Is Saudi Arabia More Trouble Than It's Worth?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses Saudi and American reporters in Riyadh. Flickr/U.S. Department of State

It is time to reconsider partnerships that directly contradict both American values and interests.

November-December 2016

BASED SOLELY on respect for human rights, Saudi Arabia is an incompatible ally of the United States. But while human rights is an important lens through which to view any partnership, realpolitik has been the ostensible basis of the alliance. So how does it stand up under interest-based and strategic considerations? The authoritarian practices of the Saudi regime not only fail to come close to the international norms governing acceptable treatment of citizens, but they also have been unsuccessful in securing regional order. The Saudi government has failed to keep its allies in Egypt and Bahrain stable by enabling white-knuckled repression, take a leadership role in the Syrian Civil War and contribute to a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Riyadh has succeeded, meanwhile, in wreaking havoc in Yemen.

The disparity in strategic priorities between Washington and Riyadh is most pronounced in the Saudi government’s mass export of extreme Islamic practices—which conclusively belies the premise that it is a consequential counterterrorism partner. The release of the heretofore classified twenty-eight pages of the 9/11 Commission Report sustain the conclusion that Saudi government or senior officials did not back the hijackers, and Saudi officials assert political and military opposition to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). But the government has continued to internationally support the similarly extreme practices of Wahhabism through mosques, Islamic cultural centers and schools. Many of these religious and educational establishments have created opportunities for training terrorists around the world, and contribute to the radicalization of previously peaceful communities across the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It is estimated that the Saudis have allocated over $100 billion from their official budgets to these projects, and have tacitly permitted far more to be spent through private contributions and charitable organizations.

The proliferation of Wahhabism underpins the rise of Islamic fundamentalism from Bangladesh to Nigeria, from Kosovo to Pakistan. As a result, in Southeast Asian and West African villages where, just a decade ago, young people frequented clubs on weekends and lived largely secular lives, women now feel pressure to dress in burqas and men are expected to pray five times a day. The increasing prevalence of Wahhabi imams and madrasas worldwide manifest at a minimum in absolutist thinking in populations that completely reject religious tolerance or, in extreme circumstances, correlate with an increase in violence. As Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, noted:

The ideology that’s propagated by these schools is so significant in shaping minds in the Muslim world. If regular schooling is not schooling people, and schools that propagate fanaticism are schooling people, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what would be the impact.

Although Riyadh has heavily invested in its counterterrorism and counter-money-laundering operations, extremist publications and educational materials continue to flow out of Saudi Arabia and into communities around the world. There has been little change in the decade since Freedom House’s 2006 Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques. The report analyzed hundreds of publications produced by official and private Saudi entities and concluded that “the Saudi government propaganda examined reflects a ‘totalitarian ideology that can incite violence.’”

Concerns over the connection between Wahhabism and violent extremism have been realized over the past few decades. In Bangladesh, for example, Wahhabi-trained citizens organized themselves into a fundamentalist group that was implicated in violent protests in 2014. According to a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Saudi-funded Pakistani madrasas pay families an average of $6,500 for allowing their sons to be trained for “martyrdom.” Both European Parliament and U.S. government reports have found Saudi Arabia directly responsible for financing terrorist attacks in multiple regions.

Freedom House has documented in annual surveys democratic backsliding around the world, particularly in freedom of expression, freedom of association and rule of law, with 105 countries exhibiting regression over the last decade. In many circumstances, these instances of regression are supported by Wahhabi organizations and charities. Yet, there is some good news. One key example is in Nigeria, where terrorism and corruption plagued an already economically vulnerable country under the rule of President Goodluck Jonathan. Wahhabi charities with Saudi ties recognized an opportunity to influence economically vulnerable, predominately Muslim Nigerians. Even though President Muhammadu Buhari has made anticorruption and antiterrorism key components of his platform in his first year in office, Islamic extremists continue to threaten the lives and livelihoods of communities in both the Middle Belt region and Northern Nigeria. On a continent that has seen a marked narrowing of U.S. government funding related to democracy and governance, Nigeria has remained a priority out of necessity.