The Magazine

The (Hon.) Shills

Dishonest analysis on Saudi Arabia from former U.S. ambassadors to the kingdom.

Jan 13, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 17 • By JOSH CHAFETZ
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IN A TIME OF INTERNATIONAL STRIFE, when Americans are struggling to understand an unfamiliar part of the globe, one wishes we could call on a cadre of experts who had lived in the region and were experienced in promoting American values and interests. One would think that former U.S. ambassadors to the Middle East--including ambassadors to our traditionally closest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia--would be naturals for this role. But one would be wrong. Instead, most members of this cadre have spent their time since September 11, 2001, shilling, spinning, and distorting the news to fit not American but Saudi interests. And--surprise, surprise--it turns out that many of them are on the Saudi payroll.

The former ambassadors profess themselves shocked at accusations that the Saudi monarchy might in some way be tied to funding for terrorists. Over and over they tell us--as Bush Sr.'s envoy to Riyadh, Chas W. Freeman Jr., told National Journal--that "al Qaeda is directed first and foremost at the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy," and of course the monarchy would never intentionally fund its chief enemy. Freeman is president of a company that helps arrange global business deals, including many in Arab countries. Clinton appointee Wyche Fowler Jr.--now chairman of the board of the Middle East Institute, which receives over 13 percent of its budget from Saudi sources--told the New York Times that "Saudis are not in the business of funding terrorists against their friend, the United States." Reagan appointee Richard W. Murphy goes even further: "They don't fund terror. I mean, they've been accused of sending hijackers to the planes on September 11. The target of September 11 was the Saudi regime, not the United States."

But if al Qaeda hates the Saudi monarchy more than it hates the United States, it sure has a funny way of showing it: Of the two known al Qaeda attacks on Saudi soil, both were directed against U.S. military targets. Furthermore, Saudi authorities did everything in their power to frustrate U.S. investigations into those attacks, including beheading suspects in the 1995 bombing of a Riyadh building used by U.S. military trainers before the FBI could interrogate those suspects. This didn't stop Fowler from assuring CNN's Mark Shields in October 2001 that Saudi Arabia can "absolutely, without any question" be considered an ally in the war on terrorism.

Even less convincing is the ambassadors' claim that everyone in Saudi Arabia loves America. Fowler told Wolf Blitzer in December 2001 that "there hadn't been any hatred being spewed out of Saudi Arabia . . . against us." Fowler was apparently unaware of a Saudi survey two months earlier which found that 95 percent of educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41 supported Osama bin Laden's cause. In January 2002, Freeman told the Middle East Policy Council Forum, "It is widely charged in the United States that Saudi Arabian education teaches hateful and evil things. I do not think that is the case." He didn't bother to explain an October 2001 New York Times article which found that textbooks required for Saudi high school students contain "extremist, anti-Western" messages; for example, the statement: "It is compulsory for the Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemy." And when Freeman proclaimed that Saudi social attitudes had moved forward "centuries in 50 years," one couldn't help but remember the Saudi girls who burned to death in Mecca last March after the religious police refused to let them leave their burning school building because they were not wearing proper Islamic dress.

Glossing over such minor inconveniences, the former ambassadors tell us that things couldn't be better in the kingdom. Crown Prince Abdullah "is running the country, and doing it quite well," Nixon appointee James E. Akins told the Christian Science Monitor. He also informed the Monitor that Saudi Arabia is "moving toward representative government," although those of us less expert in the region are still waiting for evidence.