6 Policies Obama wants Saudi Arabia to Change

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

After his critical comments in an interview in The Atlantic last month, Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia is going to be awkward, as DPA rightly says. The president accused the Gulf states of always trying to push the US into war for the accomplishment of their purposes but then acting like free riders thereafter. (This comment likely refers to Libya, where Obama felt as though the Arab League and Western Europe just sloughed off after the US did the heavy lifting). He advised the Saudis and their close allies to get over themselves and come to a cold peace with Iran. He said his decision not to bomb Syria in fall of 2013 was a declaration of independence from Riyadh.

He has also blamed Saudi Arabia for spreading around its intolerant, Wahhabi version of Islam, a very minority version of the religion that is puritanical and dislikes outsiders. (Probably only 40% of Saudis are Wahhabis, hence maybe 9 million of the kingdom’s 22 million citizens. There aren’t really any Wahhabis elsewhere outside Qatar and Sharjah, though millions of people have become Salafis, i.e. Sunnis who come close to Wahhabism but don’t want to leave their Sunni traditions entirely. So there are 1.5 billion Muslims, and most of them are not Puritanical or xenophobic and most of them are fine with women driving and disapprove of the full face veil (a lot of Muslim women don’t cover their heads at all). But it should also be noted that there is no statistical relationship between Wahhabism and extremism (most Wahhabis are not extremists any more than most Shiites or Sunnis are).

Obama’s annoyance with Riyadh has some justification, given the muscular Wahhabism it has been flexing in recent years. Here are the top 5 policies Saudi Arabia should rethink if it wants a less turbulent neighborhood:

1. Saudi Arabia should wind down its air war on Yemen. It was launched to punish the Houthi rebels for taking over Sanaa, the capital. Houthis are Zaidi Shiites and have a feud with Wahhabi Saudi Arabia because they resent being proselytized by the latter. Some of the feud is also tribal. Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as nothing more than Iranian puppets, but that is daft. They may have received minor amounts of Iranian aid. But they aren’t the Iranian kind of Shiites (they don’t have ayatollahs and they respect the Sunni caliphs). What is going on in Yemen has almost nothing to do with Iran. It is about the discontents of the tribes of Saadeh in the north at having been marginalized and having been subjected to a Wahhabi conversion campaign. The Houthis over reached in launching their rebellion, and they have thrown the country into turmoil and derailed the constitutional process. But they can’t be defeated from the air, and indiscriminate Saudi bombing is doing more harm than good. By the way, Saudi Arabia dragged the US into this struggle, with the US military helping choose bombing targets and offering logistical support.

2. Saudi Arabia should rethink its intervention in Syria. It is delivering medium weapons such as t.o.w. anti-tank weapons (courtesy the CIA) and maybe manpad anti-aircraft weapons to the most hard line Salafi groups in Syria aside from the al-Qaeda offshoots. A group like Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) or Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Syria) can never hope to attract the allegiance of most Syrians (most are secular-minded and a good 40% belong to religious and ethnic minorities who would be massacred by the hard line Salafis.) Syria is too multi-cultural for the Saudi model to do more than cause enormous trouble there. Riyadh in the past has been pragmatic and willing to back secular liberals, and it should do that in Syria. Some of its Syrian allies, like the Freemen of Syria, are openly allied with al-Qaeda, which is not a good look for the kingdom. A Salafi Syria will just go on generating violence, given that the minorities would never accept it, nor would the majority of Sunnis. And now that Russia has so forcefully intervened, the hopes for a Salafi Syria have anyway receded to the realm of the almost impossible. All Saudi Arabia can do now play spoiler and keep the pot boiling to disrupt the pax Russica with ongoing mindless violence. The Freemen of Syria and the Army of Islam have broken the ceasefire repeatedly and the former has taken towns back from the regime during the cessation of hostilities in open alliance with al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front). Obama should read the Saudis the riot act over all this.

And why is he letting them give out the CIA-provided T.O.W. tank-killers? Isn’t it obvious that weaponry will go to the hard line Salafis?

3. Obama should encourage the Saudis to go further in the direction of rethinking their campaign to have the Muslim Brotherhood declared terrorists and destroyed. First, it is an impractical plan. Second, it has undone all the progress that was made after 2011 in reconciling the secular-minded with the fundamentalists, such that both were willing to contest elections together and serve in government together. Now, with Saudi encouragement, Egypt has cracked down hard on the Brotherhood, disenfranchising millions of Egyptians. Ironically, many of the small guerrilla bands the Saudis support in Syria have their origins in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

4. Saudi Arabia needs to come into the 21st century and stop its frenetic rate of executions and its punishing of online dissent with life-crushing lashes. The Saudi government isn’t going to fall because some blogger has doubts about God. And if that is all it would take to cause the government to fall, then it deserves to.

5. Riyadh, as President Obama advised, needs to reconcile itself with the Iran deal made by the UN Security Council, and with Iran’s reemergence as a country with which the region and the world does business. King Abdullah used to have the Iranian politicians, even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over to Riyadh, and the two countries consulted one another frankly despite differences. King Salman and his crew seem to want a fight, whether proxy or direct. It is not a fight they will win, and negotiating with Iran would be a more successful strategy.

6. Saudi Arabia has to be more transparent about its government’s relationship to the Salafi Jihadis who pulled off 9/11. The Saudi government was not behind 9/11 or in the know about it. Saudi Arabia has enormous investments in US stocks and other financial instruments, and it was obvious that something like an attack on the World Trade Center would tank the stock market and wipe out the value of their holdings. Only transparency about any contacts the kingdom had with al-Qaeda (especially if those were innocuous) can lift the building cloud. President Obama will veto a congressional attempt to lift Saudi Arabia’s immunity from civil lawsuits by ordinary Americans. But the next president may not block a future such measure. In the Middle East you stay out of trouble by keeping your head down. In the US you are a sitting duck if you do keep your head down– it is loudness and activity that protects you politically.


Related video:

Wochit: Anticipating Obama Visit, Saudis Try To Clean Up Image

7 Responses

  1. “The Saudi government was not behind 9/11 or in the know about it.” Maybe so, but years ago and just yesterday I read in credible sources that the two 9/11 plane hijackers living in San Diego had received payments from a bank account belonging to Bandar. Do you know about this? Is it more nuanced and plausibly deniable than what I describe?

  2. “But it should also be noted that there is no statistical relationship between Wahhabism and extremism (most Wahhabis are not extremists andy more than most Shiites or Sunnis are).”

    Maybe there’s no stats, but every observer has pretty much concluded the relationship. Pakistan is a case in point with its Wahhabification and rise of extremism or sectarianism. Your chances are higher that you’d have an extremist condoning view following a Wahhabi or Salafi (or Pakistan’s local but similar flavours) group than another. Unfortunately they’ve been mainstreamed and adopted amongst Pak’s conservative Sunnis who may not realize it.

  3. I would add the need for SA to stop funding Wahhabi madrasas as they do in Pakistan and other countries. Whether intentionally or not they are a major source of radicalization for youth just seeking an education.

  4. I recently watched the front line regarding SA. I had no idea they cracked down on musicians. The show had a clip where a man playing the lute (a lute!) when he was accosted by religious police and Hus instrument broken.
    This is what ISIS does. In fact I came away from the show with the knowledge that SA is ISIS with oil contracts. SA is not humane nor civilized. They shod be treated like south Africa was in the 80s.

    • There is a classic (and true) story about a fire in a girl’s dormitory at an all girl’s school. Officials wouldn’t let the girls leave the building unless they had their hijab on.

  5. “Riyadh, as President Obama advised, needs to reconcile itself with the Iran deal made by the UN Security Council, and with Iran’s reemergence as a country with which the region and the world does business… King Salman and his crew seem to want a fight, whether proxy or direct. It is not a fight they will win, and negotiating with Iran would be a more successful strategy.”

    I hope President Obama convinces King Salman that what you have written directly above is the case. A more prosperous and stable future for all residents in the middle east, free of misguided Saudi policies, has enormous dividends for us too. The short-term and misguided policies that King Salman has pursued in Syria and Yemen are calamitous for Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis, and also have not been salubrious for any of the residents in the middle east (not even Saudi Arabia).

    The Saudis may actually ostensibly “win” a few perceived direct or proxy fights against Iran, but what they fail to realize is that Iran does not appear at all interested in being dragged into the Saudi game. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran does not appear to wish to create or play zero-sum games, where potential stakes and resulting losses are significant. Instead, Iran appears to shrewdly concentrate on becoming the most developed and stable country in the middle east.

    Saudi Arabia has long believed that they could indefinitely mold the middle east as they saw fit: (1) depose any popular semi-democratic Arab regime (in Egypt), (2) cultivate puppet regimes (Bahrain and Egypt), and (3) bribe Pakistan and other countries into their misguided foreign policies. Saudi Arabia will need to learn to accommodate rising regional powers (Egypt and Iran). If it doesn’t learn, it will simply burn through it’s near bottomless coffers of foreign exchange reserves and material wealth and lose any regional influence it once had, which is fine.

    I wonder if President Obama will follow proposed legislature in the Senate that will preclude selling arms to Saudi Arabia until they follow human rights and international law with regards to their intervention in Yemen.

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