Politics & Policy

“Talibans With Oil and a Good P.R. Company”

The dark kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Laurent Murawiec, of the Hudson Institute, is author of the new book Princes of Darkness : The Saudi Assault on the West. Formerly an analyst at the Rand Corporation, in 2002 he gave an infamous briefing at the Pentagon to the Defense Policy Board about Saudi Arabia. NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez spoke to him about the book and the kingdom.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Are you a Zionist madman?

Laurent Murawiec: Yes, if we believe the Saudi media, a large segment of the Arab press, and a number of Washington pundits who nobly rose to the defense of the Saudi royals maligned by this impudent writer. If the little boy who says that the king has no clothes is mad, then I plead guilty as charged. Next, I like Israel, too. I think Israel, of all the countries in the Middle, is the most like us, democratic, Western, vibrant. Guilty again. But the “Zionist madman” is only the polite version of what I’ve been called in the Saudi press and the Arab media, and even some in our own media.

Lopez: Is Saudi Arabia our enemy? Is it fundamentally evil?

Murawiec: Let’s look at facts rather than speeches. The Al-Saud family is indistinguishable from the Wahhabi sect. They have been wedded like Siamese twins since 1744. The sect lends Islamic legitimacy to the sword of the ruler, the ruler extends the writ of the sect. The one cannot exist without the other. The Wahhabi creed is a nasty, bigoted belief system. It considers itself the sole repository of authentic Islam, and views all other Muslins as heretics, apostates, and schismatics, hence, deserving of death. It considers Jews and Christians as Satanic enemies that should be killed when opportunity arises. Jihad is integral to Wahhabism. Whenever the Saudi royals have had opportunity to manifest and implement the creed, they have. King Faisal gave his every visitor a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Read the sermons and the fatwas and the schoolbooks that pour out of Saudi mosques, universities, imams, and predicators, from TV and media: “death to Jews, Christians, Hindus, Shiites” is a permanent singsong. That’s the Saudi-Wahhabi creed in action. Now, since they have needed us to protect them from regional predators, Iran, Saddam in his time, Nasser earlier and so on, they have honed in a nice trick which allows them to emit friendly noises from one corner of their mouth when they speak English, and in hateful tones from the other, Arabic side. When senior Saudi clerics issue fatwas that call for the killing of Americans in Iraq, when Saudi state TV airs these bloodcurdling calls for jihad against America, how can one but conclude that they are no friends, but enemies? The new Saudi ambassador here, Prince Turki, called our toppling of Saddam “a colonial war.” Seventy percent of the jihadis we have captured in Iraq are Saudis. King Abdullah, Prince Nayef the interior minister, Prince Sultan and Turki have all repeatedly stated that Israel was behind 9/11–not the 15 of 19 hijackers that were Saudis–and behind all terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia! King Abdullah twice in the last few years threatened the U.S. with a new oil embargo. With such friends, who needs enemies? The Saudi royals? Talibans with oil and a good p.r. company. The regime? It is evil, and therefore it is our enemy, and it behaves accordingly.

Lopez: How do you take the Saudi out of Saudi Arabia?

Murawiec: Let me backtrack: If I’m right regarding the nature of Saudi Arabia, then our policy should be to treat them on their merits and demerits, not on some imaginary and delusional notion that they are our friends and allies. Drive a hard bargain based on our national interest. If you go to the supermarket to buy carrots, you pay good money to buy good carrots. Do you call the manager your friend or your ally? There has been a consistent pattern of Saudi actions, of Saudi strategies, that have been inimical to the United States. Draw conclusions: The Saudis have been given a pass for several decades, no matter what kind of outrage they were committing or orchestrating. The Saudi establishment, their religious establishment, the “charities,” the universities, the Saudi NGOs like the World Muslim League, the World Association of Muslim Youth, the International Islamic Relief (on the board of which princes sit, so they’re really no NGO but official organizations that claim to be NGOs) they are one of the principal sources of terrorist jihad against the West, at a par with the ayatollahs’ Iran. So we should treat them accordingly. There are many actions they should take, and we can monitor their implementation: shut down the madrasas; stop printing and exporting the schoolbooks and other literature that preach slaughtering Westerns as a noble Islamic act; shut up the imams and predicators whose sermons call for murder of infidels and jihad; shut down the so-called charities that funnel funds into international terror, arrest their senior officers, hand out their archives to our intelligence agencies; shut down those branches of Saudi intelligence which are involved in and complicit with terror. That’s just a beginning. Good-faith implementation by the Saudi government would help, not the fake decrees that remain dead letter and the platitudinous speeches and the tremolos of eternal friendliness which only exist to be brandished by the Saudi embassy here and their friendly Washington lobbyists. If the Saudis do not respond, they should meet the full wrath of the United States. Why should we accept a “special relationship” which is so lop-sided? Very special indeed: They gain, we lose.

Lopez: The U.S. seems to bend over backward to call Saudi Arabia our friend. Any hope of that changing?

Murawiec: When Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud on board USS Quincy in 1945, they struck a deal that made good strategic sense: guaranteed flows of cheap oil against protection. The deal worked for some time, it was reasonable. As the Saudis started undermining it and violating it, it stopped making sense. But oil entails a lot of money and influence: In the period 1973-2002, the Saudis pocketed two trillion dollars worth of direct oil and gas income. Early on, ARAMCO, which was an American company, became a lobbying arm, a p.r. and policy-influence adjunct of the Saudi regime. The Saudi royals have one great talent: survival, and one undeniable art: power. Buying people is a standard Bedouin method. So they became our friends. Add that American strategy in the Middle East was long based on one parameter: Let’s be friends with the owners of the real estate under which the oil is. Let’s be real nice with dictators and despots. Sunni strongmen buy us stability in the region: Let’s love them. This is realism. “It gave us 50 years of peace,” as one Realist recently pronounced. They make cemeteries and call them peace. It’s like those who said–often the same–that there was no alternative to letting the Soviets get away with everything, or else.

We’ve been in a slow-motion divorce with the Saudis for four years now. It’s the kind of divorce where both sides loudly claim that everything’s fine, while the lawyers are busy calculating alimony and the splitting of assets. But we pulled out much of our military assets from Saudi Arabia–they were unhelpful in the run-up to the Iraq war, to say the least, so we moved to Qatar and other places. We revoked the diplomatic immunity of 70 Saudi jihad leaders, Wahhabi agents who operated out of the embassy’s “Islamic Affairs” department. The Treasury investigated and exposed, the FBI raided a number of Saudi pseudo-NGOs–the list is long. But the divorce is painstakingly slow. The Saudis always calculate how far they can get away with things they do without getting us enraged. There is great fear in Washington of “provoking the fall of the Al-Sauds and opening the door to bin Laden,” as if this alternative was the only one. The president has been less than consistent on the issue: While he’s revoked the “realist” doctrine of unconditional love for Sunni strongmen, he still in effect behaves publicly as if some aspects of it were true. It’s a pity, as he undermines his own strategic thrust: you cannot combat the jihadis here and tolerate their main backers there.

Lopez: Why didn’t 9/11 dramatically change U.S.-Saudi talk?

Murawiec: 9/11 forced our government to notice–how insightful!–that something was amiss on the Saudi side. …It merely got the ball rolling–we’ve only seen the beginning.

Lopez: Is “Washington on the auction block” at all overly dramatic?

Murawiec: “If the reputation, then, builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you’d be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office.” Thus spoke Prince Bandar bin Sultan, grandson of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, and son of the current defense minister, until recently ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States, or rather, as he is known, Saudi minister of American affairs, as the Washington Post reported on February 11, 2002. What more could I say? I have a full chapter in the book documenting those who put themselves on the auction block. The sheer chutzpah of that statement!

Lopez: Shouldn’t “Wahhabi” being a household word by now?

Murawiec: Ah, yes, it should be! It is as if we had been fighting World War II and not naming the enemy by its name, and Roosevelt had talked of “violence” instead of “Nazis.” I cheered early October when the president said in his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy that the enemy was “Islamo-Fascism” and the ideology of jihad rather than some shapeless, vague, anonymous “terrorism.” Well, it took four years, but it happened. Once again, the main suppliers of Islamo-Fascist conceptions, funds and practices in the world are the Saudis and the Iranians. Wahhabism is half the problem. The Wahhabi-Saudi takeover of most of radical Sunni Islam–the Muslim brotherhood, the Deobandi sect, the Tablighi, and others–should make them into a household word for “enemy.”

Lopez: Do you think that the leak of that Pentagon briefing was intentional? Or, at the very least, might the administration been grateful someone said it and it managed to become an issue?

Murawiec: Parts of the administration were furious. Colin Powell called Prince Saud, the foreign minister, to express his repentance and make clear that the briefing had nothing, thing at all, to do with U.S. policies. Other parts were glad that a debate that had never arisen outside the Beltway had become a national debate. The leak of the briefing to the Washington Post became significant not because of the novelty of my argument, which a dozen analysts in Washington had made and publicized before me, but because it gained front-page prominence: The briefing had been presented at the Department of Defense, it came after 9/11, which gave it credibility, and the leak spiced it up. It became an issue. Note that much of what I had then said, which many in the media then called “Strangelovian,” is now currently stated in the media without anyone batting an eyelid. So it was a good debate whose time had come, through a fortuitous incident.

Lopez: How do you see U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia realistically changing?

Murawiec: Slowly but inescapably. Part of it is that no responsible policymaker should tie his country’s strategic fortunes to a sinking ship. The Saudis have just bought themselves a respite–at $60 a barrel, you can buy more people internally and externally than at $20 or 30. Just as Brezhnev’s regime and Soviet Communism got a respite in 1973-74 and again in 1978-79 with the two oil shocks: it saved them from bankruptcy and prolonged the terminal agony by a decade and more. Likewise with a dysfunctional Saudi regime, which has spent the last thirty years breeding attack dogs, many of whom then turned into wolves, and has not modernized the Kingdom at all (the oil dependency of Saudi exports was 91 percent in 1973, it was 91 percent three years ago: outside the oil industry, no modernization at all!). Gradually, U.S. policy is changing: by toppling Saddam Bush in effect revoked the doctrine of supporting Sunni strongmen. This was just a start. If your strategy is to help modernize the Arab Muslim world, dictators and despots appear as what they are: a deadly impediment.

Lopez: What should Congress be doing?

Murawiec: The “Saudi Accountability Act of 2005″ is a good start: Monitor their every outrage, scrutinize their policy, put their actions under the microscope. Look at international jihad, its funding, its logistics, its propagandists, its religious leaders and cheerleaders, the media, the recruiters, etc. Look at the Saudi element in each and every one of those aspects. Pin it down, publicize it, make a permanent stink out of it. Put pressure on the executive branch to stop tolerating the intolerable. At the beginning of November, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on Saudi Arabia. On the eve of the hearing, the State Dept. suddenly pulled out–they sent no representative at all! Contempt of Congress? Discipline those in our own government who carry their own policy, at odds with that of the president. Stop tolerating that the State Department operates as a lobby for Saudi Arabia.

Lopez: What do you anticipate Saudi Arabia looking like in ten years?

Murawiec: Split in its original component parts conquered between 1910 and 1934 by Ibn Saud as his sword was carving him an empire: Hasa, the predominantly Shiite eastern province with the oil, along the Gulf coast; Hijaz, the Red Sea province open to international trade since the dawn of history; Asir, largely Shiite, brutally wrested from Yemen… and these segments then trying to enter some form of association, perhaps with others in the peninsula. The Soviet Union had been born in 1921, and Yugoslavia too: They were older, when they toppled, than Saudi Arabia now is. The present bonanza is going to give the rulers a false sense of security and power, and they will postpone or eliminate any serious changes. As usual, they will be intoxicated by money and the power it confers. Will they reform? It is rather fatuous to believe that 83-year-old King Abdullah, who has been in power for more than 40 years, and who assembled and led the Saudi national guard–drawn from the Bedouins, the most retrogressive, xenophobic, and backward part of the population, that’s his base–is going to be a reformer. Just last February, the minister of education, who had been announced as a would-be reformer, was sacked and replaced by a hard-line Wahhabi. Some reformer, this new king.

Lopez: Why should we trust a Frenchman?

Murawiec: You have to make up your mind: either I’m a mad Zionist, or I’m merely a Frenchman. Or am I both? In that case, I’m really, really bad. In the event, I’m a Frenchman who’s very proud of becoming an American.


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