Stop scapegoating the Saudis.

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March 30 2004 5:15 PM

Stop Scapegoating the Saudis

Maybe they're not responsible for everything that ails Islam.

Craig Unger, author of the just published House of Bush, House of Saud, believes that "the secret relationship between these two families helped to trigger the Age of Terrorism and give rise to the tragedy of 9/11." The book contains some very nice details about the natural sympathy between Saudis and Texans, especially their shared affinity for guns and horses and oil, but the fact that the Bushes were close to the Saudis is hardly news. Indeed, the United States' special relationship with Saudi Arabia has been the only consistent aspect of American foreign policy in the Middle East since Saudi wells started pumping oil in 1938.

Part of the unspoken bargain was that the United States would not interfere in internal Saudi affairs. To ensure that American policymakers were too distracted to nose around, the kingdom insisted that the United States adopt their position on the Arab-Israeli conflict: A just resolution to the Palestinian issue is the key to ensuring peace and stability in the region.

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It was an idea first articulated by the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, when in order to outmaneuver the Hashemites and Egyptians for influence in the region, he petitioned the British on behalf of the Palestinians in the late 1930s. Over time, it's become axiomatic that the Palestinian issue is the region's central problem—but it's not necessarily true. If it is possible to imagine a peace that both Israelis and Palestinians would find just, it is also possible that resolving the conflict might not bring stability to a region that has many serious problems. One obvious concern is that the Arab states are constantly trying to undermine each other, a fact nicely illustrated by the bizarre last-minute cancellation of this week's Arab League summit.

For whatever reason, the current White House is one of the few in recent memory to have acted as if solving the Arab-Israeli conflict might not be as important as the kingdom says it is. As Unger notes, this angered the Saudis so much they went over the president's head and complained to his dad. After all, the president's mom had once called the Saudi ambassador to the United States "Bandar Bush."

So, how did it happen that these once dear friends of the United States' came to be regarded as—in the words of one Rand Corp. analyst—a "kernel of evil, the most dangerous opponent of the United States"?

Everyone has their own reason for hating the Saudis. As one writer notes, the American right dislikes the Saudis because it needs evil empires against which to set its agenda, and since 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis, the kingdom will do nicely for now. The American left distrusts them because they actually are big oil—and, as Unger reminds us, in bed with the Bushes.

Scapegoating the kingdom comes as a great boon to the rest of the Arab world, especially Egypt, which has many long-standing reasons of its own for hating the Saudis. One is cultural: In the summer, Saudis flee the gulf in huge numbers for the relatively cooler climates of other Arab capitals, most famously Cairo, where many of the men spend their time, and money, drinking and hunting for prostitutes. The Egyptians like the cash the Saudis spend, but they don't like the arrogance that comes with it; and they don't like the hypocrisy of ostensibly devout Muslims buying their women—and to a lesser extent, their men—for sex.

There's a political reason as well. Saudi Arabia has oil, but all Egypt has to offer the United States is its position as regional peace-broker. When the Saudis encroach on that role, as Crown Prince Abdullah did with his 2002 Israeli-Arab peace initiative, the Egyptian government bristles. Hence, it's to Egypt's benefit that Saudi Arabia is perceived, in Unger's words, to bear "more responsibility for 9/11 than any other nation."

Certainly, as Unger reports, Saudi individuals and institutions seem to have contributed more money than anyone else to jihadist causes. Still, while the basic conceit of American investigative reporting is, in the words of Watergate's Deep Throat, to follow the money, financing isn't the central issue here. Take 9/11, for instance, a low-cost operation where most of the overhead seems to have been travel costs and living expenses for 19 hijackers.

Ideology is much more important than money, and because Wahhabism, often referred to as the kingdom's state religion, is an intolerant, fundamentalist version of Islam, the Saudis are held accountable for that too. After all, the Saudis fund mosques and cultural centers all over the world that indoctrinate Muslims with Wahhabist Islam. That's definitely a problem, but the Pakistanis, Bosnians, and Americans, among others, who take the Saudis' money certainly share the responsibility. Besides, blaming Saudi Wahhabism isn't really quite accurate.

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