By Alena Sadiq.
‘We came, we saw, he died!’ said a jubilant Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton upon hearing reports of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi’s death. When another tyrant—although admittedly a less eccentric one—died, a statement from President Obama declared, “As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship.” Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has announced a research and essay competition to honor this “man of remarkable character and courage” because, of course, executing 87 people in the last year alone truly required an astounding amount of character.
Gross human rights violations are not new in the country. Less than a month into 2015, Saudi Arabia has beheaded 16 people. On January 9th, Saudi blogger received fifty lashes, out of the total 1000 he has been sentenced to, for “cyber crime and insulting Islam.” Women have few, if any, rights and minorities perhaps even less. Migrant workers face conditions that should not exist in the twenty-first century. Not only is the country itself lacking any semblance of representative government, but it has also vehemently opposed pro-democracy movements elsewhere. Riyadh provided billions of dollars to finance Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s military regime and his brutal oppression of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt.
So why, the question arises, are praises sung for someone with such an abhorrent human rights record?
The answer one will hear is that Saudi Arabia is an important strategic ally in the Middle East, and especially important right now in the fight against ISIS. This answer is not as satisfactory as it may seem at first glance.
The Kingdom has long been an exporter, of what Robert Fisk sums up as “Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ethics—the most purist, anti-apostate extremism.” This export is what most sectarian strife and terrorism, at least in part, can be traced back to. Lest we forget, the origins of the Taliban (in which the US offered great support and encouragement to the Saudis) and of Osama bin Laden lead back here too. According to Karen Armstrong, the latest movement, ISIS, can also be traced back to Wahhabism, the creed born in the 18th century and practiced in Saudi Arabia. In a compelling article, she analyzes the history of this sect and the role it played in the formation and survival of the Kingdom.
To examine the effect of this export, let us look at Pakistan as an example. A leaked US cable from 2008 contained various reports of extremist organizations recruiting in southern Punjab, in Pakistan, and allegedly they were “getting financial support” from “missionary” and “Islamic charitable” organizations in Saudi Arabia and the UAE“. It also said that the madrassas run by these organizations indoctrinated children and then sent them to Pakistan’s tribal areas to receive further training in terrorist camps. Another cable, this time from Secretary Clinton in 2009, referred to the Saudi failure to “treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority”. Moreover, a very important distinction was noted: “In contrast to its increasingly aggressive efforts to disrupt al-Qaeda’s access to funding from Saudi sources, Riyadh has taken only limited action to disrupt fundraising for the UN 1267-listed Taliban and LeT-groups that are also aligned with al-Qaeda.” Most of these groups share an anti-apostate sentiment and have carried out attacks against many Shia Muslims in Pakistan, especially the Hazara community who have been victims of nothing less than genocide. Saudi Arabia has financed the spread of sectarian strife in Pakistan and other countries to counter its fear of an “expanding Shia empire”. The most recent result, although indirect, of the country’s export machine and paranoid fear of Iran is ISIS, as admitted by Vice President Joe Biden in a diplomatic gaffe last year. Thus much of the fanaticism we see today is in no small part a result of the Saudi Arabian export machine.
Since Saudi Arabia then seems to be a part of the problem, perhaps the US thinks it can influence the kingdom and use it to its advantage? This would be a miscalculation because the export machine is a lifeline for the regime. One of the key ways in which Saudi Arabia maintains its internal dictatorship is by ‘encouraging a pan-Islamist sentiment’ to distract the people from internal reform and instead keep them occupied with the troubles of the worldwide ummah. In other words, the tyranny inside Saudi Arabia is directly linked to the fanaticism they export.
So then, if Riyadh is indeed the root of much extremism, and the US is aware of it, our question then still remains unanswered: why the praises for King Abdullah? In Armstrong’s view, the oil crisis of 1973 “gave the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam”. These petrodollars may be the reason why the US cannot part ways with Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, why the US seems to be stuck with Saudi Arabia, says Matt Schiavenza, is not its perceived usefulness in the Middle East. Rather the US can’t get away from Riyadh because of one infamous reason: oil. As per Schiavenza, “Saudi Arabia and fellow OPEC members Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have proved reserves of 460 billion barrels. The United States, by contrast, has proved reserves of just 10 billion.” And so, to end with a quote from the other Clinton: it’s the economy, stupid.