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