The Magazine

Saudi Friends, Saudi Foes

Is our Arab ally part of the problem?

Oct 8, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 04 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Saudi-backed Wahhabism may indeed follow communism to disintegration sooner than we think; it may now stand at the close of its influence in the world. That is because the Saudi regime has placed itself in a position much like that of the Soviets at their end. The Saudis have been forced to make concessions to the West that clash with the puritanical demands of Wahhabism; their actions do not match their words. In the same way, the Bolshevik rulers of Russia established an order blatantly in conflict with the egalitarian and progressive promises held out by Communist ideology. And like the Soviets, the Saudis have chosen a method of compensating for their failures that will inevitably undermine their power.

The Soviet Union, although pledging coexistence with the capitalist nations, wasted vast resources on Third World adventures intended to expand its influence and legitimize its revolutionary rhetoric. These ranged from the Spanish Civil War through the Korean War and on to Cuba, Indochina, Central America, Africa, and of course Afghanistan. The irresolvable contradiction between the reality of Soviet communism and its pretensions helped mightily to prepare its downfall.

Similarly, the Saudi regime poses as an ally of the democracies in the antiterrorist coalition, while continuing to spend vast sums of its oil revenues to promote Wahhabi radicalism throughout the Islamic world and the Muslim communities in the West, including America. Recall the Saudis’ obstruction of the investigation of the suicide-bombing of the Khobar towers in which 19 Americans died in 1996. Now it emerges that almost all of the footsoldiers of the September 11 conspiracy whose nationality has been ascertained were Saudi nationals. The truth is that powerful elements in Saudi society have supported Osama bin Laden throughout his campaign of terror, just as they support the Taliban.

An incident observed after the war in Kosovo—in which the West liberated a million and a half Muslims from a genocidal Serbia—shows how the Saudis spread their vicious doctrine and in the process earn the contempt of traditional Muslims. After the NATO bombing ended in July 1999, something called the Saudi Joint Relief Committee for Kosovo, or SJRCK, appeared on the scene. In its first two months, the committee claimed to have spent a million dollars.

Half of this was used to bring 388 Islamic "propagators" or missionaries to Kosovo to spread Wahhabism among the Kosovars. A key goal was to recruit young men for training as Wahhabi imams. Saudi-subsidized mass "cultural programs" featuring prayers and lectures were held in stadiums. Propaganda printed in Albanian pushed a simple message: Reject the West in its totality. The Albanians were unreceptive, and soon the Saudis and "aid workers" from other Gulf states had become so overbearing that the local Muslim clergy were urging U.N. administrators to expel them from Kosovo. The mufti of Kosovo, Dr. Rexhep Boja, declared that the Kosovars had been Muslims for more than 500 years and needed no instruction in the faith from foreigners.

Such anecdotes, common in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, India, and elsewhere, should help the West address its immediate problem: How to beat terrorism without being seen to lead the global crusade against Islam that Wahhabi propaganda insists we intend? We must first abandon the illusion that because the Saudis are rich and their economic interests coincide with ours they are all our friends. But we must also commit time and effort to helping forward-looking, mainstream, and above all anti-Wahhabi Muslims become part of a permanent coalition for worldwide security.

Many strategists in Western capitals ask where we will find Muslims prepared to stand by the West. One tested Muslim statesman who is widely respected, even idolized, in the Islamic world is the wartime president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic. A learned and pious Muslim who was imprisoned for his faith by Tito’s Communist regime, Izetbegovic led the fight for the survival of Bosnian Islam. He is an authentic warrior in a legitimate jihad.

In 1997, addressing the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Tehran, Izetbegovic declared, "Islam is best, but we [Muslims] are not the best. The West is neither corrupted nor degenerate. It is strong, well educated, and organized. Their schools are better than ours. Their cities are cleaner than ours. The level of respect for human rights in the West is higher, and the care for the poor and less capable is better organized. Westerners are usually responsible and accurate in their words. Instead of hating the West, let us proclaim cooperation instead of confrontation."