GCC to de­volve into a re­dun­dant re­gional coali­tion that may never re­cover. Forc­ing the Le­banese prime min­is­ter, Hariri, to re­sign in Riyadh in 2017 (though he re­scinded his res­ig­na­tion a month later) threat­ened to desta­bi­lize yet an­other Arab coun­try with a frag­ile hold on peace. The worst came in Ye­men, where a GCC-bro­kered agree­ment guar­an­teed the safe re­turn of its pres­i­dent, Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh, who later turned against his Saudi spon­sors. Since 2015, the Saudis have launched airstrikes on Ye­men that have led to a cat­a­strophic hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis and the to­tal de­struc­tion of the coun­try.

Such mea­sures re­flect Riyadh’s er­ratic re­gional pol­icy, the main pur­pose of which is to pre­serve the monar­chy and au­thor­i­tar­ian re­pub­li­can­ism in the Arab world rather than to cre­ate long-term sta­bil­ity.

SI­MON DAW­SON/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Saudi Ara­bia’s Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man has en­joyed good press for ef­forts to re­form and mod­ern­ize the coun­try. But crit­ics say real po­lit­i­cal change is nowhere on the hori­zon.

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