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Vilification of Saudi Arabia Serves No Good Purpose

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Though the demonization of Saudi Arabia is in vogue politically, is it prudent foreign policy?

Vilification of Saudi Arabia Serves No Good Purpose

The vilification of Saudi Arabia has become a fashionable but highly risky game in Washington today.  Congress has passed overwhelmingly a bill that would lift Saudi Arabia’s sovereign immunity to allow 9/11 families to sue its government for its alleged support of the worst terrorist attack ever inside the United States.

Supporters of the bill have finally triumphed in their years-long campaign by seizing the occasion of U.S. presidential and congressional elections when the families’ pleas for justice in the form of billions of dollars in compensation are hard to ignore while the risks of foreign governments retaliating by prosecuting American diplomats or U.S. officials serving abroad seem abstract. Hence the unanimous voice votes in the Senate in May and the House in early September in favor of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).

President Obama has vetoed the bill but Congress seems set to override it by mustering the two-thirds margin required before the end of this week.

The questions arises what purpose is served by branding Saudi Arabia a sponsor of terrorism  and what could be the fallout on U.S.-Saudi relations.  The chances of finding any new evidence of official Saudi involvement in the 9/11 plot are remote to zero. The 9/11 Commission that produced the most exhaustive probe into the attacks absolved the Saudi government and all its senior officials of involvement. The recently declassified 28 “missing pages” from that report contained no evidence of official Saudi complicity aside the contacts one low-level Saudi consular official in Los Angeles had with two of the 15 Saudis involved in hijacking three U.S. civilian airliners that led to the death of 3,000 Americans.

This hardly seems the moment for America to be acting to discredit the most important Arab and Muslim country enlisted in the U.S-led coalition of 67-nations fighting to put an end to ISIS.

Also still missing is any rationale in Congress’ complicity theory for why the Saudis would carry out such a horrendous act of terrorism to undermine the relationship with its most important foreign ally and main source of its arms and security for the past seven decades.  But that is what JASTA implies Saudi Arabia did. 

This hardly seems the moment for America to be acting to discredit the most important Arab and Muslim country enlisted in the U.S-led coalition of 67-nations fighting to put an end to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) just as this epic struggle is coming to a head with an all-out assault on its last strongfhold in Iraq, Mosul.

Not surprisingly, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional adversary, has wasted no time in joining the U.S. congressional vilification campaign. It has seized upon JASTA to redirect attention away from the latest State Department Country Reports on Terrorism that asserts Iranian state support of “terrorism worldwide remained undiminished” led its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and  ally in Lebanon, Hizbollah.  No less than Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif had the hutzpah to charge in a September 13  New York Times oped piece that it was actually Saudi  Arabia’s ultraconservative brand of Islam, Wahhabism, that was responsible for “every terrorist group abusing the name of Islam” today.

The fact is the United States needs active Saudi support more than ever in its campaign to combat the Islamic State’s twisted theology.  No Muslim country is better suited. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, custodian of its two holiest sites in Mecca and Madina which attract two to three million Muslims pilgrims annually.  The voice of its religious clerics counts, and they have been deeply embarrassed that the Islamic State has borrowed heavily from Saudi Wahhabism.  Saudi religious leaders have repeatedly attacked the Islamic State as “the number one enemy of Islam” and its flagrant use of terrorism a ”heinous crime” under Islamic law. It has branded its leaders and followers Kharijites, heretics of Islam.

By implying Saudi Arabia is a state sponsor of terrorism, JASTA calls into question U.S. support for the most stable of the major powers in the region among those Washington views as its “allies” or “partners.”  Consider for a moment the perilous state in which America’s other principal partners find themselves today. They are either under siege at home from Islamic extremists or separatists, holding onto power by suppressing all signs of discontent or worse yet serving as havens for America’s sworn enemies.

Egypt's leader, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, has a simmering Islamic insurgency on his hands and has proven so repressive of pro-democracy and human rights groups that President Obama will not even meet with him.  President Recep Tayyip  Erdogan of Turkey, the only Muslim NATO ally, has just barely survived a coup attempt and is engaged in a massive purge of his real and imaginary enemies. He also faces an armed uprising of Turkey's Kurdish minority. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to provide a safe haven to the Taliban in Afghanistan out to overthrow the US- backed government in Kabul.

By comparison, Saudi Arabia seems a relative paragon of stability though becoming increasingly stressed economically due to persistent low oil prices. But the government has control over the entire kingdom;  there is no insurgency;  and its main domestic enemies, partisans of the Islamic state and al-Qaeda,  have so far been held in check. What's more, the current ruling House of Saud seems to have the support of the vast majority of the kingdom’s Sunni population, if not the minority Shiite one.

Abroad, Saudi Arabia has fallen into a quagmire of its own making in Yemen where it is fighting to roll back Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and their allies who seized control of the capital and much of the country in 2014. Still, in the midst of a probably unwinnable war, the Saudis are helping the United States track down and kill by drones ( some operating from a secret base in the kingdom) scores of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operatives.

At a time when the United States is struggling mightily to find Middle East partners to implement its counterterrorism agenda, Saudi Arabia remains indispensable and still a willing one.  

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. 

About the Author

David Ottaway image

David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow,
Middle East Specialist and Former Washington Post Correspondent
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