Saudi Arabia: An “Ally” We Could Do Without

By Nir Boms | December 10, 2004

“Fighting the occupiers is a duty for all those who are able,” reads an open letter to the Iraqi people currently posted on the Internet. Issued by more than two dozen Saudi scholars and preachers on November 6, the letter calls on Iraqis to fight coalition forces in their midst.

The Saudi group has also issued a fatwa, or religious edict, forbidding Muslims to assist or support any military operation by an occupying force.

Almost immediately, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, along with his counterpart in the United Kingdom, Prince Turki al-Faisal, issued statements saying that the petition did not represent the Saudi government, the country’s citizenry or the Council of Senior Ulema.

But in spite of this hasty attempt to distance Riyadh from radical scholars, it is unlikely that the petition would have been allowed to surface without approval from the Saudi government.

Safar al-Hawali, Nasser al-Omar, Ayidh al-Qarni and Salman al-Awdah — four of the petition’s key signatories — are on the Saudi government payroll. The plot thickens: Three of these men were under arrest from 1994 to 1999 for criticizing the Saudi regime. But since their release, they have signed a deal with the House of Saud pledging not to speak out against Riyadh and promising to condemn terrorism. (They nevertheless remain vocal advocates for Palestinian terrorists, Iraqi insurgents and even the Taliban.)

Al-Hawali has been linked to some of the September 11th hijackers. Currently, he works with the Saudi regime to contain al-Qaeda militancy in Saudi Arabia. His radical website,, discusses the need for global jihad. Saudi militants, he writes, “should begin by propagating the message of Allah and end by fighting the infidels and conquering countries.” In the perverse logic of Saudi officials, exporting insurgents to Iraq and Afghanistan may indeed alleviate the problem of militants within the Saudi kingdom.

Riyadh’s handling of the petition — first allowing it to go through, then claiming it was the act of an unofficial group — points to a power struggle between the government and Saudi clerics. Last month, Iraqi authorities announced the capture of 24 suspected Saudi militants. They suspect that more have slipped across the border to fight. Another band of Saudi militants was caught during battle in Fallujah.

Saudi officials have much to fear from a stabilized democracy in Iraq. The current oil crisis — which plays to the pockets of the Saudi kingdom — may provide an incentive to further the animosity in Iraq. The Saudis have their own loyalties to the Sunni minority in Iraq, who can expect to face the January general elections marginalized by the offensive in Fallujah. The emergence of a Shiite-dominated state in Iraq might also weaken Saudi Arabia’s regional position. Given these threats to Saudi power, the government’s response to the Ulema petition may have been deliberately ambiguous. This analysis should also serve as a reason U.S. to reevaluate its policies toward Saudi Arabia, which promotes itself as a partner in the war against terrorism.

The Ulema petition allows Riyadh to convey its concerns by passing them off as the concerns of its public. Tiptoeing around the radical fatwa, Saudi leaders hint that the U.S. should ease off the pressure for reforms in the kingdom and validate Saudi concerns regarding the Sunni position in Iraq.

The statements from Bandar and Turki will likely prevent a severe reaction from the United States as it focuses on a crucial counter-militancy operation in Fallujah. But in Saudi Arabia, the government denunciation has no meaning; the regime will take no serious action against the signatories. Such passivity speaks volumes about a supposed U.S. ally. The Saudis not only failed to arrest the clerics who incited Iraqis to kill Americans — they have kept them on the government payroll.

Eventually, the Saudis must make a choice: Either support the violence of Islamists and radical clerics or support the effort to stabilize democracy in a region previously tormented by extremists and dictators.  At the moment, the Saudis appear to be playing both sides of the game. Washington should take notice.

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