Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saudi Arabia

What the Saudis Really Care About

As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

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As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

Regarding Syria, however, the UN did just do something that upset Riyadh greatly: At Russia’s initiative, it passed a resolution on disarming the Assad regime of its chemical weapons that not only killed American plans for imminent airstrikes, but essentially guaranteed Assad immunity from Western intervention for the foreseeable future and legitimized him as a partner, thereby effectively reversing two years of Western demands that he step down. For Saudi Arabia, which has backed Syria’s rebels heavily with both money and arms, this was a major blow.

Indeed, anyone tracking Riyadh’s actions rather than its words can easily see which issues it cares about and which it doesn’t: In contrast to its massive support for the Syrian rebels, or the $5 billion it pledged to Egypt’s military government after July’s coup, its financial support for the Palestinians is meager. UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, gets almost all its funding from the West; Saudi Arabia gave it a mere $12 million last year–less than half the sum provided by Holland alone. Western states are also the Palestinian Authority’s main financial backers; Arab countries not only pledge less to begin with, but serially default on their pledges.

There are various reasons why Arabs feel the need to cloak their real concerns behind a façade of verbiage about the Palestinians. The truly puzzling question is why the West hasn’t yet learned to look behind this verbiage to the telltale actions–what Arabs care enough to spend money on, or, as I’ve written before, to put their lives on the line for. But until it does, it will keep right on believing that fatuous claim of Israeli-Palestinian centrality. 

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U.S. Romance with Iran Terrifies Arab Allies

Israel is being widely portrayed as the lone holdout against the global love affair with Iran’s new president. Certainly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most outspoken critic. But several other countries are arguably even more worried by the American-Iranian rapprochement than Israel is–namely, America’s Arab allies.

Last month, a senior United Arab Emirates official said in a media interview that “If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all.” For a senior Arab official to publicly invite the hated Zionist enemy to launch a military strike on fellow Muslims is unprecedented. While Arab states have been urging America to attack Iran for years, they have hitherto opposed an Israeli strike. Moreover, even their pleas to America were strictly behind the scenes; they became public knowledge only due to WikiLeaks. Thus for Arab officials to be willing to publicly support an Israeli strike attests to a desperate fear that the American defense umbrella they have relied on for decades may no longer exist.

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Israel is being widely portrayed as the lone holdout against the global love affair with Iran’s new president. Certainly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most outspoken critic. But several other countries are arguably even more worried by the American-Iranian rapprochement than Israel is–namely, America’s Arab allies.

Last month, a senior United Arab Emirates official said in a media interview that “If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all.” For a senior Arab official to publicly invite the hated Zionist enemy to launch a military strike on fellow Muslims is unprecedented. While Arab states have been urging America to attack Iran for years, they have hitherto opposed an Israeli strike. Moreover, even their pleas to America were strictly behind the scenes; they became public knowledge only due to WikiLeaks. Thus for Arab officials to be willing to publicly support an Israeli strike attests to a desperate fear that the American defense umbrella they have relied on for decades may no longer exist.

Nor is this the only indication. At the UN General Assembly last week, a Saudi diplomat consulted with his counterpart from Israel–a country Riyadh doesn’t officially recognize–over the Iranian charm offensive. A few days earlier, at an International Peace Institute dinner whose guests included officials from both Israel and several Arab states that don’t recognize its existence, “No Arab minister attacked Israel, and not one stood up and left the room when he found out that a high-ranking representative of the Israeli government was sitting beside him,” Haaretz reported: They were too busy discussing their main mutual concern, Iran.

This isn’t the start of an Arab-Israeli romance; most of these countries still hate Israel, and many are deeply anti-Semitic. Rather, it reflects the fear engendered by America’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East. Despite years of purchasing top-quality American arms, many Arab states have no real military capabilities, especially against a much larger, more technologically sophisticated country that happens to be located right next door, in easy invasion distance (in contrast, several Arab countries lie between Iran and Israel). Thus they have always counted on America being there to defend them–and now, suddenly, they’re no longer sure they can. In that situation, even Israel is better than nobody.

The problem, of course, is that Israel can’t and won’t supply the same defense umbrella America has. Arabs states can plausibly hope Israel will deal with Iran’s nuclear program, because it views Iranian nukes as a direct threat to itself. But Israel would never intervene to, for instance, rescue Kuwait from Iraqi invasion, as America did in 1991. Hence America is currently indispensable. As one UAE academic put it, “We don’t have any other insurance company, and we live in a dangerous area.”

But if America decides to close up shop, the Arabs will perforce find another insurance company, just like anyone else whose insurer goes out of business. Who it will be remains to be seen: Russia is one obvious possibility; they could even decide they have no choice but to join Iran’s orbit. But either way, the result be the same: For the first time in decades, America will be left with no allies whatsoever in a region that remains crucial to the global oil supply, and hence to America’s own economic well-being.

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Setting America’s Position in the Mideast Back 40 Years

I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

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I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

Actually, almost any rational Mideast player today (Israel excepted) would rather have Moscow and Tehran as backers than Washington. Between them, Russia and Iran have supported their Syrian client with arms, diplomatic cover, money, and troops, while America has given the Syrian rebels nothing but empty rhetorical support. America has also done virtually nothing to help NATO ally Turkey, which has suffered both cross-border violence and a massive influx of Syrian refugees, even though Turkey’s prime minister is one of Obama’s favorite world leaders. Nor has it done much to help longstanding ally Jordan cope with the influx of refugees that threatens to overwhelm it.

Granted, Riyadh and its allies would be reluctant to share Russia’s patronage with Iran, which they loathe; they also remember who sent troops to protect them when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. But Washington’s current passivity is making Saudi Arabia fear that America has become a broken reed; hence its feelers to Russia, via the Bandar-Putin meeting. If Washington now abandons Egypt, that could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And if Riyadh leaves the American camp, Egypt would swiftly follow suit.

Once, American politicians on both sides of the aisle understood that America has interests as well as values, and that sometimes, the only choices are between two evils. As an example, Shalev aptly cites America’s alliance with the Soviets during World War II. And currently, as Jonathan has argued repeatedly, Egypt’s army is the lesser evil compared to the radical Islamists of the Brotherhood.

But today, leading Republican foreign-policy voices like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are joining leading Democrats to demand that Obama jettison American interests in favor of a “clean hands” policy: We don’t care what becomes of the Middle East as long as we can dissociate ourselves from the violence.

If Obama succumbs to these demands, he will set America’s position in the Mideast back 40 years–to a time when it had no allies at all among countries that remain vital to global energy supplies.

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The Myth of Authoritarian Stability

For years American presidents gave a blank check to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The only attempt to pressure him into making any meaningful political reforms occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term in office and was abandoned in the second term when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reasserted a traditional stability-above-all foreign policy that was continued by President Obama during his first two years in office. We know where that got us: to a revolution in 2011 which overthrew Mubarak and led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood regime bent on consolidating power at all costs, the Brotherhood being the best-organized opposition group in the entire country. Now that Brotherhood government, too, has been overthrown and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war.

There is a lesson here in our relations with other dictatorial Middle Eastern states: Washington needs to push them to provide an opening to the moderate opposition and gradually transform in a democratic direction as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea did in the 1980s. Simply clamping down harder is only a recipe for creating a bigger explosion later.

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For years American presidents gave a blank check to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The only attempt to pressure him into making any meaningful political reforms occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term in office and was abandoned in the second term when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reasserted a traditional stability-above-all foreign policy that was continued by President Obama during his first two years in office. We know where that got us: to a revolution in 2011 which overthrew Mubarak and led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood regime bent on consolidating power at all costs, the Brotherhood being the best-organized opposition group in the entire country. Now that Brotherhood government, too, has been overthrown and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war.

There is a lesson here in our relations with other dictatorial Middle Eastern states: Washington needs to push them to provide an opening to the moderate opposition and gradually transform in a democratic direction as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea did in the 1980s. Simply clamping down harder is only a recipe for creating a bigger explosion later.

Yet that is precisely what Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states are doing, emboldened by the overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt with what is seen, rightly or wrongly, as the connivance of the West. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudi crackdown extends not only to Muslim Brothers and other Sunni fundamentalists but also to Shiite protesters and, most worrisome of all, to more liberal demonstrators such as the women petitioning for the right to drive.

It is easy for Washington to ignore human rights in its dealings with these regimes, and hard, if it does bring up the human rights issue, to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, although the more so when the Obama administration does so little to help dissidents in Iran or to protest the ongoing crackdown in Egypt. Yet the U.S. will be making a historic mistake–the same mistake, in fact, that it made in Egypt–if it turns a blind eye to the abusive internal conduct of its Middle Eastern allies. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning for these authoritarian regimes and their backers in the West. The best way for the Gulf kingdoms to ensure their stability in the long run is not to crack heads now but to create an opening for constitutional monarchies to slowly develop.

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Is the Arab Peace Plan Really About Peace?

Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the idea of reviving the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative put forward yesterday in Washington by a delegation from the Arab League. Kerry, who reportedly is hoping to host a multi-party peace conference this spring, was pleased that Qatar’s foreign minister had suggested that the proposal might be modified from its original take-it-or-leave-it demand that Israel return to the 1967 lines to one that allowed for a mutually-agreed “minor swap of land” that would modify the border.

This is progress of a sort, and should not be entirely dismissed. But before those advocating for more Israeli concessions in response to the proposal get too excited, it’s important to remember why this initiative flopped the first time around: it’s not really a peace proposal.

While the Arab Peace Initiative continues to be cited by Israel’s critics as proof that the Jewish state really does have partners, this idea has always been more about polishing the image of the Arab world in the United States than anything else. Conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the Arab states, and in particular Saudi Arabia, were viewed with disgust by most Americans, the initiative was part of an effort to rehabilitate their image. But despite the fact that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (who claimed it stemmed from a conversation he had with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah) and others in the foreign policy community promoted the idea, it fizzled. Why? Because it was not an invitation to negotiate, but a diktat. Even worse, it contained a vital poison pill: the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel that would, in effect, mean the end of the Jewish state, not peace with it.

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Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the idea of reviving the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative put forward yesterday in Washington by a delegation from the Arab League. Kerry, who reportedly is hoping to host a multi-party peace conference this spring, was pleased that Qatar’s foreign minister had suggested that the proposal might be modified from its original take-it-or-leave-it demand that Israel return to the 1967 lines to one that allowed for a mutually-agreed “minor swap of land” that would modify the border.

This is progress of a sort, and should not be entirely dismissed. But before those advocating for more Israeli concessions in response to the proposal get too excited, it’s important to remember why this initiative flopped the first time around: it’s not really a peace proposal.

While the Arab Peace Initiative continues to be cited by Israel’s critics as proof that the Jewish state really does have partners, this idea has always been more about polishing the image of the Arab world in the United States than anything else. Conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the Arab states, and in particular Saudi Arabia, were viewed with disgust by most Americans, the initiative was part of an effort to rehabilitate their image. But despite the fact that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (who claimed it stemmed from a conversation he had with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah) and others in the foreign policy community promoted the idea, it fizzled. Why? Because it was not an invitation to negotiate, but a diktat. Even worse, it contained a vital poison pill: the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel that would, in effect, mean the end of the Jewish state, not peace with it.

While the initiative does not specifically mention the so-called “right of return” by which the descendants of the Arab refugees of 1948 would be allowed to enter Israel, Prince Abdullah made this clear when he said this on the day the Arab League adopted the proposal:

I propose that the Arab summit put forward a clear and unanimous initiative addressed to the United Nations security council based on two basic issues: normal relations and security for Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories, recognition of an independent Palestinian state with al-Quds al-Sharif as its capital, and the return of refugees.

It should be conceded that this is better than the famous “three no’s” enforced throughout the Arab world in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Muslim countries said they would not make peace, recognize or negotiate with Israel. But the effect is not all that different. The Arab League proposal envisions normal relations with an Israel that has been forced to retreat from all territories it won in a defensive war in 1967. But the Israel they want to make peace with is one that would be forced to accept millions of Arabs who would change it from a Jewish nation into yet another Arab one.

If Kerry really wants to promote the cause of peace, what he needs to do is tell the Arab League that while their support for recognition of Israel might be helpful, their proposal will not be allowed to be used as a distraction from the direct peace talks without preconditions that both President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have endorsed. The Palestinian Authority, which has neither the will nor the ability to end the conflict or recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, has been trying to avoid such talks.

Instead of providing a distraction from this crucial question, the Arab League needs to be prodding the PA to drop its excuses and return to the negotiating table. The PA walked away from direct talks more than four years ago in order to avoid having to respond to the last Israeli proposal that offered them an independent state. With Hamas stronger than ever and emboldened by its friendship with the Islamist governments of Egypt and Turkey, the odds of getting the PA back to the table, let alone agreeing to peace, are slim.

Negotiations, rather than fiats that dictate the results even before talks begin, are the only path to statehood for the Palestinians. Yesterday, Netanyahu repeated his support for the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. If the Palestinians can ever get past their ideologically-driven rejection of the Jewish state’s legitimacy, they will find there is a sturdy Israeli majority in favor of peace even along lines that many Israelis will find difficult to accept. But so long as the Arab world continues to attempt to divert the world with public-relations tricks, the Palestinians will continue to believe that if they wait long enough, the world will deliver Israel to them on a silver platter.

No peace proposal that has an attempt to sneak in the right of return at its core is really about peace. It’s time the U.S. told the Arab world to forget about this disingenuous idea and face reality. What the Middle East needs is not a John Kerry photo op in Washington but a sea change within the culture of the Palestinians that will enable their leaders to come to grips with the need to end the conflict and recognize the Jewish state. Until that happens, this latest version of Abdullah’s PR initiative will be as much of a dead end as the first time it was trotted out by Friedman.

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Twitter Crackdown Exposes Saudi Fear

Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

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Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

The Saudi move comes against the backdrop of debates about political reform and popular Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah—who has more than 2.5 million followers on Twitter—mocking government attempts to crackdown on Twitter. Al-Awdah may have broken with Usama Bin Laden, but no longer being an al-Qaeda sympathizer is a pretty low bar by which to describe reformism. Al-Awdah may be a reformer in the Saudi context, but no one should conflate reform with liberalism.

Nevertheless, Al-Awdah has become increasingly strident in his calls for political change in Saudi Arabia. According to the Open Source Center, he warned on March 16 that the Saudi people “will not remain silent.” Ten days later, he followed up by suggesting that should the Saudi government ignore calls for reform, “the only solution would be to go out into the square and counter argument with argument.”

I speculated six months ago that Saudi Arabia could be next. The autocratic kingdom is strictly off-limits to most Western journalists. Those who get in seldom move outside Riyadh or Jeddah. But if a riot breaks out in the Saudi hinterland and no one is around to cover it, that does not mean that all is well. It will be interesting to see if Saudi Arabia manages to constrain Twitter. Cutting communications, however, is a poor substitute for true reform. And the royal family is kidding itself if it believes it can remain aloof from political modernity forever.

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Can the Saudis Be Trusted in Syria?

What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?

It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.

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What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?

It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.

And today? New York Times reporters C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt claim: “The [Saudi] weapons’ distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers.”

Maybe so, but I’m skeptical. The Saudis, who are after all Wahhabis, have a natural ideological predisposition to favor other hard-line Islamic groups rather than democrats and secularists, in whom they have no interest in taking power in any country in the Middle East.

The only reliable method of helping truly moderate Syrian rebel factions would be if the U.S. were to get more directly involved. It is possible that there is some covert American military aid being provided. But if so, that would represent a significant turnaround from the hands-off policy that the Obama administration has self-destructively followed in Syria over the past two-plus years even as the death toll has climbed north of 70,000.

It is still not too late for the U.S. to get more actively involved in breaking this stalemate, pushing Bashar Assad out of power, and trying to buttress more moderate elements at the expense of al-Qaeda affiliates. But that will require a major rethink of the administration’s “lead from behind” policy, whose only effect–in the eyes of ordinary Syrians–has been to keep Assad in power.

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How to Rein in Bahrain?

In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

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In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

Yet, as she notes, U.S. protests over such clear violations of human rights have been negligible. This is understandable, because Bahrain is the home of the Fifth Fleet and a close military ally. There are also fears that the Bahraini opposition, mainly Shiite in a country ruled by a Sunni royal family, is a stalking horse for Iranian influence. That, at any rate, is what the Bahrain government would like us to believe; but from everything I saw during a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this year, most of the opposition, while undeniably Shiite, is fairly moderate and not interested in creating an Iranian-style theocracy. Ironically what is most likely to drive them into Iran’s arms is if the Bahrain government continues its policy of repression in cooperation with the Saudis.

It is hard for the U.S. to apply pressure to Bahrain by cutting off arms sales (as Zainab Al-Khawaja suggests) or at least making them conditional on human-rights improvements. But it is also a step we need to seriously consider, lest we repeat the mistake we made with Egypt where we gave unconditional backing to another pro-American dictator, acting under the illusion that he could stave off the people’s demands indefinitely. He couldn’t, and, because we didn’t press Mubarak for reform, instead we got a revolution.

That would be the worst possible outcome in Bahrain. Instead, we need to push for the royal family to turn their country into a constitutional monarchy, reserving some power over the armed forces while ceding most authority to the people’s elected representatives. That is the only long-term formula for stability in Bahrain and indeed throughout the Gulf.

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Outsourcing Syrian Rebel Support to Gulf States Has Consequences

On one level, the news from Syria is encouraging–Bashar Assad’s regime is losing ground. The rebel forces are fighting on the outskirts of the capital and have managed to capture several military bases, at least temporarily. Many analysts think that the Syrian army is cracking–a plausible if perhaps premature conclusion at this point.

But there is still cause for alarm, not only in the fact that the killing continues, but also in the fact that it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image.

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On one level, the news from Syria is encouraging–Bashar Assad’s regime is losing ground. The rebel forces are fighting on the outskirts of the capital and have managed to capture several military bases, at least temporarily. Many analysts think that the Syrian army is cracking–a plausible if perhaps premature conclusion at this point.

But there is still cause for alarm, not only in the fact that the killing continues, but also in the fact that it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image.

The Washington Post has a telling quote from a rebel leader:

“The lack of support by the international community has led to a situation where support is coming from the gulf states and from Syrian businessmen in those states,” Col. Malik Kurdi, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said in an interview. “These are people who have the ideology of Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. They started supporting groups who have the same ideology in Syria, and some adopted this ideology to get financial support.”

The newspaper goes on to note that while many jihadist groups have emerged in Syria, the most successful one is “Jabhat al-Nusra, which is thought to have links to al-Qaeda.” It has “asserted responsibility for a series of suicide attacks against military and security targets,” and it has “overrun at least two government military bases in the past two weeks, collecting weapons left behind by Syrian troops.”

Even if Assad appears to be in danger of falling (and such impressions can be deceiving–he has been frustrating predictions of his demise for almost two years now), it is imperative that the U.S. do more to help the opposition so as to shape the nature of the post-Assad regime.

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Is the Saudi King Dying?

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took the throne on August 1, 2005 upon the death of his older brother and predecessor, King Fahd. Abdullah was a sprightly 81 when he took the throne, or so it must seem in hindsight. Now 88 years old, King Abdullah just had “successful” back surgery, or so the strictly controlled Saudi press is reporting.

Twitter, however, is abuzz with reports that the King has Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. The reports, as the Open Source Center points out, are coming from @mujtahidd, who has more than 750,000 followers and whose previous tweets suggest close and informed access to the royal family. As in any autocratic, opaque society, rumors often substitute for news, though this one seems more solid than most.

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King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took the throne on August 1, 2005 upon the death of his older brother and predecessor, King Fahd. Abdullah was a sprightly 81 when he took the throne, or so it must seem in hindsight. Now 88 years old, King Abdullah just had “successful” back surgery, or so the strictly controlled Saudi press is reporting.

Twitter, however, is abuzz with reports that the King has Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. The reports, as the Open Source Center points out, are coming from @mujtahidd, who has more than 750,000 followers and whose previous tweets suggest close and informed access to the royal family. As in any autocratic, opaque society, rumors often substitute for news, though this one seems more solid than most.

Crown Prince Salman is in charge meanwhile back home, but at 76 years old he’s not a beacon of stability. When it comes to Middle Eastern stability, when it rains, it pours.

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Arab World Chooses Hamas over Fatah in Palestinian Rivalry

It’s fair to say that an underappreciated obstacle to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is Hamas’s rule of Gaza. For such an agreement to take shape, Hamas would have to either consent or not be in charge of the strip. Though a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is unlikely, even if it were to happen, it might only bring about Hamas’s conquest of the West Bank, thereby doubling, rather than solving, the problem posed by Hamas. And since Hamas won’t abide a true peace with Israel, it’s difficult to solve the conflict under current conditions.

With that in mind, those who seek to end the isolation of Hamas are strengthening the terrorist group’s hand against Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and the Palestinian Authority’s main governing structure. In this scenario, it isn’t Israel that loses nearly as much as Abbas and Salam Fayyad, in whose corner the West claims to be. So while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleads with the international community to help strengthen the PA’s balance sheet, the opponents of Palestinian reconciliation are helping Hamas, at Fatah’s expense. The latest such actor is the government of Qatar.

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It’s fair to say that an underappreciated obstacle to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is Hamas’s rule of Gaza. For such an agreement to take shape, Hamas would have to either consent or not be in charge of the strip. Though a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is unlikely, even if it were to happen, it might only bring about Hamas’s conquest of the West Bank, thereby doubling, rather than solving, the problem posed by Hamas. And since Hamas won’t abide a true peace with Israel, it’s difficult to solve the conflict under current conditions.

With that in mind, those who seek to end the isolation of Hamas are strengthening the terrorist group’s hand against Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and the Palestinian Authority’s main governing structure. In this scenario, it isn’t Israel that loses nearly as much as Abbas and Salam Fayyad, in whose corner the West claims to be. So while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleads with the international community to help strengthen the PA’s balance sheet, the opponents of Palestinian reconciliation are helping Hamas, at Fatah’s expense. The latest such actor is the government of Qatar.

In August, I wrote about Saudi Arabia’s $500 million investment in Gaza. Today, the New York Times reports on the emir of Qatar’s visit to Gaza and the announcement of his country’s $400 million pledged investment there:

“Today you are a big guest, great guest, declaring officially the breaking of the political and economic siege that was imposed on Gaza,” Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, told the emir and his cohort as they sat on sofas in a white shed in the southern town of Khan Yunis, where they plan to erect 1,000 apartments. “Today, we declare the victory on this siege through this blessed, historic visit.”

In the West Bank, allies of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who has struggled to preserve his own legitimacy, warned that the visit set a dangerous precedent of Arab leaders’ embracing Mr. Haniya as a head of state and thus cleaving the Palestinian people and territory in two. “We call on the Qatari prince or his representative to visit the West Bank too!” blared a headline on an editorial in the leading newspaper Al Quds.

That last part is actually quite embarrassing for Abbas. Begging for a visit from the Qatari emir is really begging for a visit from the Qatari emir’s checkbook, irrespective of whether the emir himself accompanies it on the trip. If the Hamas-Fatah rivalry is a zero-sum game–and it doesn’t always have to be, but usually is–then what we are witnessing in Gaza, thanks to the supposed friends of the Palestinians, is the construction of an entity that is arguably more of a state than what currently exists in the West Bank.

I mentioned yesterday that Jimmy Carter is making no secret of his attempts to impede the establishment of a Palestinian state by sabotaging negotiations and encouraging Abbas to declare statehood at the UN. In addition to all the obvious problems with this, what would stop it from setting a precedent that Hamas could follow in Gaza? Sure, the PA would ostensibly declare their state to include Gaza, but couldn’t Hamas then secede if it wanted to?

Of course that’s unlikely to happen, in part because the PA’s bid for statehood continues to be opposed by the West. But it’s long past time for Mideast watchers to at least acknowledge that the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt, are, like Carter, actively working to incentivize Palestinian radicalization rather than moderation.

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Saudi Columnist: Is Israel Really the Enemy?

The indefatigable Tom Gross flagged my attention to this column in Saudi Arabia’s English-language newspaper, the Arab News:

On the anniversary of the 1973 War between the Arab and the Israelis, many people in the Arab world are beginning to ask many questions about the past, present and the future with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The questions now are: What was the real cost of these wars to the Arab world and its people. And the harder question that no Arab national wants to ask is: What was the real cost for not recognizing Israel in 1948 and why didn’t the Arab states spend their assets on education, health care and the infrastructures instead of wars? But, the hardest question that no Arab national wants to hear is whether Israel is the real enemy of the Arab world and the Arab people…

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The indefatigable Tom Gross flagged my attention to this column in Saudi Arabia’s English-language newspaper, the Arab News:

On the anniversary of the 1973 War between the Arab and the Israelis, many people in the Arab world are beginning to ask many questions about the past, present and the future with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The questions now are: What was the real cost of these wars to the Arab world and its people. And the harder question that no Arab national wants to ask is: What was the real cost for not recognizing Israel in 1948 and why didn’t the Arab states spend their assets on education, health care and the infrastructures instead of wars? But, the hardest question that no Arab national wants to hear is whether Israel is the real enemy of the Arab world and the Arab people…

The piece continues:

I decided to write this article after I saw photos and reports about a starving child in Yemen, a burned ancient Aleppo souk in Syria, the under developed Sinai in Egypt, car bombs in Iraq and the destroyed buildings in Libya.

The column provides a much-needed reality check, and a glimmer of hope that decades of incitement and eradicationist rhetoric might eventually wear thin. It reminded me of Salemeh Nematt’s November 25, 2004 column in the pan-Arabic daily Al-Hayat when he observed with considerable boldness: “It is outrageous and amazing that the first free and general elections in the history of the Arab nation are to take place in January: in Iraq, under the auspices of American occupation, and in Palestine, under the auspices of the Israeli occupation,” before asking what that said about U.S. and Israeli intentions, and what it revealed about Arab political culture.

Perhaps it would behoove some in the political class in Washington to recognize what those in the Middle East are beginning to see: The fault is not always Israel’s.

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When Israel and the Arab States Agree

The New York Times’s regular feature “Room for Debate” often brings together a fairly diverse and interesting group of commenters on the chosen topic, and today’s is no different. The topic this time is about American support for Israel, and whether that hampers American influence in the Middle East. The debate group features Aaron David Miller, Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Gordis, Daoud Kuttab, and others.

But the strangest part of the debate is not what any of the contributors said, but how the topic is introduced. Here’s the Times’s opening explanation for the debate:

The president of Israel is resisting calls for a unilateral strike against Iran, but it’s just the “unilateral” part that he finds troubling: “It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America.” Even if this is just posturing, the statement shows one reason the U.S. struggles to make allies in the Arab world: Israelis and Arabs alike assume that the U.S. will take a side in Mideast conflicts, and that the U.S. will side with Israel. Are they right?

In light of the long history of lobbying (and junkets for members of Congress), is support for Israel so entrenched in American politics that the U.S. can no longer exert influence and broker peace?

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The New York Times’s regular feature “Room for Debate” often brings together a fairly diverse and interesting group of commenters on the chosen topic, and today’s is no different. The topic this time is about American support for Israel, and whether that hampers American influence in the Middle East. The debate group features Aaron David Miller, Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Gordis, Daoud Kuttab, and others.

But the strangest part of the debate is not what any of the contributors said, but how the topic is introduced. Here’s the Times’s opening explanation for the debate:

The president of Israel is resisting calls for a unilateral strike against Iran, but it’s just the “unilateral” part that he finds troubling: “It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America.” Even if this is just posturing, the statement shows one reason the U.S. struggles to make allies in the Arab world: Israelis and Arabs alike assume that the U.S. will take a side in Mideast conflicts, and that the U.S. will side with Israel. Are they right?

In light of the long history of lobbying (and junkets for members of Congress), is support for Israel so entrenched in American politics that the U.S. can no longer exert influence and broker peace?

Using the Iran example to touch off this debate is nonsensical. First of all, including Iran in the “Arab world” usually leads to a misunderstanding of the Islamic Republic, since it is not an Arab state (though that doesn’t mean it has nothing in common with its Arab neighbors). But even more bizarre is the fact that the Times thinks Israel and the Arab states are on opposing sides on the issue. They are not. Last year, as Oren Kessler reported, the WikiLeaks cables proved what anyone with any experience with the region’s politics and history already expected: there was “unanimous” support for taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities. Kessler wrote:

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah urged Washington to “cut off the head of the snake,” and both he and then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak described the Islamic Republic as “evil” and untrustworthy.

An Iranian nuclear weapon, Mubarak warned, was liable to set off a region-wide arms race.

“Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb,” added Zeid Rifai, then president of the Jordanian senate. “Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.”

In the Persian Gulf, the rulers of Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were all reportedly in favor of a strike.

So too was the king of Bahrain, where a Sunni elite rules over a large Shi’ite majority and which officials in Iran have described as the country’s “fifteenth province.”

Mubarak may be gone, but there seems to be no other outdated exception to the story. This wasn’t the only such report, however. Saudi Arabia appears to be making preparations for any oil disruption caused by an attack on Iran. That is in their interest whether they support an attack or not, since they would still need to get their product to market safely, but it would also keep the price of their oil from skyrocketing, which dramatically reduces the harm to the West in the event of an attack or disruption.

And as Shai Feldman wrote with regard to the region’s Sunni Arab states, “None of these countries uttered a word when in 2007 Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Sunni-Arab Syria.”

So contra the New York Times, the Arab states are not only assuming the U.S. would support Israel on the Iran issue, but hoping and lobbying for such support.

As for the Times’s discredited and debunked suggestion that strong support for Israel works against American diplomacy, I suppose it’s worth repeating that Israel has proven time and again to be far more willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the peace process when U.S. support is strong and “daylight” between the two is minimized. But that’s the obvious part of this that everyone knows. The Iran aspect of the debate introduction, however, shows the Times to be strikingly unaware of what the Arab states actually want from the United States.

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Will Saudi Arabia be Next to Fall?

After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

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After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

Human rights groups and journalists tend to focus on Bahrain. There certainly are myriad problems in that Arab island nation, but the focus is disproportionate, determined more by access than by degree of repression. While the Bahraini government uses rubber bullets, the Saudis prefer live ammunition, especially when the protesters are Shi’ites in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

If unrest strikes Saudi Arabia and if the monarchy falls, the results could reverberate further than former Egyptian President Mubarak’s fall:

  • It’s one thing for Libyan oil to temporarily go offline, and quite another for Saudi oil to do so. Then again, if the White House encouraged greater shale exploitation, new pipelines, and new drilling offshore, then it could blunt any future Saudi oil shock. Even at the best of times, that’s a good idea.
  • Saudi Arabia, like it or not, has been a key U.S. ally. Despite the conspiracy-ridden and often anti-Semitic blogosphere, America has never gone to war for Israel. It has, however, gone to war for Saudi Arabia. Kuwait’s 1991 liberation was as much about protecting Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression as it was about freeing the tiny emirate. If the Kingdom fell, upon whom in the Arab Middle East could the United States really count?
  • On the other hand, when President Obama leads from behind, the country from behind which he leads is, more often than not, Saudi Arabia. Republicans are in no position to castigate the president for deference to Riyadh, however, because so many Republican presidents and secretaries have also sucked at the Saudi teat. Freed from the Saudi constraint, how might U.S. policy be different?
  • There is a reason why Saudi Arabia has been an ally. Saudi Arabia may have incubated al-Qaeda and extremism, but they have also cooperated greatly on counter-terrorism. If the Saudi regime falls, would a new government be so forthcoming with counter terror aid and assistance?
  • Next to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is most likely to fracture into its constituent parts if it ever faces state failure. The Hejaz might be more cosmopolitan and moderate, but Iran would make a full-court press to become the predominant influence in the Eastern Province. That could be the death knell for a more moderate regime in Bahrain. The question is what extremists in the Nejd would do, and whether they could be contained. What might happen if more extreme elements consolidate control across the country?
  • Whether or not Saudi Arabia has been an American ally, its influence across the Islamic world has certainly been as malignant as Iran’s. If the Kingdom collapsed, would such subsidies continue? As some of my AEI colleagues have pointed out, for all the billions of dollars they have expended, the Saudis have failed to win hearts and minds across the broader region. Simply put, no one likes the Saudis. If the Western economy was shielded from a Saudi descent into chaos, would anyone really care?
  • The end of the Saudi gravy train would reverberate not only across countries, but also among institutions in the United States. The Saudis have generously funded universities, think tanks, public relations firms, lobbyists, advocacy groups like CAIR, and writers. The Mujahedin al-Khalq in recent years may have exposed how so many American figures follow the dollar sign rather than principle, but that’s nothing compared to what the Saudis have managed. Who would fill that void, if anyone?  Perhaps the world would be a better place if the advice put forward on the back of Saudi petrodollars no longer received such a favorable hearing in Washington, and if students were no longer indoctrinated by the curriculum Saudi oil money bought.

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Who Should Fund U.S. Muslim Groups?

Last week, the Washington Post profiled Zainab al-Suwaij, the founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Because she grew up under dictatorship and repression in Iraq and so understands the values which make America great, Zainab has always been outspoken in favor of moderation, individual liberty, women’s empowerment, and against the extremism preached so often by Saudi Arabia and Iran. While almost anyone who meets Zainab, be they in Iraq, Egypt, and the United States, becomes an admirer, the Post found one naysayer. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy, especially if they came to the fore in the [George W.] Bush era,” Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware, said.

Khan’s statement is curious: Why should it be wrong for the AIC to compete for and, on occasion, to win U.S. grants? It’s not like an organization called the American Islamic Congress hides the American component. Nor does Khan indicate why Muslim groups should shy away from accepting American money but have no hesitation accepting Saudi cash, like the more radical Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society for North America (ISNA) do.

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Last week, the Washington Post profiled Zainab al-Suwaij, the founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Because she grew up under dictatorship and repression in Iraq and so understands the values which make America great, Zainab has always been outspoken in favor of moderation, individual liberty, women’s empowerment, and against the extremism preached so often by Saudi Arabia and Iran. While almost anyone who meets Zainab, be they in Iraq, Egypt, and the United States, becomes an admirer, the Post found one naysayer. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy, especially if they came to the fore in the [George W.] Bush era,” Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware, said.

Khan’s statement is curious: Why should it be wrong for the AIC to compete for and, on occasion, to win U.S. grants? It’s not like an organization called the American Islamic Congress hides the American component. Nor does Khan indicate why Muslim groups should shy away from accepting American money but have no hesitation accepting Saudi cash, like the more radical Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society for North America (ISNA) do.

The ultimate irony is that Khan’s home institution, University of Delaware, has also accepted State Department money to run Middle East programs. If Saudi Arabia is a cash cow for organizations like CAIR and ISNA that often apologize for terrorism, shouldn’t organizations that take a more moderate tack and seek to promote both empowerment and respect for American values also have access to resources?

Perhaps it is time for Islamic advocacy organizations and universities to first and foremost foreswear foreign money. It does say a great deal about Suwaij that she’d rather compete for American grant money and also a great deal about her critics that they see Saudi money as less tainted.

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New Pipelines Will Reduce Tehran’s Power

Every time Iran faces increased pressure from the West to terminate its nuclear program it responds with blood-curdling threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. As I have previously argued, while Iran’s threats need to be taken seriously, they should not stop us from effective action: While Iran could disrupt traffic in the strait primarily with mines and speedboats, it could not close this important waterway, and even its disruptions would be effectively ended by the U.S. Navy within a relatively short period of time.

The Financial Times notes this morning that there is further cause not to be overly afraid of Iranian retaliation against the world’s oil supply: “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have opened new pipelines bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping lane that Iran has repeatedly threatened to close, in a move that will reduce Tehran’s power over oil markets.” The Saudi pipeline goes to the Red Sea, the UAE pipeline to the Indian Ocean. Together, the FT notes, “The new links will more than double the total pipeline capacity bypassing the strait to 6.5m barrels a day, or about 40 percent of the 17m b/d that transits Hormuz.”

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Every time Iran faces increased pressure from the West to terminate its nuclear program it responds with blood-curdling threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. As I have previously argued, while Iran’s threats need to be taken seriously, they should not stop us from effective action: While Iran could disrupt traffic in the strait primarily with mines and speedboats, it could not close this important waterway, and even its disruptions would be effectively ended by the U.S. Navy within a relatively short period of time.

The Financial Times notes this morning that there is further cause not to be overly afraid of Iranian retaliation against the world’s oil supply: “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have opened new pipelines bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping lane that Iran has repeatedly threatened to close, in a move that will reduce Tehran’s power over oil markets.” The Saudi pipeline goes to the Red Sea, the UAE pipeline to the Indian Ocean. Together, the FT notes, “The new links will more than double the total pipeline capacity bypassing the strait to 6.5m barrels a day, or about 40 percent of the 17m b/d that transits Hormuz.”

This is yet another reason why the West should not be intimidated by Tehran’s bluster, and why we should proceed with even more punishing sanctions in a last-ditch chance to bring a peaceful halt to the Iranian nuclear program, which, as the chief of Britain’s MI6 warned recently, could result in the production of actual nuclear weapons by 2014.

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Evolution Skips Egypt

My colleague and Wall Street Journal Asia columnist Sadanand Dhume has one of the more valuable twitter feeds in Washington; it is a one-stop shop for anyone interested in South Asia, but he also on occasion includes references to interesting articles further afield. Today, Sadanand calls attention to this article from Egypt Independent regarding the dearth of acceptance in Egypt toward Charles Darwin and the concept of evolution:

A 2007 survey by sociologist Riaz Hassan found that only 8 percent of Egyptians accepted evolution as “true or probably true,” with more than 50 percent saying it could not possibly be true. Such antagonistic attitudes were reflected at a more regional level in October 2009, when Al Jazeera Arabic published an article on the discovery of “Ardi,” a 4.4 million-year-old hominid fossil. Rather than describing how the fossil brought scientists closer than ever to finding a common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, the news item boasted that Ardi “proves Darwin’s theory is wrong.” The local press in Egypt enthusiastically picked up on the story, with several major papers running headlines that declared “the end of Darwin.”

While the state curriculum during Hosni Mubarak’s regime mandated the teaching of a unit on Darwin, the article quotes a teacher acknowledging that he tells his students to discount the theory.

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My colleague and Wall Street Journal Asia columnist Sadanand Dhume has one of the more valuable twitter feeds in Washington; it is a one-stop shop for anyone interested in South Asia, but he also on occasion includes references to interesting articles further afield. Today, Sadanand calls attention to this article from Egypt Independent regarding the dearth of acceptance in Egypt toward Charles Darwin and the concept of evolution:

A 2007 survey by sociologist Riaz Hassan found that only 8 percent of Egyptians accepted evolution as “true or probably true,” with more than 50 percent saying it could not possibly be true. Such antagonistic attitudes were reflected at a more regional level in October 2009, when Al Jazeera Arabic published an article on the discovery of “Ardi,” a 4.4 million-year-old hominid fossil. Rather than describing how the fossil brought scientists closer than ever to finding a common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, the news item boasted that Ardi “proves Darwin’s theory is wrong.” The local press in Egypt enthusiastically picked up on the story, with several major papers running headlines that declared “the end of Darwin.”

While the state curriculum during Hosni Mubarak’s regime mandated the teaching of a unit on Darwin, the article quotes a teacher acknowledging that he tells his students to discount the theory.

Egypt is not alone. Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government in Ankara, rejection of evolution has become state policy, with Turkish censors blocking discussion of Darwin on the internet. Saudi Arabia’s 12th grade textbook dismisses evolution by noting:

Nevertheless in the West appeared what is called “the theory of evolution” which was derived by the Englishman Charles Darwin, who denied Allah’s creation of humanity, saying that all living things and humans are from a single origin. We do not need to pursue such a theory because we have in the Book of Allah the final say regarding the origin of life, that all living things are Allah’s creation.

It is no surprise that the Middle East and the Islamic world contain the most anti-American countries on earth. In meeting with Mohammad Morsi, the new president of Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended America’s interaction with Hosni Mubarak and earlier Egyptian dictators by saying that necessity required working with whatever government was in power. Perhaps it’s time to abandon pouring billions of dollars of aid into Pakistan, Egyptian, and Arab state coffers. No matter how much assistance the United States gives, and no matter what the cost born by Americans to offer the chance of liberty, freedom, and a better life in the future, America gets pilloried at the polls. This should not surprise. While American diplomats focus on hard politics, Islamists focus on education.

Perhaps it’s time to learn from the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks. How many American schools abroad teaching hard science and Western liberal thinking could the billions wasted on Cairo and Islamabad purchase? Incitement matters, and so does the education which encourages retrograde interpretations of religion and enables the wild conspiracy theories to prosper.

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Beware Gulf States’ Role in Syria

Every day seems to bring fresh, horrific revelations of atrocities in Syria, which Amnesty International says amount to crimes against humanity. The latest news concerns the Sunni village of Al Heffa in the northwest, where UN monitors found “fiery devastation, the smell of death, vacated homes, looted stores and vestiges of heavy weapons.”

The Obama administration remains committed, it appears, to staying on the sidelines of this growing crisis, but it is finding it hard to ignore entirely the cause of the rebels. Thus, the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. diplomats and intelligence operatives have increased contacts with the opposition. But rather than provide arms directly to the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. representatives are content to let Gulf states do the dirty work. As the Journal notes, the “U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”

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Every day seems to bring fresh, horrific revelations of atrocities in Syria, which Amnesty International says amount to crimes against humanity. The latest news concerns the Sunni village of Al Heffa in the northwest, where UN monitors found “fiery devastation, the smell of death, vacated homes, looted stores and vestiges of heavy weapons.”

The Obama administration remains committed, it appears, to staying on the sidelines of this growing crisis, but it is finding it hard to ignore entirely the cause of the rebels. Thus, the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. diplomats and intelligence operatives have increased contacts with the opposition. But rather than provide arms directly to the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. representatives are content to let Gulf states do the dirty work. As the Journal notes, the “U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”

On the surface this may appear to be “smart power” in action: Why should the U.S. take the lead if allies are willing to do it? But actually this is a fundamentally dumb and dangerous policy which risks repeating the same mistake the U.S. made in the 1980s when we subcontracted the arming of the Afghan mujahideen to the Pakistanis and Saudis. Who did these fundamentalist-dominated states choose to support? Not surprisingly, the bulk of their support went to brutal Afghan fundamentalists such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyr–closely connected to an obscure Saudi financer named Osama bin Laden–rather than to more moderate and pro-Western figures such as Ahmad Shah Massoud. We are now paying the price for building up Haqqani, Hekmatyr, et. al: They have gone from fighting the Red Army to fighting NATO forces and their allies in Afghanistan.

For this reason, I am considerably alarmed by news of the growing Saudi, Emirati and Qatari role in Syria. These are not the countries we want determining the future of Syria. Yet the longer we stand on the sidelines, the more their role will grow. Heaven help us if their proxies come to power in Syria as they eventually did in Afghanistan.

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Saudi Confederation Plans a Bad Idea

Every few years, the Saudi government proposes to remake the Gulf Cooperation Council by replacing it with a federation; in a way, a United States of Arabia. The proposals have never gone anywhere. Saudi Arabia is the big kid on the block and the neighborhood bully: No one wants to be second fiddle to the Saudis, nor do citizens of the Persian Gulf emirates want to sacrifice their freedoms to conform to the Saudi way of life.

That’s all changing now, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia move forward with economic and social union. The reason is largely sectarian: The Shi’ites are the majority in Bahrain, and protests have evolved to the point where the Sunni-led royal family is no longer able to make the reforms Shi’ite political leaders demand. By joining a confederation, the Bahraini royal family can purchase further Saudi largesse and involve Saudi forces even more directly in quashing unrest.

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Every few years, the Saudi government proposes to remake the Gulf Cooperation Council by replacing it with a federation; in a way, a United States of Arabia. The proposals have never gone anywhere. Saudi Arabia is the big kid on the block and the neighborhood bully: No one wants to be second fiddle to the Saudis, nor do citizens of the Persian Gulf emirates want to sacrifice their freedoms to conform to the Saudi way of life.

That’s all changing now, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia move forward with economic and social union. The reason is largely sectarian: The Shi’ites are the majority in Bahrain, and protests have evolved to the point where the Sunni-led royal family is no longer able to make the reforms Shi’ite political leaders demand. By joining a confederation, the Bahraini royal family can purchase further Saudi largesse and involve Saudi forces even more directly in quashing unrest.

The move is short-sighted, however. Not only may it change the comparatively liberal character for which Bahrain is known, at least relative to the other Persian Gulf states, but it will also hasten the spread of sectarian unrest into Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is, after all, an artificial country. (Like “Petoria” in the television show “Family Guy,” any country is artificial when it’s named after a person). The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly Shi’ite, and quite resentful of Wahhabi rule.

Western journalists and human rights activists condemn the Bahraini government repeatedly for its crackdown because, despite Bahraini efforts to restrict access, Bahrain is a far freer society than Saudi Arabia, and so observers can witness the clashes between the government and opposition (as I did in February). Also, major organizations like Human Rights Watch may be loathe to condemn Saudi authorities, because they solicit money from the Saudis and so may compromise their integrity to pay their bills. While Bahraini security forces are relatively restrained – using mostly rubber bullets and tear gas – in the absence of international presence and attention Saudi forces have no such self-restraint, and favor live ammunition. After confederation, however, Bahraini Shi’ites will not waste a day before beginning to export their “best practices” to their Saudi Shi’ite brethren.

Other American allies in the region will also begin to feel pressure to choose sides. During a  recent trip to Kuwait, Kuwaitis explained it to me like this: Traditionally, countries like Kuwait and Qatar have survived by playing the two regional giants—Saudi Arabia and Iran—off each other. By forming a federation with Saudi Arabia, the emirates and kingdoms transform themselves into the designated space for proxy war. After all, if Bahrain becomes in effect Saudi, then the easiest place to target the Saudis is in Bahrain.

And while many elite foreign policy and military officials cultivate close relations with the Saudis, the Kingdom is far from a good ally. That Saudis formed the bulk of the 9/11 plot was not an accident; it was a direct result of the Saudi education system. And, when the going got tough, the Saudis kicked most American forces out of the country—something they might get tempted to do if they were to absorb Bahrain or Kuwait.

The best way forward for Bahrain is not confederation with Saudi Arabia, nor is it arms packages for anything else than defending the tiny island Kingdom from the Iranian threat. Rather, the course for U.S. policy would be to encourage quick and meaningful reform, and uncompromised Bahraini independence.

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Wahhabi Intolerance in the 21st Century

In early 2011, along with a handful of other American journalists, I interviewed Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in Jerusalem. Ayalon pressed the need for recognition of Israel on the part of the Palestinian leadership–but not in English or Hebrew. “Say it in Arabic, to your own children and to your own people,” Ayalon had said. The habit of Arab leaders to say one thing in English and another in Arabic has been a hallmark of Palestinian politics perfected by Yasir Arafat, and it’s long been a sticking point in Israel’s objection to Palestinian media manipulation.

“Say it in Arabic” encompasses more than just the Palestinian Authority. American intelligence agencies have been unusually public about their need for Arabic speakers. The language barrier gives Arab leaders unrestrained leeway to say whatever they want, and tracking what these leaders say in Arabic to their home audiences has been an essential part of attempting to hold these leaders accountable. So it’s encouraging to see a new report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies spearheaded by FDD’s vice president for research (and COMMENTARY contributor) Jonathan Schanzer.

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In early 2011, along with a handful of other American journalists, I interviewed Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in Jerusalem. Ayalon pressed the need for recognition of Israel on the part of the Palestinian leadership–but not in English or Hebrew. “Say it in Arabic, to your own children and to your own people,” Ayalon had said. The habit of Arab leaders to say one thing in English and another in Arabic has been a hallmark of Palestinian politics perfected by Yasir Arafat, and it’s long been a sticking point in Israel’s objection to Palestinian media manipulation.

“Say it in Arabic” encompasses more than just the Palestinian Authority. American intelligence agencies have been unusually public about their need for Arabic speakers. The language barrier gives Arab leaders unrestrained leeway to say whatever they want, and tracking what these leaders say in Arabic to their home audiences has been an essential part of attempting to hold these leaders accountable. So it’s encouraging to see a new report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies spearheaded by FDD’s vice president for research (and COMMENTARY contributor) Jonathan Schanzer.

With the understanding that in the age of social media it’s no longer sufficient just to analyze Arab leaders’ public speeches and sermons in mind, FDD contracted with the Washington-based technology firm ConStrat to analyze six months worth of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media messages from Saudi clerics in English and Arabic. The result is contained in the in-depth report, written by Schanzer and FDD research associate Steven Miller, “Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media.” The whole report is worth reading, as is this interview the Jerusalem Post conducted with Schanzer, but the report makes clear there have been both promising and troubling trends:

The tone and tenor of the conversations ConStrat coded was mixed, but was generally marked by an absence of overt militancy. This does not, however, indicate an absence of intolerant or xenophobic positions. According to the data scored with ConStrat’s proprietary VX software, views that were hostile to America, the West, and non-Muslim or secular cultures represented nearly 52 percent of the English data, while in Arabic they represented 75 percent….

Saudi Arabia’s success in reducing militant online content is a positive sign that the Saudi government can, when sufficiently motivated, temper the radicalism that percolates in the kingdom. This is also a sign that when the U.S. properly applies pressure, it can have a noticeable impact.

However, the kingdom’s recent attempts to convince the West that it is promoting “religious tolerance” and embracing change do not resonate with the content mined during this study.

As Schanzer told the Post, that’s not a lot of violence, but it’s an overwhelming amount of intolerance and misogyny. And it explains why Ayalon’s appeal to “say it in Arabic” remains good advice for proponents of true peace and reform in the Arab world.

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