Saudi Arabia funds and exports Islamic extremism: The truth behind thetoxic U.S. relationship with the theocratic monarchy

“Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.” So advised world-renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky, one of the most cited thinkers in human history.
The counsel may sound simple and intuitive — that’s because it is. But when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. ignores it.

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Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading sponsor of Islamic extremism. It is also a close U.S. ally. This contradiction, although responsible for a lot of human suffering, is frequently ignored. Yet it recently plunged back into the limelight with the Saudi monarchy’s largest mass execution in decades.
On Jan. 2, Saudi Arabia beheaded 47 people across 13 cities. Among the executed was cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a leader from the country’s Shia religious minority who was arrested for leading peaceful protests against the regime in 2011-12.
Sheikh al-Nimr was known throughout the Islamic world for his staunch opposition to sectarianism. The outspoken Saudi dissident firmly insisted that Sunnis and Shias are not enemies, and should unite against the sectarian regimes oppressing them. “The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors, instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors,” he declared.
By executing a dissident who challenged sectarianism, the Saudi monarchy was only further fomenting it.
Human rights organizations condemned the executions. Amnesty International said the Saudi regime is “using the death penalty in the name of counter-terror to settle scores and crush dissidents,” sentencing activists “to death after grossly unfair trials.” Amnesty called this “a monstrous and irreversible injustice.”
Yet atrocities like the mass beheadings are by no means new in Saudi Arabia. What is new is the global attention to them.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the nephew of the murdered cleric, was arrested at age 17 for attending a peaceful pro-democracy protest in 2012. He was allegedly tortured, before being sentenced to death by beheading and crucifixion.
Saudi Arabia is one of the last places on the planet where crucifixions are still practiced — ordered by the government itself.
In recent years, the Saudi monarchy has also arrested at least two other peaceful teenage pro-democracy activists and sentenced them to death.
Furthermore, a Palestinian poet was sentenced to death by Saudi Arabia in November for renouncing Islam and criticizing the royal family.
In 2015, the Saudi regime executed 158 people, largely by beheading. On average, approximately half (47 percent) of people executed in Saudi Arabia are killed for drug-related offenses, according to Amnesty International. Every four days, then, on average, the Saudi monarchy executes someone for drugs — while its own princes are caught with thousands of pounds of drugs at foreign airports.
Journalist Abby Martin devoted an episode of her show “The Empire Files” to exploring the Saudi-U.S. relationship. The episode, aptly titled “Inside Saudi Arabia: Butchery, Slavery & History of Revolt,” displays the brutality of the monarchy in excruciating detail.
“If the Saudi kingdom were an enemy of the U.S. government, we’d be shown these images and facts every day on the mainstream media,” Martin observes.
The internal repression and human rights abuses inside Saudi Arabia is one thing. Perhaps even more troubling, however, is the monarchy’s support for violent religious extremism. It is here that Chomsky’s advice on stopping terrorism becomes so important. By continually aligning itself with the Saudi regime, the U.S. is fueling the very fire it is fighting in the so-called War on Terror.
(Credit: AP/Reuters/Mian Kursheed)
(Credit: AP/Reuters/Mian Kursheed)AP/Reuters/Mian Kursheed

Saudi support for extremism

Saudi Arabia is a theocratic absolute monarchy that governs based on an extreme interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). It is so extreme, it has been widely compared to ISIS. Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud characterized Saudi Arabia in an op-ed in The New York Times as “an ISIS that has made it.”
“Black Daesh, white Daesh,” Daoud wrote, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity’s common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things. The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia.”
“In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other,” Daoud continued. “This is a mechanism of denial, and denial has a price: preserving the famous strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia at the risk of forgetting that the kingdom also relies on an alliance with a religious clergy that produces, legitimizes, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on.”
Since the November Paris attacks, in which 130 people were massacred in a series of bombings and shootings for which ISIS claimed responsibility, the West has constantly spoken of the importance of fighting extremism. At the same time, however, the U.S., U.K., France, and other Western nations have continued supporting the Saudi regime that fuels such extremism.
Saudi political dissidents like Turki al-Hamad have constantly argued this point. In a TV interview, al-Hamad insisted the religious extremism propagated by the Saudi monarchy “serves as fuel for ISIS.” “You can see [in ISIS videos] the volunteers in Syria ripping up their Saudi passports,” al-Hamad said.
“In order to stop ISIS, you must first dry up this ideology at the source. Otherwise you are cutting the grass, but leaving the roots. You have to take out the roots,” he added.
In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, scholar Yousaf Butt stressed that “the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence lies with the fanatical ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia.”
“If the world wants to tamp down and eliminate such violent extremism, it must confront this primary host and facilitator,” Butt warned.
In the past few decades, the Saudi regime has spent an estimated $100 billion exporting its extremist interpretation of Islam worldwide. It infuses its fundamentalist ideology in the ostensible charity work it performs, often targeting poor Muslim communities in countries like Pakistan or places like refugee camps, where uneducated, indigent, oppressed people are more susceptible to it.
Whether elements within Saudi Arabia support ISIS is contested. Even if Saudi Arabia does not directly support or fund ISIS, however, Saudi Arabia gives legitimacy to the extremist ideology ISIS preaches.
What is not contested, on the other hand, is that Saudi elites in the business community and even segments of the royal family support extremist groups like al-Qaida. U.S. government cables leaked by WikiLeaks admit “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
“It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority,” wrote former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a leaked 2009 cable.
Supporters of the Saudi monarchy resist comparisons to ISIS. The regime itself threatened to suesocial media users who compared it to ISIS. Apologists point out that ISIS and Saudi Arabia are enemies. This is indeed true. But this is not necessarily because they are ideologically different (they are similar) but rather because they threaten each other’s power.
There can only be one autocrat in an autocratic system; ISIS’ self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi refuses to kowtow to present Saudi King Salman, and vice-versa. After all, the Saudi absolute monarch partially justifies his rule through claiming that it has been blessed and ordained by God, and if ISIS’ caliph insists the same, they can’t both be right.
Some American politicians have criticized the U.S.-Saudi relationship for these very reasons. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has been perhaps the most outspoken critic. Graham has called extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda “a product of Saudi ideals, Saudi money and Saudi organizational support.”
Sen. Graham served on the Senate Intelligence Committee for a decade, and chaired the committee during and after the 9/11 attacks. He condemned the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he deemed a “distraction” from the U.S.’s real problems, and has warned that Saudi Arabia may have played a role in the 9/11 attacks that left almost 3,000 Americans dead.
This is not in any way to suggest that there was a conspiracy, and that the U.S. government was involved in the attacks; such a notion is preposterous, and can be refuted with even rudimentary knowledge about the Middle East and a basic understanding of history. There was no “inside job”; the conspiracy theory is absurd. Rather, critics like Sen. Graham have suggested that the U.S. government sees its close relationship to Saudi Arabia as so critical that it may have downplayed potential Saudi involvement in the attacks.
Of the 19 Sept. 11 attackers, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Zacarias Moussaoui, a convicted 9/11 plotter, confessed in sworn testimony to U.S. authorities that members of the Saudi royal family funded al-Qaeda before the attacks. The Saudi government strongly denies this.
The 2002 joint House-Senate report on the Sept. 11 attacks has 28 pages on al-Qaeda’s “specific sources of foreign support,” but this section is classified, leading Graham and others to suggest it may contain information about potential Saudi involvement. The 9/11 Commission insisted in its 2004 report, however, that it “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaeda.
Sen. Graham has nevertheless insisted that the possibility that elements of the Saudi royal family supported the 9/11 attackers should not be ruled out. In his 2004 book “Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America’s War on Terror,” Graham further argued these points, from his background within the U.S. government.
The independent, non-partisan Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has detailed the allegations and possible evidence — or lack thereof — of Saudi ties to the 9/11 attacks on its website
Whatever its role, what is clear is that Saudi Arabia’s support for violent extremist groups is well documented. Such support continues to this very day. In Syria, the Saudi monarchy has backed al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. The U.S. government has bombed al-Nusra, but its ally Saudi Arabia is funding it.
Yet despite its brutality and support for extremism, the U.S. considers the Saudi monarchy a “close ally.” The State Department calls Saudi Arabia “a strong partner in regional security and counterterrorism efforts, providing military, diplomatic, and financial cooperation.” It stated in September 2015 it “welcomed” the appointment of Saudi Arabia to the head of a U.N. human rights panel. “We’re close allies,” the State Department remarked.
In order to understand where this intimate relationship came from, and why it is so important to the U.S., it is important to look back at history.
FDR meeting with King Ibn Saud on Feb. 14, 1945 (Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)
FDR meeting with King Ibn Saud on Feb. 14, 1945 (Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

A history of “precious jewels”

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has its origins in the early 20th century. It was at this time that Saudi Arabia was discovered to have what were believed to be the world’s largest oil reserves. The largest oil reserves are now known to actually be in Venezuela, but Saudi Arabia has the second-largest. And when Saudi Arabia is combined with neighboring Gulf states Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, it is by far the most oil-dense region of the planet.
This abundance in natural resources has led to a kind of special relationship, if you will, like the one between the U.S. and the U.K. or the U.S. and Israel.
In 1945, just before he died, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud, the first king and founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Roosevelt promised the regent the U.S. would support his kingdom in return for oil. This relationship has continued to this day.
Still now, American politicians openly cite these oil reserves as an important reason for U.S. support. In October 2015, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Bahrain, where he declared, “Our engagement today is grounded by our deep and enduring commitment to the Middle East and to its people. This region is home to some of our oldest and closest friends and allies.”
“The region’s oil supplies have powered industries and economies for generations since the Gulf prospectors first struck oil in Bahrain in 1931,” Sec. Blinken continued. “And while we are now more energy sufficient, Middle East oil continues to drive the global market, and we remain determined to secure its supply.”
Every U.S. president since Roosevelt has worked with the Saudi monarchy — from Truman to Carter to Obama.
Eisenhower’s administration emphasized the “close cooperation” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on economic and military grounds. “Saudi Arabia, by virtue of its spiritual, geographical, and economic position, is of vital importance in the Middle East,” his administration insisted. “It is in the interests of world peace that this Kingdom be strengthened for the maintenance of its own stability and the safeguarding and progressive development of its institutions.”
The Nixon administration created a “Twin Pillars” Middle East policy, in which the U.S.-backed monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Iran were considered pillars of stability. In 1953, the CIA backed a coup that overthrew Iran’s first and only democratically elected head of state, Mohammad Mosaddegh. The U.S. subsequently propped up the Iranian monarch, known as the shah, until the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which permanently changed the U.S. relationship with Iran, moving the U.S. even closer to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In September 2015, President Obama commended “the longstanding friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.” President Obama’s administration has in fact moved the U.S. even closer to the Saudi regime, particularly in the realm of military coordination. In the past five years, the U.S. has done more than $100 billion in arms deals with the Saudi monarchy.
Some analysts have downplayed the significance of oil in this special relationship, but it is hard to overstate the importance of oil to the modern industrial economy. To put it simply, things would simply collapse were it not for oil. Petroleum is in practically everything. It’s in our cars, airplanes, roads, buildings, and even products like toothpaste. The entire modern global economy is based on oil. This is why even a relatively small fluctuation in the price of oil can have enormous global economic effects.
A recent television program by National Geographic tried to envision what exactly would happen if the modern world ran out of oil. Its depiction is bleak and dystopian —it is a world in which life truly is nasty, brutish and short.
But critics do have a point; it is not just about oil — although petroleum is at the center of the U.S.-Saudi special relationship. Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, has also been an important political and military ally in the Middle East, that ensures U.S. dominance in the region.
Of all past U.S. presidents, President Reagan’s relationship with the Saudi monarchy is particularly relevant in these regards.
“The friendship and cooperation between our governments and people are precious jewels whose value we should never underestimate,” Reagan declared at the 1985 welcoming ceremony for then Saudi King Fahd.
Reagan told the monarch “you rightfully exert a strong moral influence in the world of Islam, and the people of the United States are proud of their leadership role among the democratic nations.” The U.S. president dubbed his country the regent of the West, and Saudi Arabia the regent of the Middle East.
“I firmly believe that in the years ahead, there should be and will be a more powerful recognition of the common interests shared by these two significant world forces. Already, the bonds of commerce are strong, especially between our two countries,” Reagan continued, adding, “Petroleum from Saudi wells helps drive the engines of progress in the United States.”
Reagan characterized the Saudi regime as a crucial ally in the fight against “Marxist tyranny.” The U.S. president warned that communists “would impose dictatorship on all of mankind” — at the very same moment that he was propping up the most authoritarian and fundamentalist monarchy on the planet.
At the time, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, were funding extremist groups in Afghanistan, including those that would later become the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Reagan infamously characterized Islamic extremist mujahideen militants as freedom fighters.
During the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. knowingly funneled millions of dollars to fanatics like Afghan militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who told his followers to throw acid in the faces of women who did not cover their heads. With CIA backing through the ISI, Hekmatyar also massacred Kabul schools because communists let women get educated alongside men.
Rumors circulated in mid-2015 that Hekmatyar and his Salafi militant group Hezb-e-Islami had proclaimed support for ISIS. He later denied it, but his militant group has already aligned with al-Qaeda, and is hardly very different.
During the Cold War — and particularly during the Soviet war in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s — the U.S., hand-in-hand with Saudi Arabia, actively encouraged religious extremism. They stressed that socialist and communist movements were often atheistic, and pitted far-right religious fundamentalists against the secular leftists. The remnants of this policy are the extremist movements we see throughout the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia today.
In order to decimate the left in the Cold War, the U.S. emboldened, armed and trained the extreme-right. The Frankenstein’s monsters it created in the pursuit of this policy are the al-Qaedas and ISISes of the world.
Ash Carter, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz
(Credit: Reuters/Carolyn Kaster)Reuters/Carolyn Kaster

21st-century feudalism

Saudi Arabia is truly a country that was created through Western imperialism. Before Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia was a relatively weak country with little global political influence. It was Western, and principally U.S., patronage that turned Saudi Arabia into what it is today.
The Saudi monarchy presents itself as modernized, yet it is still feudal in essence. There is almost no developed civil society in Saudi Arabia, because the regime has made all independent institutionalized forms of dissent illegal.
Women are essentially second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. They are given nowhere near equal rights with men — who basically own their wives and daughters — and cannot travel without men accompanying them. Unemployment rates are skyrocketing among women, even though many are educated, and they were only just granted the right to vote in December 2015 — although they do not have any actual effectual politicians to vote for under an absolute monarchy.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia only abolished slavery in 1962, at the behest of President Kennedy. Even now, however, the Saudi regime still relies heavily on slave labor — like other neighboring Gulf monarchies.
The Saudi regime is essentially a form of modern feudalism, one that has only continued into the 21st century because it has been preserved by Western patronage.
Feudalism was overthrown or rendered effectively powerless in much of the West in the 18th and 19th centuries. The monarchy in Egypt was overthrown by the Free Officers Movement in 1953, after the first Egyptian Revolution, under the leadership of Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. It is likely that the Gulf monarchies would have been toppled too, were it not for Western imperial policies.
The places in which governing, non-symbolic monarchies still remain — not just Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, but also Jordan — are preponderantly Western-allied nations. A longstanding policy pursued by Western colonial and imperial powers was to prop up monarchies that were friendly to their interests. These repressive feudal regimes were invariably unpopular to their citizens, who were in turn also antagonistic to the foreign colonial powers occupying and controlling their nations in order to exploit labor, extract resources, and forcibly open up new foreign markets. Imperial powers, hence, understood that it would be much easier to control a nation by aligning with its tiny autocratic power base than to try to win the hearts and minds of the masses of people.
Saudi Arabia is a product of precisely this imperial legacy. Were it not for Western support, the Saudi monarchy would likely have fallen, or rather have been toppled, many decades ago — just as it was in Egypt.
In the past few decades, Saudi Arabia’s influence and role in the Middle East has increased, with steady U.S. backing. After the catastrophic U.S. war in Iraq, Iran emerged as a new regional super power. Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S. have worked to weaken Iranian influence in the region. Just in the past few years, in particular, the Saudi monarchy has begun acting more aggressively against Iran, violently asserting its influence, leading a relentless war on Yemen and funding rebel groups in Syria.
Today, in the 21st century, violent religious extremism has taken control of much of the Middle East. The U.S. has ended millions of lives and invested billions upon billions of tax dollars in its putative fight against such extremism. But the increasing prominence of Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.’s increasing support for the absolute monarchy, has only perpetuated this fight.
The reasons behind the surge in violent extremism in the past decade are of course multitudinous. None of this is to say Saudi Arabia is the only factor. There is also the catastrophic and bloody U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; along with the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, which has carried on now since 1967; and the brutal repression of the al-Assad dictatorship in Syria.
Saudi Arabia is not the sole reason for the extremism in the world today, but it is one of the primary sources of it. More crucially, the fanatical Wahhabi ideology the Saudi monarchy exports is one of the main reasons many rebel groups resisting these forms of injustice and oppression become Salafi Islamists, and not secular leftists, as most resistance groups were in the mid-20th century.
In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the West has again asked itself what it can do to stop Islamic extremism — while it is actively supporting Saudi Arabia, the world’s principal proselytizer of Islamic extremism.
If it is truly interested in stopping terrorism, then, the U.S. and the rest of the West will heed Chomsky’s advice. The U.S. will realize that there really is an easy way to stop terrorism: It will stop participating in it, and end its alliance with Saudi Arabia.



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