It’s not a great moment to be a Saudi diplomat in Washington these days. The Republican presidential candidate thinks your country should pay for US military protection. The Democratic president is seeking warmer ties with your arch-enemy, Iran. And the US intelligence community is expected to soon declassify 28 pages of a 2003 Congressional report a former senator says implicates the kingdom in financing the terror attacks of Sept 11, 2001.
This last point is particularly sensitive. The 28 pages were classified as part of the first congressional investigation into the 9/11 attacks, and they raise several questions about an alleged Saudi network in the US that aided two of the hijackers, according to press accounts and officials who have read them. Many of those questions surround a Saudi official named Fahad al-Thumairy, who was in contact with two of the hijackers when they came to San Diego in 2000. The FBI said Thumairy dissembled when being interviewed by agents.
Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who was the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee when it investigated the attacks, has been promising in recent months that the 28 pages are explosive. Others have taken a different view. On April 27, the co-chairs of the 9/11 commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, issued a lengthy statement saying the 28 pages represented raw and unvetted information. They reiterated the commission’s conclusion that they found no evidence the Saudi government or senior Saudi officials individually funded Al Qaeda. CIA director John Brennan, a former station chief in Saudi Arabia, said as much himself this month.
Nonetheless, the Saudis are nervous. Nail al-Jubeir, the director of information and congressional affairs at the kingdom’s embassy, told me on Wednesday he was looking forward to the publication of the 28 pages and he is hoping for zero redactions. “We don’t want a single word blacked out, this will just fuel the conspiracy theorists,” he said.
When I arrived at his offices, Jubeir handed me a 38-page report prepared by his embassy aimed at countering what Saudis expect will be the charges against the kingdom. The document is mainly a collection of selected quotes from senior US officials and government reports that repeat what most knowledgeable observers already know: Saudi Arabia has been a target of Al Qaeda and a partner in the US-led campaign against it.
As I reported in April, President Barack Obama has enhanced US military and intelligence ties with the Saudis in large part because they have proven to be a valuable ally against jihadist networks.
But this is only part of the story. The government in Riyadh represents a pact between the Saud royal family and a clerical establishment that promotes a corrosive and extreme version of Islam. And while the Saudis have improved dramatically in the last dozen years in regulating charities that were linked to Al Qaeda in the 1990s and terrorist financing in general, to this day Saudi Arabia promotes a kind of Supremacism that stokes an enmity of Jews, Christians, Shias and “apostates”.
Evidence for this is ample. Consider the textbooks Saudi Arabia uses in its own classrooms. A 2006 diplomatic cable, published by WikiLeaks, indicated that an eighth-grade textbook says, “God will punish any Muslim who does not literally obey God just as God punished some Jews by turning them into pigs and monkeys.”
Jubeir conceded that such textbooks have become more radical in recent years. He said many of his middle-age colleagues at the embassy don’t remember this kind of thing, but conceded that it was an issue that the government should have paid more mind. “When you don’t watch out and pay attention to the schools, it slowly creeps in,” he said, making a comparison to efforts by conservative evangelicals in the US. “Who would have thought that Pat Robertson’s groups were winning school board elections in the 1980s?”
Jubeir pushed back on the idea that Saudis impose an extremist curriculum on the schools and mosques they support around the world. “When we fund a school it’s in the curriculum of that country,” he said. “We don’t build a school unless there is an agreement. You can’t ask us to fund the mosque in the country and say it’s a Saudi-funded mosque when something goes wrong. No it’s you guys who didn’t keep an eye on the mosque.” He pointed out that the US paid for textbooks used in Pakistani refugee camps in the 1980s that also included these kinds of radical themes.
When asked about the growing number of public executions in the kingdom, Jubeir quipped, “Would you rather these people were executed indoors?” But he also insisted that Saudi justice is based on the rule of law. He said the king must approve every execution after it goes through a series of judges and court proceedings. “Do we punish criminals? Absolutely,” he said. “You commit a crime in Saudi Arabia, the justice is severe. We don’t make apologies for that. We have never claimed to be a Western liberal democracy; we have roots that go back thousands of years.”
He also dismissed any comparison between the Saudi system and the executions publicised by the militant Islamic State group. And on this, Jubeir has a point. The IS beheads aid workers and journalists and shares them on YouTube for propaganda.
But nonetheless, the Saudis promote an extreme version of Islam themselves, even if it is not as extreme as that of Al Qaeda and the IS. For example, in 2015, King Salman awarded Zakir Naik, an Indian Muslim televangelist, the kingdom’s “Service to Islam Award”. Naik insists that the US is a terrorist nation controlled by its Jewish minority. This month, Saudi state television aired four one-hour programmes featuring the Saudi imam Saad bin Ateeq al-Ateeq, who calls on God to punish Alawites, Jews and Christians.
David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told me that in this respect, the Saudis have not lived up to a 2014 communiqué its leaders signed with the US to combat radical and extremist ideologies.
“The Saudi government will point out that they are terrorism’s first victims,” Weinberg said. “But just because they are a target of the group, does not mean their policies are all judicious in this regard, some of their incitement feeds into terrorism in the peninsula.”
All of this goes back to 9/11 and the 28 pages. If US intelligence officials familiar with the 28 pages are right that they contain no hard evidence that Saudi Arabia financed or helped coordinate the worst act of terrorism in US history, then the kingdom is being framed.
But in another sense, Saudi Arabia is guilty. It has appeased and at times promoted an ideology that excuses and justifies the terrorism it fights quietly against, even as its leaders recognise they are the targets of these radicals.
—By arrangement with Bloomberg-The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2016