Between a Rock and a Saud Place

 

Few international relationships are more susceptible to criticism than that between the United States and Saudi Arabia. One is the leader of the free world.  The other is antithetical to even the most basic human rights, let alone religious freedom or gender equality.  Saudi Arabia is the most influential Sharia state in existence, a mantle recently challenged by its Shia semblable, Iran.

The Saudi regime has successfully played a highly cynical game since at least the beginnings of the Cold War. After decades of conquest, Ibn Saud unified the modern (the word goes down hard) nation-state of Saudi Arabia in 1932. As stewards of the hijaz and rulers of one of the most conservative populaces in the world, it was incumbent on the Saudis to show their bona fides as good Wahabists. In the ensuing decades, they entrenched a medieval legal system and permeated all aspects of civil society with fundamentalist apparatchiks of the state.

They synchronously fostered a beneficial relationship with the west which offloaded any external security concerns and ramped up oil production. To the extent that the street is discontent, it can be stultified with endless oil subsidies. Should that fail, the military police are among the best equipped in the world. Recall how briefly the Saudi Arab Spring made noise in 2011.

Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian society in the utmost sense. Executions by beheading are commonplace, gender apartheid is state policy, and apostasy is a capital crime. Saudi Arabia is the only state in the world to ban all houses of worship outside of Islam.

So the cozy relationship between American and the Saudis is ripe for ridicule. All stripes of western opponents routinely point to it as an example of our supreme hypocrisy. And more often than not, it stings. Currently, Saudi Arabia is suppressing an Iranian backed rebellion in Yemen. While this is perhaps the best option from a geopolitical standpoint, it would be nice if the Saudi military showed some concern for where its US-supplied missiles land.

Sadly, things aren’t this way without reason. Any projection of what Saudi Arabia would look like should the House of Saud fall ought to bring out the realist in any serious person. Successful regime change anytime this generation is a quixotic notion, with or without our participation. If we suspended weapons shipments tomorrow, someone else would gladly step into the lacuna, most likely oil-hungry China.

Suppose the regime finds itself faced with an insurrection which even its lavish bank account and cutting edge arsenal can’t quell. Perhaps it comes at the hands of ISIS two or three steps down the road, and things really hit the fan.

What would Saudi Arabia without the Sauds look like? I posit that its Jeffersonian democrats would not pen any secular constitutions, more likely they would be the first to buy tickets to anywhere that’s not Saudi Arabia. The Saudi landscape would make the horror of Libya look like a barroom scuffle. Our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan should quickly discount any chance of success should we step into that fray. Any American or (scoff) UN intervention would quickly find itself seeking a reinstallation of the regime.

So what can we do today with our repugnant status quo? I suggest we seek incremental gains where we can find them. The most glaring example of the Saud’s duplicity is their funding of reactionary madrasas abroad while being an ostensible partner in the fight against terrorism. A 2008 figure puts Saudi funding during the prior 30 years at $100 billion. Here I must insert the obligatory “not everyone schooled in a madrasa becomes a terrorist” concession, but madrasas can be an important element of the radicalization formula, and in numerous settings, they have had pernicious social and military ramifications aside from incubating terrorists.

For instance. After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia opened its purse strings and bought enormous influence in the region. It funded madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan which nurtured key elements of the Taliban as well as Pakistan’s powerful ISI. This money went a long way in mutating the religious atmosphere of both countries, and will reap US exasperation in perpetuity. Steve Coll’s highly informative 2004 work Ghost Wars, which chronicles the events leading up to 9/11, contains some illuminating passages:

In 1971 there had been only nine hundred madrassas in Pakistan. By the summer of 1988 there were about eight thousand official religious schools and an estimated twenty-five thousand unregistered ones, many of them clustered along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier and funded by wealthy patrons from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. (180)

Coll continues in another chapter:

Scholars introduced new texts based on austere Saudi theology and related creeds. One of the most influential and richly endowed of these wartime madrassas, Haqqannia, located along the Grand Trunk Road just east of Peshwar, attracted tens of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Talibs with free education and boarding … Nearly all of the Taliban’s initial circle of Kandahar Durrani leaders had attended Haqqannia during the 1980s and early 1990s. They knew one another as theology classmates as well as veteran fighters in the anti-Soviet jihad. (284-285)

Should Congress approve the Iranian nuclear agreement, no one will suffer greater anxiety than the Saudis. Should they stay in our orbit, perhaps we can ask for, or coerce, the small courtesy of not financing terrorism and promoting radicalism abroad. I understand that this is a tall order. The House of Saud numbers in the thousands, and plausible deniability is no doubt a reflex with which its envoys are familiar. A change in attitude from our leadership is required. We should remember that during negotiations, perhaps the strong-armed kind, we benefit from the fact that the regime has everything to lose. And should that money stay home, perhaps it can go towards something other than the military.

Sadly, this prescription offers cold comfort to the denizens of Mecca and Riyadh who want to live in a civilized world tomorrow, but night changes into day gradually. Let’s acknowledge that the real world limits what we can accomplish today, but that the margins will give if we apply the right pressure. Then will be that much closer to something we can live with tomorrow.

Published in Foreign Policy, General
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  1. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Matt Wood: “One of the most influential and richly endowed of these wartime madrassas, Haqqannia, located along the Grand Trunk Road just east of Peshwar, attracted tens of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Talibs with free education and boarding…”

    Just another example of why one should always be skeptical about promises of “free” education. Nobody gives anything away without expecting something in return.

    I’m hard pressed to come up with a better definition for the word propaganda than “free education”.

    • #1
  2. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Pretty front page worthy stuff. No good options but plenty of horrible ones.

    • #2
  3. user_989554 Inactive
    user_989554
    @MattWood

    DocJay:Pretty front page worthy stuff. No good options but plenty of horrible ones.

    Thanks Doc, and yes, not much we can do given present circumstances.

    • #3
  4. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Misthiocracy:

    Matt Wood: “One of the most influential and richly endowed of these wartime madrassas, Haqqannia, located along the Grand Trunk Road just east of Peshwar, attracted tens of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Talibs with free education and boarding…”

    Just another example of why one should always be skeptical about promises of “free” education. Nobody gives anything away without expecting something in return.

    I’m hard pressed to come up with a better definition for the word propaganda than “free education”.

    True, but I think one of the best uses of foreign aid, for exactly that reason, is for education.  If the West front-loaded its aid (spent it on providing a good, secular primary education to children in a poor country before fighting or funding a war there) I wonder (okay it’s a hypothetical) how much it would save in the long run in military expenditure and losses, and how much it would gain from trade with economies that were actually developing.  Pipe dream.

    • #4
  5. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    It is ironic that unrest in Saudi Arabia would have the least impact on the U.S. Maybe it should be someone else’s problem.

    • #5
  6. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Matt Wood:

    DocJay:Pretty front page worthy stuff. No good options but plenty of horrible ones.

    Thanks Doc, and yes, not much we can do given present circumstances.

    There are things we can do. If we accept that the Saudis have purchased a great deal of influence by opening schools, it stands to reason that we can and should do exactly the same thing. Right now there are four million Syrian refugees, of whom a great proportion are children. Beyond the obvious moral consideration is a fact: Someone will educate them. They’re children — and they’re a time bomb. It is both the right thing to do and in our national interest to educate them.  That it is beyond us to think that far ahead but not beyond the Saudis is remarkable.

    • #6
  7. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    The US spends far too little on propaganda, which is a great pity since propaganda seems to have had a vital influence on winning the last world war (the Cold one).

    Unfortunately, given the rot that seems to be embedded so deeply in the Federal government, I can only imagine that a US-funded education program would be heavy on the evils of the West in general and the US in particular, leaving the orphans of Syria knowing all about the destruction of the indigenous peoples of North America and the slave-owning proclivities of the Founding Fathers, and rather less about liberty, limited government and the rule of law.

    Even were the private sector to take up the gauntlet, where, in the left-soaked milieu of the NGO space, would one find liberty-loving teachers to run schools in Syria or after-school programs in the banlieus of French cities?

    (Visions of a citizen-organized ‘Liberty Corps’ recruited among the young and motivated of the US, sent out to the four corners of the globe to teach-the-teachers and train-the-trainers in freedom-loving… Yes, I know a globe doesn’t have corners, and that there may not be any young people in the US motivated by the love of liberty – it’s just a vision…)

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  8. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    genferei: I can only imagine that a US-funded education program would be heavy on the evils of the West in general and the US in particular, leaving the orphans of Syria knowing all about the destruction of the indigenous peoples of North America and the slave-owning proclivities of the Founding Fathers, and rather less about liberty, limited government and the rule of law.

    We’re talking about children, not college majors in “American studies.” They need (first) food, shelter, and medical care; after that they need to learn to read and write — in Arabic or Turkish, depending where they are — and in English; they need to learn the basic skills that could give them some hope of ever having a life beyond begging, sniffing glue, or joining a militia. This generation won’t even be able to read the word “liberty,” no less understand the concept.

    • #8
  9. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: We’re talking about children, not college majors in “American studies.”

    What do you think Common Core is about? Have you seen the materials for K-12 recently?

    they need to learn the basic skills that could give them some hope of ever having a life beyond begging, sniffing glue, or joining a militia. This generation won’t even be able to read the word “liberty,” no less understand the concept.

    As the foreign recruits to ISIS and the home-grown terrorists of the West demonstrate, having a sophisticated education is no inoculation against a contempt for liberty. Anyway, madrassas will give them basic skills and all sorts of hope.

    I want something different.

    • #9
  10. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    What madrasas do, by offering poor children and education and a place to stay and food to eat, is win their respect and sympathy, and that of their parents, for the people who run the madrasas.  “When I was hungry you fed me, there might be something in some of the stuff you tell me about right and wrong and the state of the world.”

    I don’t think it’s that calculated on the part of the Wahabis – charity is a virtue – but that’s one of the inevitable outcomes.  And it shouldn’t be surprising – conversions to Christianity in India in the present day (and in many parts in the past as well) usually involve members of impoverished communities who were served and helped by missionaries.  It’s not the preaching that does it.

    • #10
  11. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Zafar:What madrasas do, by offering poor children and education and a place to stay and food to eat, is win their respect and sympathy, and that of their parents, for the people who run the madrasas. “When I was hungry you fed me, there might be something in some of the stuff you tell me about right and wrong and the state of the world.”

    I don’t think it’s that calculated on the part of the Wahabis – charity is a virtue – but that’s one of the inevitable outcomes. And it shouldn’t be surprising – conversions to Christianity in India in the present day (and in many parts in the past as well) usually involve members of impoverished communities who were served and helped by missionaries. It’s not the preaching that does it.

    I agree. Kids imprint very deeply on people who feed them as “good” and “trustworthy.” It’s a clear case of strategic interests and moral imperatives aligning.

    • #11
  12. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    genferei: I can only imagine that a US-funded education program would be heavy on the evils of the West in general and the US in particular, leaving the orphans of Syria knowing all about the destruction of the indigenous peoples of North America and the slave-owning proclivities of the Founding Fathers, and rather less about liberty, limited government and the rule of law.

    We’re talking about children, not college majors in “American studies.” They need (first) food, shelter, and medical care; after that they need to learn to read and write — in Arabic or Turkish, depending where they are — and in English; they need to learn the basic skills that could give them some hope of ever having a life beyond begging, sniffing glue, or joining a militia. This generation won’t even be able to read the word “liberty,” no less understand the concept.

    The West has already been running this experiment for more than a half century via the U.N. Relief & Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) which operates schools..  Though under U.N. auspices it is funded and run by Western nations and has succeeded in raising several generations to hate the West and Jews.  Why would we want to replicate it?

    • #12
  13. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    genferei:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: We’re talking about children, not college majors in “American studies.”

    As the foreign recruits to ISIS and the home-grown terrorists of the West demonstrate, having a sophisticated education is no inoculation against a contempt for liberty. Anyway, madrassas will give them basic skills and all sorts of hope.

    I want something different.

    The virtues of a Western education from Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden.  A conversation of an American captive in Teheran (1979-80) with one of his captors, a young American educated Iranian who was lecturing the American on the racist evils of the U.S. including dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima:

    “The Japanese started the war, and we ended it,” Schaefer said.
    “What do you mean, the Japanese started the war?” Ebtekar asked.
    “The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, so we bombed Hiroshima.”
    “Pearl Harbor?  Where’s Pearl Harbor?”
    “Hawaii”
    After a moment of silence Ebtekar asked “The Japanese bombed Hawaii?”
    “Yep” said Schaefer.  “They started it, and we ended it.”

    • #13
  14. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Mark: Though under U.N. auspices it is funded and run by Western nations and has succeeded in raising several generations to hate the West and Jews.  Why would we want to replicate it?

    We would not want to replicate that. That would be Exhibit A of “How not to do it.”

    • #14
  15. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Mark: Though under U.N. auspices it is funded and run by Western nations and has succeeded in raising several generations to hate the West and Jews. Why would we want to replicate it?

    We would not want to replicate that. That would be Exhibit A of “How not to do it.”

    How would we avoid that?  Think about who would do the educating.  Our schools of education are drenched in social justice theory and it’s even worse in Europe.  And the dominant Western educational interpretation of the Moslem world is drawn from Edward Said’s Orientalism, a book written by an Arab mortified by his culture’s descent into poverty and degradation who, rather than look internally for its causes, decided to invent a theory allowing him to blame the West.

    • #15
  16. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Mark:

    The West has already been running this experiment for more than a half century via the U.N. Relief & Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) which operates schools.. Though under U.N. auspices it is funded and run by Western nations and has succeeded in raising several generations to hate the West and Jews. Why would we want to replicate it?

    Hoping that UNRWA gets Palestinians to be grateful to the West – that’s a pretty hard row to hoe, given the context.  One can’t take away with one hand, give with the other, and realistically expect people to only remember the giving.  The whole thing would probably work better without first waging war on a people.

    With Syrian refugees, for example.

    • #16
  17. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Mark: And the dominant Western educational interpretation of the Moslem world

    That won’t survive even a week of real contact with real human beings in the Muslim world, so the experience would be mutually educating.

    • #17
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