President Trump’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, an unusual choice for his first foreign excursion as president, has raised eyebrows in the West and inspired accolades from Riyadh. It is intended as a testament to the partnership of the Gulf states with the U.S. in the “War on Terror.” Riyadh has spared no effort in trying to portray itself as the frontline victim of Islamist terrorism and the only viable partner for the U.S. to defeat extremism. However, Saudi ideology and material support remain the common denominator among terror networks across the Middle East and South Asia. Rather than pressuring Riyadh to genuinely change its behavior the Trump administration is enabling Saudi Arabia to use its status as an “ally” to whitewash a national policy of colluding with violent extremists.
Proponents of Riyadh claim it is the sole bulwark in a region rife with Islamist extremists. Writing for Fox News, Ali Shihabi of the Arabian Foundation recently claimed “while it is not popular to praise monarchies, particularly when the crown sits atop an Arab head, Saudi Arabia and other countries governed by ruling families have emerged as the last line of defense in a dangerous ‘great game’ for the heart of the Middle East, and with it, global stability.” His words follow the same rationale used by Bashar al-Assad supporters who routinely defend Damascus’ egregious actions by claiming it is the only line of defense against ISIS. In reality, the royal family’s crisis of legitimacy and willingness to compromise with extremists to retain power is a key enabler of jihadi terrorism.
The infamous “28 Pages Report” provides a detailed account of past U.S. investigations into alleged Saudi sponsorship of the 9/11 hijackers.The report had the misfortune of being released on the same day as the attempted military coup against Turkish President Recep Erdogan, which quickly buried it in the news cycle. It alleges that the Saudi consulate in L.A. was used as a logistical base for al-Qaeda operatives, Saudi diplomatic staff frequented U.S. mosques known for anti-Western preaching, and payments were made to al-Qaeda members through businesses owned by the Saudi government. Even the most generous reading of the report suggests that at a minimum, the Saudi royal family and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are filled with al-Qaeda sympathizers and rogue agents.
More disturbingly, the report indicates that Saudi officials actively impede terrorism investigations. For example, the report cites that U.S. intelligence officials believed “it was clear from about 1996 that the Saudi Government would not cooperate with the United States on matters relating to Usama Bin Laden” and that one reason for this lack of cooperation was that bin Laden had “too much information about official Saudi dealings with Islamic extremists in the 1980s for Riyadh to deliver him into U.S. hands.”
In 2002, when asked about Saudi cooperation on counter-terrorism, the General Counsel of the U.S. Treasury Department testified that “there is an almost intuitive sense, however, that things are not being volunteered.” The infamous “Podesta emails” confirm that the U.S. intelligence community believes Saudi Arabia continues to support terrorism today and along with Qatar is “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL.”
But the Saudis claim their days of supporting terrorists with one hand and shaking the hands of Western heads of state with the other are over. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently wrote in Politico that the Saudis claim to have adopted a new “policy of honesty” even as they admitted to him that in the past they had funded extremists. However, partial confessions and grandiose commitments to fight terrorism are a pillar of Saudi diplomacy with the West.
Riyadh may commit to counterterrorism efforts on paper but it cannot fully dedicate itself to fight extremists abroad lest the royal family itself become the target of its own radicalized citizens. In 2007, at the height of the war in Iraq, the U.S. military estimated that 45 percent of all foreign terrorists targeting U.S. troops were Saudi. Better in the streets of Baghdad than Jeddah.
This dilemma is compounded by the fact the Kingdom can no longer rely on a strong economy to insulate itself from its own extremists. On January 23, 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz died and with him went many of the economic benefits his people had enjoyed. The King Abdullah Scholarship that paid for the tuition of hundreds of thousands of young Saudis at foreign universities was reduced dramatically, as were other benefits.
Huge swaths of the country suffer in poverty, especially outside of the royal family’s home province of Najd. Riyadh lives with the memory of the fundamentalist Sahwa movement, which during the first Gulf War, challenged the very legitimacy of the royal family to rule after they dared to play host to U.S. troops. Riyadh solved this crisis by coopting many of Sahwa clerics into the payroll of its behemoth bureaucracy. But paying for the moderation of its own citizens has become increasingly untenable all the while the ranks of ISIS swell with Saudi recruits that someday will return home.
Rather than pursue diplomacy as the only viable cure for sectarianism and terrorism, Riyadh aims to pursue regional hegemony with the help of U.S. military might. The U.S. and the Kingdom are on the cusp of signing a $100 million arms deal. King Salman has adopted what some supporters call the “Salman doctrine” defined by rapid investment in its military to act as guarantor of Saudi security. While Saudi Arabia has some interest in combating the immediate effects of terrorism, especially on its own soil, it has no incentive to reduce sectarianism, or the proliferation of radical ideology that inspires terrorism in the first place.
Saudi Arabia’s compartmentalized efforts at containing rather than eradicating extremism should not be labeled as a genuine counterterrorism partnership. By giving his blessing to Saudi Arabia’s double-game, President Trump will make America complicit in Saudi Arabia’s spread of jihadi terrorism.