The Magazine

The New Evil Empire?

From the December 13, 2004 issue: Applying Cold War lessons to Saudi global mischief.

Dec 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 13 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The Saudis, similarly, in order to justify their claim of Islamic authority--and to counter the ideological impact of the Iranian revolution of 1979--have sought to Wahhabize Sunni Muslims wherever they are found, from Morocco to Malaysia, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Botswana, from northern Nigeria to Northern Virginia.

In the end, of course, change came to the Soviet Union. By the late 1980s, Moscow could no longer govern in the old way--and neither can Saudi Arabia's rulers today. The question is, What lessons drawn from the Soviet experience are applicable to Saudi Arabia today, as the Bush team ponders strategy for the second term?

ONE POINT is worth clearing up at the outset: Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, oil is not an obstacle to transforming Saudi Arabia, any more than Soviet possession of nuclear weapons was a barrier to change in Moscow. Whoever rules Arabia will continue to seek revenue from oil.

At the same time, some contrasts between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union must be kept in mind. The Soviets did not allow their subjects to massacre American citizens on U.S. soil, as the Saudis did, indirectly, by promoting extremism and permitting the buildup of al Qaeda. Nor did the Soviets fear their own disaffected beneficiaries, as the House of Saud fears al Qaeda. The Soviets did not tolerate the presence of activist radicals within their own borders who continually incited their subjects to terrorism. Even today, however, the Saudis continue to tolerate the Wahhabi clerics exemplified by the 26 Saudi imams who on November 5 issued a fatwa celebrating jihadist murder in Iraq.

In sum, by the mid-1980s, Soviet communism was moribund, while today, Wahhabism remains virulent. Therefore, we probably cannot hope for the complete dissolution of the Saudi state. Rather, the aim must be to assist the Saudi royal family to break the link between the state and the extremist ideology that has underpinned it for so long. The Saudi state may survive; the House of Saud may even, after the fashion of the Windsors, retain its wealth and its throne. With or without the princes, violence must be avoided: Bloodshed in the land of the Two Holy Cities would be extraordinarily inflammatory, not just in Arabia but across the Muslim world. A managed transition to normality is far preferable to any revolutionary upheaval in Saudi Arabia.

Another difference, this time propitious: Saudi Arabia has a precious asset that was missing from the Soviet Union in its growing business class. The largest middle class in the Arab world may be capable of leading the Saudi transformation peacefully, and avoiding the hard social bumps suffered when the Soviet Union fell.

That said, several lessons of the Soviet transformation remain urgently relevant to U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia:

(1) At the beginning of the Gorbachev era, the Soviet authorities demonstrated their desire for transparency in dealing with the United States when, as early as 1986, Gorbachev himself admitted to our government the truth about their long history of disinformation and "active measures" against us. Soviet diplomats came to Washington and accepted blame for circulating lying propaganda in the Third World, such as the claim that AIDS had been invented at Fort Detrick and that body parts were hacked out of infants in Latin America for an imaginary black market in the United States. They promised to stop producing such garbage, and they kept their word.

A similar shift toward transparency is necessary in relations between Riyadh and Washington. As their first initiative, President Bush and Secretary Rice should call on the Saudis to produce a "9/11 Commission Report" of their own that can be made public. It must detail every aspect of the involvement of Saudi subjects in the al Qaeda conspiracy, no matter how high they rank in Saudi society.

(2) The Saudi financiers of al Qaeda--including such individuals as the property developer Yasin al-Qadi and the charity head Adil Abdaljalil Batterjee, both designated global terrorist financiers by the U.S. Treasury--continue to walk the streets of the kingdom unmolested. The president and the secretary of state should initiate legal steps so that all of them are arrested and tried.

(3) President Reagan correctly called on the Soviet Union to cease financing international extremism. George W. Bush has the right to ask that the Saudis cease not only supporting al Qaeda but also fomenting Wahhabism internationally in any guise. Above all, Riyadh must immediately silence Saudi clerics' incitement to the Iraqi jihad, and cut off the flow of jihadists from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, if necessary by closing and patrolling the kingdom's northern border.