Surprised by Saudi Arabia

The New York Review of Books posted a brief overview of U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism cooperation on May 21. “Saudi Arabia and the New US War in Yemen,” by Hugh Eakin, is worth reading if you aren’t already familiar with the partnership or the fact that Yemen has become the new “front line” between the U.S. and Al Qaeda. Judging by the popular reaction to Al Qaeda’s most recent plot, which was foiled by a Saudi agent, this relationship is still news for some. Many don’t realize just how close cooperation is today and how we got here. Eakin fills in those blanks.

In the last month I’ve repeated many of Eakin’s points when speaking with those who were surprised that the Saudis were responsible for ­thwarting terrorists—rather than supporting them. I’m talking specifically about people who follow the news but not the Middle East. The Kingdom continues to suffer from a reputation deficit 10 years after 9/11. Some  may remember Osama bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, for instance. Americans might still recall that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi (as Eakin points out, Saudi hijackers were probably selected in order to harm U.S.-Saudi relations). And, even if those details were forgotten, the bitter taste of the 1973 oil embargo lingers. High oil prices are still blamed on “greedy” Arabs and OPEC, which are both synonymous with Saudi Arabia.

From an American perspective, these negative experiences are made worse by a general ignorance of Saudi culture, governance, people, and faith. Saudi traditions are quite the opposite of America’s in many respects: the country is run by an absolute monarchy, gender segregation is strictly enforced, and freedom of opinion and assembly are not protected. Islam also remains suspect in the U.S., unfortunately, thus turning Saudi Arabia’s faith into another obstacle.

Crudely speaking, Saudi Arabia is frequently dismissed by commentators as an unreliable ally—another Pakistan playing a double-game with Washington and our enemies. Though false and easily disproven, this narrative persists. Americans still find it hard to trust Saudi Arabia although it shares the same enemies (Al Qaeda) and interests (Iran’s nuclear program, energy market stability, etc.). Unlike relations with the U.K. or Israel, familiarity and empathy do not bolster the relationship.

Ignorance goes both ways, of course. Many in Saudi Arabia are not eager to give Americans any benefit of the doubt after witnessing multiple U.S. invasions in the Middle East and zero improvement in the Palestinian condition. The official Saudi response to 9/11 was also inexcusable: Crown Prince Nayef, for instance, blamed the Jews for the attacks; in general the Kingdom’s immediate response was terribly sluggish. As Eakin points out, Saudi Arabia really only addressed the threat after a bloody Al Qaeda campaign killed hundreds inside the Kingdom from 2003 onward. (See Thomas Hegghammer’s authoritative account, Jihad in Saudi Arabia.) Al Qaeda’s vicious and indiscriminate campaign in Iraq further alienated Saudis who saw the group kill more Muslims than Americans.

I admit Eakin’s overview is not extensive and Yemen-watchers will find it incomplete. But it highlights a few issues that I think are worth repeating. It’s also well-written which counts for a lot in my book. Here are a few selections that stuck with me:

The story begins in the decade after 9/11, when two key figures, both Saudis, emerge in the confrontation between counterterrorism agencies and al-Qaeda-inspired groups. One is Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism force and son of the country’s Interior Minister and heir apparent, Crown Prince Nayef. The other is Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a young former chemistry student, who became radicalized and went to Yemen, where he has emerged as the talented and dangerous chief bomb maker of AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula].

[…]

Why is AQAP intent on attacking Saudi Arabia, a country that adheres to one of the most conservative forms of Islam in the world? Saudi Arabia holds special significance to as the seat of Islam’s holiest sites; and its close ties to Western governments—before and since 9/11—have rankled fundamentalists. According to Saudi officials, AQAP is upset with Riyadh’s renewed alliance with the United States, which Saudi officials believe the 9/11 attacks were designed to destroy. Indeed, the wave of terrorism that swept Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004 was largely aimed at Western targets within the Kingdom, though hundreds of Muslims were killed as well.

[…]

Paradoxically, AQAP’s recent offensive seems to have led instead to greater collaboration between Saudi and US officials—and, if reports are to believed, reliance on the Saudi rehabilitation approach. Saudi counterterrorism agents helped investigate the Christmas Day bomb plot, and in 2010 they discovered the AQAP plot to put bombs designed by al-Asiri on cargo planes—intelligence which they shared with the US and other “friendly countries” (Saudi officials apparently even gave US officials the tracking numbers of the bomb packages). Moreover, the Saudi rehabilitation center may have been a key asset in uncovering the 2010 plot: According to Yemeni officials, the tip about the cargo bombs came from an Saudi national, Jabir al-Fayfi, who had been released from Guantanamo and gone through the rehabilitation center in Riyadh before joining AQAP in Yemen, apparently as a plant.

[…]

One conclusion, then, may be that the Saudi government has not only been able to use the country’s vulnerability to extremist movements to gain new insight into al-Qaeda and the recruiting process; it can also draw on rehabilitated former jihadists to further its intelligence efforts. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has long cultivated ties with various Yemeni tribal leaders, and with deep historic connections between southwest Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Saudi agents are well placed to penetrate the deep tribal networks in which AQAP is said to be embedded.

[…]

Perhaps most important for the Saudi government, a successful counterterrorism policy carries enormous political value amid the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Even more than democratization or regime change in the region, the Saudi rulers seem to fear instability and unpredictability: though they have reluctantly supported the transition of power in Yemen, they are particularly nervous about the kind of extremism that has emerged in neighboring countries like Iraq, Yemen, and now Syria, when uprisings turn into violent conflict or authority breaks down entirely—places where Saudi jihadists have often found new causes. “Syria will be tempting to al-Qaeda,” Abdulrahman Alhadaq, a Saudi counter terrorism official, said in a briefing in Riyadh. “We need to avoid another Iraq.”

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia worked closely last year to remove Yemen’s president of 33 years–Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia recently pledged $3.5 billion in aid to the country also. This year, the Saudis are reportedly giving Syrian resistance fighters equipment, weapons, and cash, as they fight to end the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East. Although the U.S. is still only supplying humanitarian aid and rhetorical support to Syrians, U.S. officials have not criticized Saudi Arabia’s  bold moves, presumably because they approve. The Saudis are just now finalizing a massive aid package that will allow post-revolutionary Egypt to acquire a bigger loan from the IMF. List that as another example of Riyadh and Washington sharing and securing interests–by design or default.

Regarding Yemen, U.S.-Saudi cooperation is essential, as Eakin suggests–but it cannot be limited to counter-terrorism operations. Yemen’s problems are bigger than Al Qaeda but they also enable Al Qaeda. Riyadh and Washington must work closely with leaders in Sana’a to get Yemen’s economy back on the rails. In order to do this, democracy must also be encouraged, so that a leader invested with legitimacy can act with the boldness required in a country so desperate. A comprehensive approach is necessary. If the last 10 years of cooperation are proof, Riyadh and Washington are positioned to make a difference together.

All this begs the question: How wrong was the recycled wisdom of 2011? Last year we were told that U.S.-Saudi relations were in free-fall after the White House abandoned Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

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