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A Problematic Ally

From the December 2, 2002 Dallas Morning News: America's alliance with Saudi Arabia presents a challenge for U.S. diplomats.

11:00 PM, Dec 2, 2002 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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THE SAUDIS CONTINUE to generate what for them is unwanted news. The urgency for Americans is to place the news in context, and toward that end there is no better guide than Stephen Schwartz, author of the new book "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Saud from Tradition to Terror."

Consider, for example, the story about Princess Haifa al-Faisal, the wife of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Starting in 1998, the princess gave thousands of dollars to a Jordanian woman living in San Diego whom she said had asked for help with medical bills. The woman endorsed the checks to her husband, a Saudi national, who then gave some of the money to another Saudi living in the area. That man, Omar Ahmed al-Bayoumi, helped two new arrivals to San Diego, also Saudis, rent an apartment. Both were September 11 hijackers. Al-Bayoumi has since left the United States and is thought to be living in Saudi Arabia.

The princess and her husband have emphatically denied that she knowingly would have given money to subsidize terrorists. Schwartz agrees that she might not have "knowingly"--in a legal sense--done that. "As a former crime reporter," he says, "I can't make a direct accusation" without more evidence.

But even assuming she didn't know in advance where her money would go, Schwartz observes that it hardly would have been extraordinary for members of the Saudi royal family, like Princess Haifa and her ambassador husband, to have given money to "Wahhabi functionaries," as both the needy woman's husband and al-Bayoumi happen to be. And here, says Schwartz, lies the real issue, for to support the radical strain of Islam known as Wahhabism is to support the ideology in whose name terrorism is committed.

The Wahhabi story is the important one here, and it is missing in most news accounts about Princess Haifa's putative charity. No writer has done more to expose Wahhabism than Schwartz has. And his new book provides an extended treatment of Wahhabism, starting with its emergence in central Arabia in the 18th century. Read "Two Faces of Islam" to learn how Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, as a young man, called fellow Arabs to his violent vision of Islam, which damned all Islam as then understood and conceived the killing of wayward Muslims as a religious duty.

Wahhab, as Schwartz details, made an alliance with a man of arms, Muhammad ibn Saud. Wahhab had the religious power; Saud and his family, the political power. Together, they took control of much of Arabia, including Mecca and Medina. The Ottomans constrained Wahhabism, but it returned with gale force in the early 20th century when a scion of the House of Saud, impelled by Wahhabi ideology, captured much of the Arabian Peninsula.

The founding of the Kingdom of Arabia soon followed and, with it, the installment of Wahhabism as the official state religion. Thanks to the wealth generated by its vast oil reserves, the Saudi government has spread Wahhabism beyond the Middle East and even to the United States, where, as Schwartz points out, the vast majority of mosques are dominated by Wahhabi clergy. Wahhabism is the religion of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaedanetwork, and it is no coincidence that 15 of the 19 al Qaeda hijackers were Saudi nationals. Nor that wealthy Saudi citizens have funded al Qaeda.

Saudi officials never have provided the United States with all they know about those Saudi hijackers, and they have resisted efforts to freeze assets of Saudis thought to be supporting al Qaeda. The Bush administration continues to seek better cooperation from the kingdom in the war on terrorism, and more muscular efforts may be tried soon.

Schwartz's book, however, is a reminder that the problem with Saudi Arabia goes much deeper. As he writes, "Wahhabism-Saudism is part of the 'axis of evil'--and very possibly the most dangerous part." He calls for "the disestablishment of Wahhabism" in Saudi Arabia and its replacement with guarantees of religious freedom.

Moving toward those goals could prove destabilizing: Imagine a new regime that, unlike the House of Saud, is explicitly anti-American. But perpetuation of the status quo hardly is a happy prospect, either, given the Saudi government's support for the ideology of terrorism. The challenge for American diplomacy is enormous.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.