The perils of bowing to kings
What would the world look like without the radical, dictatorial Saudi regime? One can only dream. By Gal Luft Last week’s hullabaloo over Barack Obama’s seeming bow before King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia centered mainly on the question of whether it was appropriate for a U.S. president to pay obeisance to a foreign dictator. But ...
What would the world look like without the radical, dictatorial Saudi regime? One can only dream.
By Gal Luft
Last week’s hullabaloo over Barack Obama’s seeming bow before King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia centered mainly on the question of whether it was appropriate for a U.S. president to pay obeisance to a foreign dictator. But the real problem lies deeper than that. King Abdullah’s alliance with the United States, combined with his oil wealth, has allowed his radical breed of Islam, Wahhabism, to flourish, poisoning the Middle East. With so much at stake, is it irrational to yearn for a world in which the Saudi regime just miraculously ceased to exist and there was no King Abdullah to bow to (or not) at all?
The House of Saud affects the world in three main ways: It is the world’s largest producer of oil and holder of most of the market’s spare production capacity; it acts as custodian of Islam’s holy places and the religious center of Sunni Islam; and it maintains Wahhabism as a state-sponsored sect. When it comes to the first two elements, a world without the Saudi kingdom would not necessarily be a better one. As long as petroleum continued to fuel the global transportation system, energy security would still remain a distant goal even without Saudi Arabia guiding production. Iran and Venezuela, the two countries first in line to succeed Saudi Arabia as the de facto leaders of OPEC, would certainly not be more accommodating to consumers. Nor would the Saudis’ disappearance calm religious tension in the Middle East. On the contrary, a vacuum in which various sects within Islam vied for control over Mecca and Medina would only allow Iran to materialize its ambitions to establish a Shiite hegemony in the Persian Gulf.
But when it comes to the third element — Wahhabism — a world without the Saudi regime is hardly an upsetting thought. Years after the September 11 attacks, the kingdom is still a center of ideological indoctrination, incitement, and terrorist financing. “If I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia,” Stuart Levey, U.S. Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, told ABC News in 2007. Thanks to the kingdom’s policies, countless young boys are brainwashed to hate Christians, Jews, and other “infidels” in Saudi-funded madrasas from Bangladesh, to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Spain, and even in the United States. Pakistan, perhaps of the most concern, has some 12,000 madrasas, many of which are Saudi-funded. Wahhabism provides not only the breeding ground on which Islamist terrorism flourishes, but it also threatens to overshadow other, more moderate traditions within Islam. As Lawrence Wright described in The Looming Tower, with a little over 1 percent of the world’s Muslim population, the Saudi Wahhabis support 90 percent of the entire faith’s expenses, radicalizing many bastions of moderate Islam beyond recognition.
Despite all that, because of the kingdom’s chokehold over the global economy, Washington has had to accept its abysmal human rights record, its treatment of women and non-Muslims as second-class citizens, its brutal attitude toward gays, and its financial support for radical Islamist institutions. Without the Saudi state, the veneer of political correctness that has characterized the U.S. attitude toward Wahhabism would quickly dissolve, and the United States would be free to fight back against radical Islam openly and decisively. Such a world might not be free of terrorism, but at least it would spare Americans the indignity of paying for both sides in the war on radical Islam, classifying 28 pages in the congressional report that dealt with Saudi Arabia’s role in the September 11 attacks, and watching one U.S. president after another, Democrat and Republican alike, bend a knee before a human rights-abusing tyrant.
Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.
JOHN STILLWELL/AFP/Getty Images
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.