Commentary Magazine


The Big Saudi Swindle

What is Saudi Arabia up to? There are some unignorable indications that the royals are now leaning toward the West as never before.

According to a Pakistani diplomatic envoy, Riyadh is now playing an active intermediary role between the U.S. and Pakistan, shuttling aid packages and negotiating with Pakistani militants at Washington’s behest. With Islamabad more ambivalent than helpful in taking out militants who attack American forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. has turned to the Saudis, who seem to have reined in their own domestic terrorists over the past few years.

Since a 2003 al Qaeda attack on a residential compound in Riyadh, the Saudi government has instituted a multi-pronged approach to crack down on the threat from within. They’ve done things such as put up websites to counter pro-terrorism fatwas. They’ve also launched an unforgiving, punitive national security plan, without regard for due process or human rights. The results are undeniable. In October, the interior minister announced that almost 1000 people suspected of having ties to al Qaeda will soon be tried. There are almost 7000 suspected or convicted terrorists presently in Saudi jails. After a recent trip to the Kingdom, during which he visited a “rehabilitation center for extremists,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said,

The Saudis are committed to tackling the extremists who poison young people with their evil ideology of terror. I was glad I had the opportunity to witness how they are seeking to change the attitude of young people who would be vulnerable to falling back under the spell of extreme groups on being released.

Gordon Brown is not alone in his enthusiasm. Just yesterday, at a UN General Assembly meeting, Israeli President Shimon Perez described a Saudi peace initiative as “inspirational and promising — a serious opening for real progress.” He went on to praise Saudi King Abdullah thusly:

Your Majesty, the King of Saudi Arabia, I was listening to your message I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people. It’s right, it’s needed, it’s promising.

Indeed, the occasion for the meeting is a Saudi-led UN interfaith conference on religious tolerance. And it is with that realization that the irony begins to give the game away. As Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, put it, Saudi Arabia “is the world headquarters of religious oppression and xenophobia.” There are, of course, no churches or synagogues on Saudi soil. In fact, the Sunni-dominant Kingdom systematically discriminates against its Shia Muslim minority in a brutal manner the West would never tolerate. So, why the UN conference?

As Donald H. Argue and Leonard A. Leo explain in a piece in the Christian Science Monitor:

Saudi King Abdullah, who initiated this week’s special session, is quietly enlisting the leaders’ support for a global law to punish blasphemy – a campaign championed by the 56-member Organization of Islamic Conference that puts the rights of religions ahead of individual liberties.

If the campaign succeeds, states that presume to speak in the name of religion will be able to crush religious freedom not only in their own country, but abroad.

The UN session is designed to endorse a meeting of religious leaders in Spain last summer that was the brainchild of King Abdullah and organized by the Muslim World League. That meeting resulted in a final statement counseling promotion of “respect for religions, their places of worship, and their symbols … therefore preventing the derision of what people consider sacred.”

The lofty-sounding principle is, in fact, a cleverly coded way of granting religious leaders the right to criminalize speech and activities that they deem to insult religion. Instead of promoting harmony, however, this effort will exacerbate divisions and intensify religious repression.

As President Bush and other world leaders convene for the farce, King Abdullah’s plan will move steadily along and his image as peacemaker will be broadcast far and wide. He can back off of whatever lukewarm peace initiative he’s laid out once he’s made his case for global blasphemy.

As for the Saudi cooperation with the U.S., right now the Saudis are very uneasy about a near-nuclear Iran. They don’t need the oil-rich Shia-dominant Islamic Republic asserting regional hegemony. There is no reason for Riyadh not to cozy up to the U.S. for the time being, in hopes that any favors done in regard to Pakistan will be banked and remembered by Washington.

While Riyadh has doused jihadist threats to the Kingdom, radical Islam continues to flourish in Saudi Arabia and is endorsed and exported in violent form by the ruling family. Their Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice regularly carries out unspeakable punishments upon innocent Saudis who have run afoul of Wahhabist doctrine, prescribing gang-rapes and the like as penalties for female immodesty. And the Saudis still fund anti-Western, anti-semitic madrassas around the globe.

If Barack Obama is as obsessed with breaking precedent as he says, a new approach with Saudi Arabia would be a good place to start. What a welcome change it would be if our next president refuses to get swindled by the transparent overtures that are taking in the rest of the world, and instead calls the regime in Riyadh by its rightful name: enemy.

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