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Analysis President_and_First_Lady_Obama,_With_Saudi_King_Salman,_Shake_Hands_With_Members_of_the_Saudi_Royal_Family (3)

Published on April 21st, 2016 | by Emile Nakhleh


Saudi Arabia and Obama: Time to Reset Relations

by Emile Nakhleh

President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes in the midst of a changing kingdom with a different outlook on its regional role and its relations with the United States. The US-Saudi relationship is becoming less “special,” which is not a bad thing. Washington cannot remain slavishly dependent on the Kingdom. Nor can the Saudis expect to ride on the American coattails freely. According to The New York Times, Obama will find Saudi Arabia “deep in turmoil.”

If the two countries are interested in maintaining a close but not necessarily a special relationship, they should be free to address each other’s needs, concerns, and interests honestly and openly without resorting to economic threats or blackmail. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia needs the United States as a protector against potential regional threats, a provider of military security and weapons systems, a trading partner, and as a global ally. Similarly, the United States would very much like to see Saudi Arabia as an agent of regional stability, a partner in the fight against terrorism, and a potential player in moderating Sunni extremist ideologies, which underpin al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), and other terrorist groups.

The Saudi leadership would do well to study Obama’s views on the Arab Islamic Middle East, as articulated in Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy article in The Atlantic.

Informed by many hours of interviews with the President, Goldberg’s article offers three important take-aways. First, Obama believes that the Middle East is no longer a critical region in global affairs as it was in previous decades. His pivot to Asia underscores the growing significance of that region economically, militarily, and demographically.

Second, the president believes that multilateralism is the wave of the future and that the “defense of the liberal international order against jihadist terror, Russian adventurism, and Chinese bullying depends on other nations sharing the burden with the United States.” Friends and allies should no longer expect the United States to foot the bill or to bail them out whenever they get in trouble. “Free riders aggravate me,” he said to Goldberg in one of the interviews. The Saudis took umbrage at the statement, maintaining that they have paid their fair share.

Third, although Muslim Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia are embracing the future with innovative economic and technological policies, and although their youth are more and more involved in entrepreneurial enterprises, America’s Middle Eastern allies, including Saudi Arabia, remain mired in “tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism.” They are “on the wrong side of history.”

President Obama expressed his implicit desire for Saudi Arabia and neighboring Sunni states to promote a program free of authoritarianism, sectarianism, and fundamentalism that allows their citizens the freedom to pursue entrepreneurial initiatives and modern education. He specifically urged Saudi Arabia to “share the neighborhood” with its neighbor Iran and to tone down its militarism.

The 9/11 Report

At least two other issues are at the heart of the cooling relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The first involves both the 9/11 Report and the Senate bill allowing potential terror victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia. According to media reports, the 9/11 Report contains 28 pages that have not been released despite intense pressure from the victims’ families, their lawyers, and many current and former members of Congress. The families’ lawyers are demanding the release of these pages in the belief that they might contain information that could indirectly implicate elements of the Saudi government in the 9/11 hijackings. The release of these pages could strengthen the families’ lawsuit against the Saudi government.

Senate Bill S. 2040, meanwhile, would allow American citizens to sue the Saudi government and other governments for providing aid to terrorist organizations and individuals. Saudi Arabia is particularly targeted in this bill because of 9/11. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair has threatened economic retaliation against the United States if the Senate bill becomes law.

Al-Jubair, who served as the Saudi ambassador in Washington, should have known that his government’s threats to divest their dollar holdings would not sway the United States to act one way or the other. A threat to destabilize the dollar would be shortsighted, unwise, counterproductive, and in the long run harmful to Saudi interests and security.

Although one can appreciate the legitimate Saudi concerns about the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran and the Arab Spring before that, it is difficult to imagine that Saudi threats could force the US to adopt policies that contradict American strategic interests or values just to appease the Saudis.

The foreign minister’s threats, on the other hand, could reflect a sharpened power struggle within the Saudi ruling family. Al-Jubair could be caught between the pragmatic, deliberate approach of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and the brash assertive posturing of the deputy crown prince and the king’s son Muhammad.

The Obama administration opposes the release of the 28 pages and the passage of the Senate bill on grounds of national security. The president promised in his interview with Charlie Rose, however, that once the director of national intelligence finished his review of the 28 pages, which should be relatively soon, they would be released.

Many believe these materials are being held not because of national security concerns but because of political considerations designed to protect the Saudi family and its actions immediately before and right after 9/11. Reviewing the materials for intelligence “sources and methods” should be done quickly. If the Saudis were involved in any way in the heinous attacks on 9/11, they should be held accountable. Period.

The same goes for Senate Bill 2040. In order to satisfy the president’s legitimate concerns about a potential explosion of lawsuits against the United States, which he also expressed in his interview with Charlie Rose, the sponsoring senators could limit the bill to 9/11 and Saudi Arabia. Some academics, consultants, former diplomats and senior military officers, think tankers, and corporate executives who benefit financially from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states obviously oppose the release and the Senate bill. Their influence and lobbying on behalf of the Saudis should not be allowed to hold American policy hostage. 

Spreading Wahhabism 

The second point of contention is Saudi Arabia’s radical Sunni ideology, which drives radicalization and terrorism. In discussing Muslim ideologies in Southeast Asia, President Obama expressed concern that school children in Indonesia are becoming more radicalized thanks to this intolerant Wahhabi Salafi ideology. American leaders and policymakers have worried about this ideology and the Saudi role in proselytizing it for over two decades but have been either unable or unwilling to confront the Saudis about it.

The Hanbali Wahhabi Salafi intolerant interpretation of Islam became the official religion of Saudi Arabia over a century ago when Al Saud forged an alliance with Al Shaikh in their attempt to conquer the territory that has become Saudi Arabia. Al Saud were given wide leeway to rule as they saw fit, but Al Shaikh anointed themselves as the guardians of the puritanical Wahhabi religious ideology and the official theologians of the new Saudi state.

The Saudi regime began to preach Wahhabi Islam worldwide following the decision by King Faisal in the late 1960s to make proselytization a cardinal principle of Saudi foreign policy. The newfound oil revenues following the oil crisis of 1972 gave the Saudi government unprecedented wealth to spread their brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world, from Marrakesh to Bangladesh, from Tashkent to Jakarta, and from northern Nigeria to the southern Philippines.

The Saudis established and funded Islamic NGOs, including the Muslim World League, the International Islamic Relief Organization, al-Haramayn, and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. They built Koranic schools, funded local organizations to propagate the Wahhabi religious ideology, and distributed millions of free copies of Saudi-printed Korans to schools and mosques all over the Muslim world and to Muslim communities in the West. Although the Arabic text is the same in all Korans, the Saudi editions of the Koran contain a Wahhabi religious interpretation or exegesis around the Arabic text.

Over the years, Saudi Arabia has provided scholarships to thousands of Muslim students worldwide to study in Saudi colleges and universities, mostly in the top three conservative religious universities in the Kingdom—Imam Muhammad in Riyadh, Umm al-Qura in Mecca, and the Islamic University in Medina. Graduates usually return to their countries as teachers and preachers. This is the worrisome force multiplier of Wahhabi proselytizing.

This narrow-minded doctrine is also taught in Saudi schools from grade school through college. It does not allow young men and women the freedom to pursue education and entrepreneurial initiatives that are commensurate with the globalized world of the 21st century. Because of this doctrine, Saudi and IS youth are stuck in the 7th century when the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Salafi Wahhabi interpretation is intolerant of Shia Islam and of other Muslim sects such as Sufism, Ahmadiyya, and other doctrines. It is equally intolerant of Judaism and Christianity. Salafi Wahhabism has been the bedrock of al-Qaeda and IS. Terrorist organizations have used this doctrine to radicalize receptive youth across the globe through the Internet and social media and to encourage them to undertake violent jihad.

Salafi Wahhabism advocates severe punishments or Koranic hudud, such as beheadings, lashings, and stoning. Thus, the barbaric beheadings, which IS practices regularly in Musul, Raqqa, and other areas under its control, are not alien to the penal system in Saudi Arabia, which carries out its beheadings in the public square. Because of its Salafi Wahhabi religious doctrine, Saudi Arabia views its neighboring Shia Iran through a sectarian lens and is reluctant to pursue rapprochement with it. Proxy wars seem to be the Saudi metric by which it measures its relations with Iran. 

The United States should reset its relations with Saudi Arabia on the basis of mutual interests, openness, and candor. If the Saudis are interested in maintaining a close relationship with the United States, Washington should be able to convey its concerns about radicalism, militarism, sectarianism, and human rights abuses to the Saudis without fear of threats of economic retaliation. Although American foreign policy is going through a period of retrenchment and constraints, the Saudis should know, as the president has stated, that American leadership in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf in particular is indispensable.

About the Author


Emile Nakhleh is an expert on Middle Eastern society and politics and on political Islam. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico. He previously served in the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993-2006, first as scholar in residence and chief of the Regional Analysis Unit in the Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis and subsequently as director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program. Until 1993 Nakhleh taught at Mount St. Mary's University, where he was the John L. Morrison Professor of International Studies. Nakhleh's publications include, among others, A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World (2009), Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society (1976 and 2011), and The Gulf Cooperation Council: Policies, Problems, and Prospects (1986). Nakhleh holds a PhD from American University, an MA from Georgetown University, and a BA from Saint John's University, Minnesota.

One Response to Saudi Arabia and Obama: Time to Reset Relations

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  1. avatar Bill Heenan says:

    If Senate Bill S. 2040 passes, then former President George W. Bush should be investigated for obstruction of justice for his efforts to protect Saudi officials and others after 9/11.

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