Ally of Convenience

David Goldman argues that Trump sent “a clear message to America’s Muslim clients in Saudi Arabia: No more double games with non-state actors will be tolerated.” The double games have been going on a long time: “Saudi royal family members are funding every radical madrassa in Asia, including those in Xinjiang Province,” but insists that the US cannot withdraw from the alliance without causing more chaos: “a negotiation . . .  is the only alternative to the spread of bloodshed and chaos across the Eurasian continent.”

A solution must be found because the region “has become a Petri dish breeding jihad from the Caucasus to Southeast Asia,” with incursions into Western Europe. And it can only stop if there is agreement among the big global players—the US, Russia, and China.  

Currently, the three are aligned with different sectors of Islam: “Where the Sunni jihad drew on the support of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” as well as the US, “Russia and China quietly backed Iran as it recruited cannon fodder for the Syrian war from the Shi’ites of Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Both sets of alliances are alliances of convenience. Saudi Arabia and the US “find each other’s culture, political systems and religion utterly repugnant, but are tied together by practical interests. The same applies to Iran and Russia, who are allies of convenience. Persians and Russians have hated each other since the Russians appeared on the scene.” In the best of worlds, the US, Russian, and China restrain their respective allies. While the US leans on the Sunnis, “between Russia and China, which dominates Iran’s foreign trade, there is sufficient leverage to put the Shi’ite power in its place.”

In case there was any doubt about Saudi Arabia’s double-dealing, it’s been detailed again in Ted Carpenter and Malou Innocent’s Perilous Partners. The Saudi monarchy has been engaged in a “multidecade campaign to spread its ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam, called Wahhabism in the West and Salafism by its followers.” Through Saudi promotion, it has spread beyond the Arab Peninsula throughout the Muslim world. It came home to roost in the US: Carpenter and Innocent remind us that “15 of the 19 [9/11] highjackers were Saudi nationals; their murderous conspiracy was assisted by an exile of one of the kingdom’s most powerful and wealthiest families; and private Saudi support helped sustain much of the terrorist activity that led up to and followed the 9/11 attacks” (398). 

Saudi Arabia contributed indirectly to the formation of al Qaeda. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, “Bin Laden offered to save the cradle of Islam, laying out his plan in a 6-page paper offering to recruit and lead his guerilla-trained jihadist veterans against Saddam Hussein.” Instead, the Saudis called on the Americans for help (401), bringing US troops into the holy land and intensifying fears among jihadists that the US would turn the Middle East from Islam to western-style democracy: “Humiliated and outraged over Fahd’s refusal to accept his rebellious legions, bin Laden left Saudi Arabia for Sudan in May 1991” (403).

Since 9/11, report after report has documented specific ties between Saudi officials and terrorists, including the 9/11 hijackers themselves. The Saudis withheld intelligence information that might have alerted the US to the impending attacks (413). Carpenter and Innocent suggest that “Saudis aided al Qaeda in order to inoculate the kingdom from its terrorism”—a protection payoff (414). Efforts to uncouple the US from Saudi Arabia fail because, in the words of reporter James Risen, “so many people in Washington’s power circles—lawyers, and lobbyists, defense contractors, former members of Congress and former White House aides, diplomats and intelligence officers, and even some journalists—rely so heavily on Saudi money or Saudi access that ugly truths about Saudi links to Islamic extremists have been routinely ignored or suppressed” (417).

Add to that Saudi Arabia’s severe restrictions on religious freedom. According to the US State Department, “Under Shari’a conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death if the accused does not recant. There were no executions for apostasy during the period covered by this report, and there have been no reports of such executions for the past several years. The Government prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in overt religious activity that attracts official attention. The Government has stated publicly, including before the U.N. Committee on Human Rights in Geneva, that its policy is to protect the right of non-Muslims to worship privately; however, it does not provide explicit guidelines—such as the number of persons permitted to attend and acceptable locations—for determining what constitutes private worship, which makes distinctions between public and private worship unclear. Such lack of clarity, as well as instances of arbitrary enforcement by the authorities, force most non-Muslims to worship in such a manner as to avoid discovery by the Government or others. Those detained for non-Muslim worship almost always are deported by authorities after sometimes lengthy periods of arrest during investigation. In some cases, they also are sentenced to receive lashes prior to deportation.”

Goldman claims that only “refined intellect and profound scholarship” can justify the “mayhem” inflicted on the region by the foreign policy establishment over the past several decades. Can Trump do any worse?

Goldman’s is an honorable realist position, but he seems too sanguine about the prospects of Trump’s effectiveness, since his message isn’t nearly as clear as Goldman suggests. Trump may insist that the double games stop but meanwhile, he’s doling out military contracts. The Saudis may have to suffer through some stinging speeches from Trump, but it seems a small price for the deals that come at the other end. This looks more like a continuation of the double game than like a rebuke or a game-changing renegotiation. And business as usual is precisely what the world doesn’t need. Alliances of convenience can become worse than inconvenient. 

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